A quintessential classic like Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” is the type of book that many modern readers will approach with reluctance and even more will avoid all together. It’s a monstrously long epic written in late 19th century Russia, and therefore one might expect it to be similar to Dostoevsky or Henry James – long-winded, pontificating, even preachy. While it is similar to Dostoevsky or Dickens in that it takes a sweeping view, following many intertwined lives over a span of land and years, “Anna Karenina” is surprisingly modern, tossing off the cumbersome heavy-handiness of its contemporaries.
“Anna Karenina” focuses on the high society of Moscow and Saint Petersburg in the late 19th century and the inter-connecting lives of members of this world. More particularly it is concerned with two romantic relationships, those of Anna and Vronsky and Levin and Kitty, and through these couples Tolstoy examines two types of love: a carnal, whirlwind romance and a steady, conventional marriage. Such a plot and backdrop feel surprisingly relevant to a modern reader. While of course there are important differences (like the limited role and double standard for women), in many ways the society of Russian nobility is comparable to, say, upper class, Vogue New York society today. They both have the same lavish lifestyles, cliques, social climbers, and groups such as the fashion plates and pseudo-intelligentsia. Tolstoy’s observations and critiques of the Russian upper crust are easily applied to today’s Jet Set. Moreover, Tolstoy writes with such urgency about his two sets of lovers, particularly Anna and Vronsky, and the two approaches to love he examines still exist for couples today, which further makes “Anna Karenina” a living, breathing novel.
However, there is much more than plot and setting that make this novel pleasurable and intriguing for modern readers. Immediately one notices that Tolstoy’s prose is smooth and clear – a reader digests the sentences as easily as if they were reading a book published in 2009 and will never have to reread a paragraph to grasp its meaning, unlike with, say, Henry James. Many of his sentences are as simple and satisfying as “Princess Betsy drove home from the theater without waiting for the last act.” Tolstoy narrates without preachy or pretentious asides and never halts the action or the inner movement of the characters to muse about the meaning of life. In section seven, Tolstoy even verges on a very modern stream-of-conscious style as he follows Anna’s fevered state-of-mind:
“I don’t know these streets at all. Hills it seems, and still houses, and houses. And in the houses always people and people. How many of them, no end, all hating each other!”
One might accuse Tolstoy of being overly detailed (and in a near one-thousand page book lots of details are to be expected), but his details are carefully picked to draw readers further into the world and allow them to better understand the characters. The descriptions are vibrant and beautiful; this world is rainbow colored and the reader can nearly taste its flavors. Not only does one not mind learning that Anna wears a “black dress, with …sumptuous lace,” one hungers for it. Tolstoy is also the master of writing magnificent scenes – like Kitty’s labor, Anna’s reunion with her son or Levin mowing with the peasants – and their power often doesn’t hit readers until after they have set the book down.
What perhaps holds up best is Tolstoy’s truly modern approach to his characters. Unlike in a Dickens novel there are no clear-cut good and bad characters, no moral judgments made upon them. Instead, they are full-fleshed characters with all the ambiguity of actual people, and Tolstoy is fair and compassionate to all of them – an approach that reminds one of the very modern Anne Tyler, who never judges her very flawed characters but instead seeks to understand. His characters are true: everyone knows a Levin, a Kitty, and hopes to meet an Anna.
Of course, this book was written over a century ago and therefore it comes with some of the conventions of a 19th century novel. One must have the time and patience to read a one thousand page book. Also, there are some parts that are a bit tedious, particularly if one doesn’t have the stomach for Russian political history. The last fifteen or so pages also slam the reader with what might seem like Christian propaganda. However, readers’ eagerness to discover the fate of these wonderful characters will more often than not give them the fortitude to push on through these sections. For a reader who has never read a grand 19th century novel (or who has and was scared away), “Anna Karenina” is pleasurable, intriguing, and captivating.