A good case can be made that this book should be titled Konstantin Levin, not Anna Karenina. Tolstoy described Levin in great detail, his personality, his emotions, his life, and the political, religious and economic environment in Russia as experienced and perceived by him. If it’s true that Tolstoy based Levin on himself, then I must say that I enjoyed the book as his autobiography.
As a novel, however, this book is not as captivating as “War and Peace“. Firstly, the characters are not as engaging. They are interesting and lively (as Tolstoy’s characters always are), but they don’t grow as the story unfolds, a few have stagnated and even devolved in the last quarter of the book. Secondly, there is no plot in the book. No twists, no surprises.
Anna Karenina was most memorable and bewitching, but it’s obvious, from the way Tolstoy described her affair with Vronsky, who had much in common with Anatol Kuragin, Natasha’s seducer in War and Peace, the whole affair was doomed from the start. In Part II, after Anna and Vronsky had consummated their relationship, “He felt what a murderer must feel, when he sees the body he has robbed of life. That body, robbed by him of life, was their love, the first stage of their love. … And with fury, as it were with passion, the murderer falls on the body, and drags it and hacks at it; so he covered her face and shoulders with kisses.” So the slow death lasted through the remaining six Parts of the book.
It’s worth noting that Levin was also fascinated by, if not infatuated with Anna. Perhaps Anna represented all that was beautiful and glamorous in the world of Levin’s aspiration, the aspiration of art and music in particular. When Anna died, a part of Levin died as well. This reflects Tolstoy’s internal disharmony with Russian high society during that period, which led to his spiritual struggles in the ensuing years and the radical changes in his worldview and religious conviction.
I notice something subtle and yet significant in Tolstoy’s writing, namely, his perfect timing.
For instance, Anna and Vronsky’s meeting at the train station was the crucial point of the affair. Anna sensed the danger and tried to escape, but as the train rolled along, her desire and feeling of shame became “warm, very warm, burning”. Tolstoy let tension and expectations build up slowly but irresistibly until they reached the climax. Vronsky caught Anna at the right place at the right time. It they hadn’t met, Anna would have gone back to her family and continued life as usual. But they met and the die was cast.
After Anna had left her husband and son, just when I began to question what sort of person Karenin was that Anna loathed him so much, Tolstoy started to reveal Karenin’s orphaned childhood and his personality. Until then, I had despised Karenin as a cruel, hypocritical, selfish, power-grabbing bureaucrat, but Tolstoy infused so much humanity and compassion into Karenin that I could not help but sympathize with him as a suffering human being. In fact, one of the few climaxes of the book was when Karenin rose to the moral and spiritual height of love and forgiveness for Anna. But alas, he later regressed into a caricature of religiosity.
On a lighter note, I found some passages about Levin hilarious.
After Kitty rejected his proposal and he returned to his country house, Levin received one piece of good news, that his cow had given birth. Then Levin started imagining that the cow would have dozens of calves, and that he himself would have a happy family with Kitty, a devoted wife and mother of his children.
(In a later chapter, a conversation between Dolly and Levin)
“You know, Kitty’s coming here, and is going to spend the summer with me.”
“Really,” he said, flushing, and at once, to change the conversation, he said: “Then I’ll send you two cows, shall I?”
“He walked on a few steps, and the skating-ground lay open before his eyes, and at once, amidst all the skaters, he knew her. He knew she was there by the rapture and the terror that seized on his heart. She was standing talking to a lady at the opposite end of the ground. There was apparently nothing striking either in her dress or her attitude. But for Levin she was as easy to find in that crowd as a rose among nettles. Everything was made bright by her. She was the smile that shed light on all round her. … He walked down, for a long while avoiding looking at her as at the sun, but seeing her, as one does the sun, without looking.”