Welcome me back from my week-and-a-half jaunt around Portugal and Spain! In between visits to cathedrals and flamenco shows, I managed to read most of Anna Karenina (81%, according to the Kindle). Not the most Spanish of novels, I know, but it’s been on my to-read list for an eternity. It’s my first real experience with Tolstoy–I’d only read snippets of his before, and I figured it’s a little silly of me to proclaim a love for Russian lit without being familiar with him.
Anna is only one of several main characters. We don’t even meet her until we’re a good bit into the book. The novel, on the whole, traces the consequences of infidelity as well as incidentally acting as an interesting historical record of the engagement and marriage process for the late 1800s Russian noble class. Tolstoy’s voice is clear in some parts and unclear in others. He’s certainly trying to make the reader feel for Anna, the unfaithful wife, or at least see things from her point of view if we don’t morally approve. I suspect he’s making some commentary on the injustice of society–the unfaithful men get very different treatment than the unfaithful women, and he calls attention to that in several places. Tolstoy shows great sensitivity to the plight of women in the book, in general. Through Dolly, we hear how conscious he is of the difficulty of motherhood (bodily and otherwise). Through Kitty’s vulnerability as she awaits a proposal, we see Tolstoy is aware of the terrible uncertainties of future well-being that an unmarried woman has. And the only really sympathetic male character has classically female traits. Levin feels things deeply, is constantly thinking of romance, and is moody. (Unbearably so, actually.)
While Tolstoy shows a great ability to pull back and see issues from multiple perspectives, his portrayal of what I assume he considers true love is, well, ugg. The couple we’re clearly supposed to be cheering for, Kitty and Levin, have a “love” that was founded on the shakiest ground imaginable. Levin had been angling for Kitty’s older sisters first, but they had all gotten snatched up too quickly. So, by process of elimination, he “loves” Kitty. From there, Levin seems to sincerely enamored with Kitty, but I could never forget that Levin would pretty much love whoever was marriageable. Kitty is simply a flake. She’s quite young, so I suppose that has plenty to do with it. Still, her behavior made me sigh audibly as I read.
Kitty and Levin’s married life is as exasperating as their courtship. They are constantly consumed with emotion and are subject to whim and bouts of debilitating jealousy. When I left off (at 81% finished), Kitty was about to have a child. God help that poor infant.
Anna and Vronsky also drive me crazy. Theirs is a case where both parties had pushed all in and thrown down their cards and, now, they just live with the consequences. Anna is the picture of quiet desperation, constantly terrified that Vronsky has stopped loving her. Vronsky is obsessed with Anna when he thinks he might lose her, but he enjoys his life as bachelor and longs for a return when they finally run away together. For Vronsky, the grass is always greener. He is both turned off and pleased by her clingy behavior. Then, he’s both relieved and paranoid when she holds any part of herself back. That isn’t love. That’s codependency. But I guess anything’s better than Anna having to be around that horrible, stuffy husband of hers. Yeesh.
I think that Tolstoy is realistic in his portrayal of relationships to a certain extent. No relationship is perfect, and, especially with these characters, the couples’ problems are quite believable. What isn’t believable is that any of the relationships in this book has lasted this long. Shouldn’t have Levin have stabbed Kitty in a fit of jealousy by now? Vronsky is clearly a rake–why hasn’t he kicked Anna to the curb so he can go out drinking with his friends more often?
I just read that they’re making a new Anna Karenina movie. Keira Knightley stars. Funny, I pictured Minnie Driver…dark, super-curly hair, kind of pudgy face…oh, well. Sometimes I think the whole reason I hate the book-to-movie transfer is because I picture the characters. Then, when something isn’t as I picture it, I’m like, “this movie is sham!”