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Monday, November 7, 2016

Anna Karenina

Here's my review of Anna Karenina, next will be Robots of Dawn, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and Midnight’s Children.

Anna Karenina is considered by a good number of critics and writers to be the best novel ever written.   I wouldn't go that far.  In fact, I didn't like it as much as the first Tolstoy book I read, War and Peace, but I did generally enjoy it.  I do have a major gripe with the edition of Anna Karenina that I read (it's the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition).  In the introduction, without any warning and completely casually, it drops a major spoiler.  There is no single fact about the story that would be more inappropriate to tell someone about to read it than the one disclosed in the introduction and I honestly can't comprehend why anyone would decide it was a good idea to mention it.

Tolstoy called Anna Karenina his first novel.  This confused most people outside of Russia, as he had already published War and Peace.  There are actually a good number of writers and critics who would call that book the best novel ever written.  Tolstoy's feelings to the contrary seem to have stemmed from a combination of portions of the book that are philosophical musings (i.e. ramblings) rather than narrative and that there was a view in Russia that a novel have a definite and meaningful end point that wraps up the story.  Regardless, the two works are fairly different, even though they clearly share a common style.  Anna Karenina is intended to be much more realistic than War and Peace, which contained absurd, but very entertaining, events.

On its surface, Anna Karenina is about marriage, jealousy, and adultery; relationships beginning and ending.  But it is also an exploration of a large number of topics including Russia's feudal system, democracy, industrialization, the benefits and drawbacks of family, religion, forgiveness, sickness, death, and social standing.  Tolstoy has room for all of this, of course, because the book is over 800 pages long.  I learned more about the social niceties of opera and hunting in 19th century opera than I ever cared to know.  As is becoming a theme in Russian and French literature, I found the names nearly impenetrable.  The nature of the names, the quantity of characters, and the number of names each character has come together to make things extremely difficult for the reader. Other than those matters, I found it an enjoyable, but fairly depressing, read.

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