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Old 05-20-2011, 07:00 PM   #1
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Discussion: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (spoilers)

Mobile Read Book Club May Discussion.

A Russian romance novel? What's it about? What did you think of the book, the characters, the setting, the time period.

Let's discuss this tome.
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Old 05-21-2011, 11:24 PM   #2
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Reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is like a long journey-- seeing sights through the eyes of someone from a different age and culture and with so much lost in translation. The Russian was translated the French was not. I studied French in high school and could understand some of it -- but I needed it translated too. At times I was lost and had to make myself read on regardless. Other times I could smell the rain and feel the hurt and doubt of Tolstoy's characters. I give it three stars but it was far above me and my capacity to understand.

The story was about upper class Russians who were either very wealthy, very in debt or wanting to be. They only found meaning in life or happiness when they sought who they really were and not what the world pushed them to be.

Like I do today, they struggled about why they were fighting Muslems in far off lands and what being "religious" meant.

I need to spend a lot of time "mulling over" the thoughts of Tolstoy. I might even get brave and take on "War and Peace" but not any time soon.
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Old 05-22-2011, 05:06 PM   #3
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I just started Anna Karenina Friday so really have nothing to add...maybe later. But your comment...

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I might even get brave and take on "War and Peace" but not any time soon.
...triggered the memory of a, well, two lengthy book reviews I copied and put in the Calibre metadata of my copy of War and Peace. Both (Michael Dirda of the Washington Post and the other from the New York Review of Books whose author I failed to note) were lauding the then (2007) new translation by "the widely acclaimed team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky " (Dirda). The NYRB review had nothing good to say about the standard Costance Garnett translation, quoting Joseph Brodsky that the "reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren't reading the prose of either one. They're reading Constance Garnett."

I did buy the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation based on the reviews, started it and was actually enjoying it but got interrupted and never went back to it. Think I will start it again this Fall.

Give a holler and I'll post or PM you a copy of the reviews.
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Old 05-22-2011, 07:05 PM   #4
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All that politicking to nudge Anna past the finish line first, and now where are all the peeps?

I've hesitated, because I"m going to be a philistine. This was far from the greatest novel ever written, as some of the hype would have it. For such a long book it read very easily. There were lyrical descriptions of the land and of events, and the characterizations overall were compelling. I loved how it showed that people are at base strangers to each other, no matter how loved and understood.

I suspect some of my issues were related to the Garnett translation. In addition, I don't know enough about late 19th-century Russia and the recent emacipation of the serfs to appreciate the nuances of the story. However, there were two serious flaws not related to the translation and the setting. Most seriously, I don't think the character of Anna was entirely successful. We are told she's wonderful, magnetic, and so on, but we don't see that. As the story progresses and she becomes neurotic and nasty, it's hard to keep in mind the supposedly transcendent personality that Tolstoy intended to evoke. And while Levin's agricultural witterings might have been more compelling if I had known more about the economic situation, ending the story with his religious epiphany and not with Anna's swan dive was a ridiculous exercise in conceit by the author regarding his Marty Stu.

OK, shoot me.

Seriously, I enjoyed it. I know I liked it more when I read it as an adolescent, which is the age to be reading Victorian novels anyway.
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Old 05-22-2011, 07:12 PM   #5
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My apologies, but I tried to read it and gave up (I wasn't keen on it in the first place, tbh). Just not my cup of lapsang souchong.
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Old 05-22-2011, 09:09 PM   #6
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I'm still reading it.
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Old 05-23-2011, 03:35 AM   #7
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I read 1984 instead...and enjoyed it. I put AK on my list for "later".
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Old 05-23-2011, 10:35 AM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by issybird View Post
... However, there were two serious flaws not related to the translation and the setting. Most seriously, I don't think the character of Anna was entirely successful. We are told she's wonderful, magnetic, and so on, but we don't see that. As the story progresses and she becomes neurotic and nasty, it's hard to keep in mind the supposedly transcendent personality that Tolstoy intended to evoke. And while Levin's agricultural witterings might have been more compelling if I had known more about the economic situation, ending the story with his religious epiphany and not with Anna's swan dive was a ridiculous exercise in conceit by the author regarding his Marty Stu.

...
I agree.

Seems like it could have used a good editor. Some parts dragged for me (Levin's agriculture part, the politics part, why the part about Kitty on vacation), and it did seem to end abruptly.

I did like the character development and the different views of the characters.

Some of the history was interesting; for example, that people were fiscally irresponsible, just like today.

An enjoyable read, but I don't think I'll re-read it.
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Old 05-23-2011, 11:13 AM   #9
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And while Levin's agricultural witterings might have been more compelling if I had known more about the economic situation, ending the story with his religious epiphany and not with Anna's swan dive was a ridiculous exercise in conceit by the author regarding his Marty Stu.
Actually, I think Levin and Anna were equally central to the story. They were like two sides to the same coin with similar passionate personalities. Anna was trapped in cold or frivolous relationships, while Levin found happiness with. Kitty.

Late in the book when they finally meet, Tolstoy implies that Anna and Levin would have made a good couple if things had been different.
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Old 05-23-2011, 12:05 PM   #10
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Late in the book when they finally meet, Tolstoy implies that Anna and Levin would have made a good couple if things had been different.
Tolstoy might have implied it, but I disagree. Sheer maliciousness caused Anna to fascinate Levin, doubly unforgivable given her history with Kitty. Levin might have been good for Anna, but I don't think she'd have been good for him. She wouldn't have tolerated not being the focal point of his existence (the root of her problem with Vronsky) and Levin had big ambitions.
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Old 05-23-2011, 12:51 PM   #11
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You guys are making this sound a lot more interesting than I'm finding it. I've been falling asleep after about five pages...two extra coffees tonight.
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Old 05-23-2011, 01:41 PM   #12
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I thought it was just OK.

