Friday, May 14, 2021

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

I have avoided Anna Karenina for decades, but felt encouraged by the Literary Life podcast group to finally take the plunge. The main thing that helped me overcome my fears was finding out it was not "all about Anna." It was a relief to find the novel peopled with other interesting characters whose stories were woven around hers to make a rich tapestry showing man's longing for love and for meaning. An essential parallel story is that of Levin and his search for faith.

It's hard not to give spoilers, so I'll give the only one that I think everyone already knows: Anna's unhappy marriage and her search for love elsewhere. I marveled that her lover encouraged her to be flirtatious and never had a moment's agony over other men's attention toward her. Levin, on the other hand, was often unreasonably (it seemed to me) jealous over any attention his wife received.  As I pondered this, I thought of the holy jealousy of God as expressed in the Scriptures, which is not pettiness because His desire is for the good of the loved one. His purpose to have a deep, loving relationship with His people means that any rivals must go. So even though Levin comes off as more plebian and Vronsky as more sophisticated, the reader knows that their difference in attitude is a significant expression of their characters.

The biggest challenge was the sheer length of the book (and learning everybody's names), but it was not hard to understand at all. I found my mind wandering during the bits about politics and farming, but was able to appreciate those sections when I switched over to the audiobook. (free on YouTube or at Librivox) 

Tolstoy was a master at conveying the longings and disappointments of his protagonists, portraying them in all their glory and their brokenness. This is unquestionably a masterpiece. 

Has anyone else tackled it? Any thoughts?

Postscript on the various translations: I am no expert on translations, but sometimes I much preferred the Nathan Haskell Dole version (1899) at Librivox to the version I own (2004). Here's a brief example from the end of Book 8.

[After the storm,] they gathered up the wet napkins; the nanny took the baby out and carried him. Levin walked beside his wife and, guilty on the account of his vexation, squeezed her hand in secret from the nanny. (Peavar/Volokhonsky)

[After the storm,] they hastily picked up the wet diapers, the nurse took the baby, and Levin, ashamed of his vexation, gave his arm to his wife and led her away, pressing her hand gently. (Dole)

By the context we know that the baby had to be changed, which kept the two women from getting home before the rain storm. The use of the word "napkins" is awkward. ("Napkins/nappies" are diapers in British English, but this translation was done by an American and his Russian wife.) This highlights the problem of "literal vs dynamic equivalent" methods of translation. One tries to be true to the Russian-sounding phrases and goes for more of a word-for-word rendition. The other tries to render the translation with flow and beauty. In this case, I preferred the smoother flowing sentences.

The most readable version by far was the one I checked out from my library (Mint Editions - no translator listed): "They gathered up the baby's wet belongings; the nurse picked up the baby and carried it. Levin walked beside his wife and, penitent for having been angry, he squeezed her hand when the nurse was not looking."


Marie said...

I read it years ago, but I need to read again. I thought it was a wonderful book, and it bears re-reading. Thank you so much for your blog. I regularly enjoy your posts!

Barbara Harper said...

I was not interested in reading it for a long time, because all I knew about it was it involved an adulterous relationship. But a couple of blogging friends read it and said it was so much more than that. So I listened to it last year. I liked Levin and his story much better than Anna. But there was depth to all the characters. My review is here: