I have a long and mildly complicated relationship with this book, and you could even make an argument (although it might be a weak one) that my history with Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a metaphor for my evolving relationship with books in general. I think that once you’re able to go beyond just reading a book and into a relationship with it, a conversation with the story you’re reading, it is something special. It’s the mark of a really good book.
I first read Anna Karenina in middle school. My dad told me it was way too advanced and I wouldn’t understand it, which was the perfect way to make me really dig my heels in. I was determined. It was the thickest book I could find in the store and her name looked a lot like my name. I pronounce it the way I pronounce my name, too. Karr-eh-nee-nuh. All I remember from that first read through was the classic opener, All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. My parents’ divorce was maybe two or three years old by this point, and probably a factor in why I just disagreed with it. It all seemed easily boiled down to basic dissatisfaction. There is nothing more complex in unhappiness than happiness, it just feels like there should be to justify it.
Anyway, I digress. I revisited this book later, in college, for one of the best and most intensive classes I’ve taken. We read the whole book in less than two weeks, which is something I never before would have thought I was capable of. I remember the professor was such a pretentious snob, but it worked out so perfectly for his subject matter. It was almost like he was an intentional caricature of a stuffy Classic 16-19th Century Literature Professor. He was great, though. The depth in which he dove was great, a total eye opener. I feel like this is the book that taught me how to read deeply, how to fully engage with literature. This book taught me how to see the skeleton frame in a novel, and use that as a guide while you read. Think about what you expect to see next, and then look for it. Figure out why it isn’t there, if something else happens. Let the story guide you as you look at the details like phrasing and themes and repeating motifs. Anna Karenina is a perfect book for practicing this, since it’s just a simple story arch. A woman tries to leave an unhappy marriage for something else, something more exciting, and is rewarded by life in the usual tragic way.
Ignore the reputation behind this book, behind Tolstoy, and don’t feel intimidated. It’s a fun read, I promise. And not to sound too pretentious, but read a good translation. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volohonsky’s new translations of Russian lit are getting really popular and with good reason. They do a good job keeping the original tones of the authors, which was a lot less dry than previously translated I think. The Norton Critical Edition version is good as well, not too bland at all and it has some good essays if you’re feeling particularly nerdy.
Oh and if you want bonus points after finishing the book, get The Elephant Vanishes, a book of short stories by Haruki Murakami and read the one about the woman with insomnia who reads Anna Karenina. It’s a perfect chaser.
PS I’ve never seen the Kiera Knightly movie and I don’t know if I’m going to but if you have you should tell me what you thought.
Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Ivan Kramskoy, source