Of the two main characters I liked Levin (who feels like a stand in for Tolstoy himself) more than Anna. Some of Levin's rants were interesting and I felt him grow as a character throughout the novel. I really liked Anna at first, but later not so much. She's a vibrant, beautiful and has a magnetic personality, but as we progress and she can't find any type of happiness she becomes kind of pathetic. The character development was pretty well done, but overall things felt a bit disjointed and some parts felt as if they could have been cut as all they were doing was making the book longer.
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Old 05-23-2011, 04:50 PM   #13
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I'm still reading AK, as I realized it was a book I couldn't read straight through. It was a translated work (not all works translate over well) and I don't have a lot of knowledge of the Russian culture and that time period. Due to that, I decided to spend some time trying to keep that in mind when reading. I didn't know that this was first put out as a serial.

I viewed the beginning Anna just like the society she was in. We saw the surface. We were on the outside looking in. This was the "face" she showed to others (and seemed to carry over to her interactions with others at first). I thought her manner, dress, movement, conversation, and remembering names of the little ones, etc. were a perfect fit for what we were to see as the the society of that time.

The beginning of the book already let me know that all was not as we see with Tolstoy's famous words, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Stiva's and Dolly's differing values and the introduction of Levin and Anna reminded me of Regency class society of England. The very small upper class showed (lived?) an ordered, privileged surface while ignoring the poverty of the lower classes. I felt Levin was used to show some of the plight of the rural peasants and how others of his class saw his zeal as just a young man's enthusiasm. Ideals vs reality of the class in which he was a part; he would grow-up.

I'm still reading and thinking, so I may change my perception of the overall novel and characters, but so far I am really enjoying the view into Russian class culture of the time.
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Old 05-23-2011, 06:03 PM   #14
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It was a translated work (not all works translate over well) and I don't have a lot of knowledge of the Russian culture and that time period.
I think both of these were significant factors in my reaction. At one point, I decided largely to avoid translated works, because IMO they almost never are successful. But I know it can't be helped, and for critical works a translation (even only adequate) is vastly preferable to not knowing it at all.

I know the second affected me a lot. For this category I nominated the first Palliser novel by Trollope (zero interest, lol!) and it would have been approximately the same time period. But I'm reasonably familiar with English politics and culture of the mid-19th century and I know I would have been fascinated by the minutia that fleshed out my understanding. My eyes wouldn't have glazed over as they did with Levin's agricultural theories, since all I know about that time period in Russia is that Alexander II had freed the serfs and their lot worsened in the short term.

You make a good point about serialization. It was typical of those doorstop Victorian novels, but it presents problems with the structure when read as a whole. One of my objections was the anti-climax of Levin's religious conversion, instead of ending the book with Anna's suicide. But the Levin bit was added later (a mistake, IMO) when it didn't make it into the original release.
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Old 05-23-2011, 06:45 PM   #15
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A lot of great comments so far. I have always thought Anna Karenina deserves its ranking as a classic novel, though truth be told I have always enjoyed War and Peace more. It is hard to put ones self into the characters of novel, especially Anna, as we live in such different times. The constraints of religion and society were so much more overwhelming, back then marriage really was thought to be until death do part, not until one decides that he or she just doesn't want to be married anymore.

Tolstoy certainly was writing about and from the point of view of the upper class. Even in Levin's interactions with peasants he [Levin] takes a paternalistic attitude and does not really question his right to profit from their labor.

I thought that at times Tolstoy's character development was brilliant. As an example the entire Chapter 8 of Part II which is devoted to who Alexey Alexandrovitch Karenin was as a person and his relationship to Anna.

I also felt that the religious awakening of Levin at the end of the novel did not sit well. To have ended with the suicide of Anna would have been too abrupt, but I would have been fine with it ending with Chapter 5 in Part VIII. The fate of Vronsky (at least in the near term) was settled at that point. I think though that Tolstoy developed the contrast between Vronsky and Anna on one hand, and Levin and Kitty on the other to make an over arching moral statement. What I have always taken away from Tolstoy (both from AK and War and Peace) is that he believed there was such a thing as “The Russian Soul” and that was intimately tied to the land and agriculture, and also to faith in the traditional church. Levin and Kitty are rewarded for adherence while Anna an Vronsky are punished for straying. The remaining part of the novel, including Levin becoming religious was part of this.

A telling quote:

Quote:
Vronsky would have been perfectly satisfied with his life. The role he had taken up, the role of a wealthy landowner, one of that class which ought to be the very heart of the Russian aristocracy, was entirely to his taste; and now, after spending six months in that character, he derived even greater satisfaction from it.
(Part VI Chapt. 25).

Of less importance, but I found it interesting that Tolstoy wove in two trends prevalent in the sort of upper class society of the time, not just in Russia but Europe and America as well. One was the high interest in spiritualism and mysticism. Charlatans like Landau thrived in that atmosphere.

Also Tolstoy certainly implied that by the time of her death Anna was addicted to morphine. Perhaps contributing to her suicidal state?
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