Anna Karenina

ISBN: 0451528611
ISBN 13: 9780451528612
By: Leo Tolstoy David Magarshack Priscilla Meyer

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Genres

Classic Classics Fiction Historical Fiction Literature Romance Russia Russian Russian Literature To Read

About this book

Acclaimed by many as the world's greatest novel, Anna Karenin provides a vast panorama of contemporary life in Russia and of humanity in general. In it Tolstoy uses his intense imaginative insight to create some of the most memorable characters in literature. Anna is a sophisticated woman who abandons her empty existence as the wife of Karenin and turns to Count Vronsky to fulfil her passionate nature - with tragic consequences. Levin is a reflection of Tolstoy himself, often expressing the author's own views and convictions.Throughout, Tolstoy points no moral, merely inviting us not to judge but to watch. As Rosemary Edmonds comments, 'He leaves the shifting patterns of the kaleidoscope to bring home the meaning of the brooding words following the title, 'Vengeance is mine, and I will repay.

Reader's Thoughts

Kat

Yesterday I finished this book. I started it in early July, 2006 and never put it down for more than, oh, a month at a time.Infuriatingly boring. The last 25 pages are a philosophical essay cloaked in fiction. (i.e., "What if," the character thought, "such and such and such a [whole-page paragraph]? That would mean that the meaning of life is [...]!") I can't think of any reason Tolstoy would have stuck this at the end of an 800+-page book unless A) he was worried that the previous 776 pages didn't convey his purpose (I think this is true), and/or B) he realized his ideas were too half-assed to warrant a straightforward essay. (We suffer because we think too much, and studying science will inevitably make us want to kill ourselves, so we should just believe in God even though belief in God doesn't make any sense? I need more than a novel to convince me.)Tolstoy succeeds at "realism," inasmuch as he makes up so many details that it's easy to forget that he's making things up instead of describing a photograph. I will give him that. But from my historical position, when "realism" is not bold and new, the book only strikes me as a swollen, insufferable narrative. I don't see why he couldn't have accomplished everything he accomplished in a book one-quarter the size. If you've already read the book and want to talk about the ideas or the character arcs, I would be vaguely interested in such a conversation. But I can't think of anyone I know to whom I would recommend an investment of time in this book. I am satisfied that I read the whole thing only because it is a testimony to my stubbornness.

Sammy

People are going to have to remember that this is the part of the review that is entirely of my own opinion and what I thought of the book, because what follows isn't entirely positive, but I hope it doesn't throw you off the book entirely and you still give it a chance. Now... my thoughts:I picked up this book upon the advice of Oprah (and her book club) and my friend Kit. They owe me hardcore now. As does Mr. Tolstoy. This book was an extremely long read, not because of it's size and length necessarily, but because of it's content. More often than not I found myself suddenly third a way down the page after my mind wandered off to other thoughts but I kept on reading... am I the only one with the ability to do that? You know, totally zoning out but continuing to read? The subject I passed over though was so thoroughly boring that I didn't bother going back to re-read it... and it didn't affect my understanding of future events taking place later on in the book.Leo Tolstoy really enjoys tangents. Constantly drifting away from the point of the book to go off on three page rants on farming methods, political policies and elections, or philosophical discussion on God. Even the dialogue drifted off in that sort of manner. Tolstoy constantly made detail of trifling matters, while important subjects that added to what little plot line this story had were just passed over. Here is a small passage that is a wonderful example of what constantly takes place throughout the book:"Kostia, look out! There's a bee! Won't he sting?" cried Dolly, defending herself from a wasp."That's not a bee; that's a wasp!" said Levin."Come, now! Give us your theory," demanded Katavasof, evidently provoking Levin to a discussion. "Why shouldn't private persons have that right?"No mention of the wasp is made again. Just a small example of how Tolstoy focuses much more on philosophical thought, and thought in general, more than any sort of action that will progress the story further. That's part of the reason the story took so long to get through.The editing and translation of the version I got also wasn't very good. Kit reckons that that's part of the reason I didn't enjoy it as much, and I am apt to agree with her. If you do decide to read this book, your better choice is to go with the Oprah's Book Club edition of Anna Karenina.The characters weren't too great either and I felt only slightly sympathetic for them at certain moments. The women most often were whiny and weak while the men seemed cruel and judgemental more often than not. Even Anna, who was supposedly strong-willed and intelligent would go off on these irrational rants. The women were constantly jealous and the men were always suspicious.There's not much else to say that I haven't already said. There were only certain spots in the book which I enjoyed in the littlest, and even then I can't remember them. All in all I did not enjoy this book, and it earned the names Anna Crapenina and Anna Kareniblah.But remember this is just one girl's opinion, if it sounded like a book you might enjoy I highly advise going out to read it. Just try and get the Oprah edition.

Carmen

Amazing book. I expected something very difficult, that I would have to slog through. Was I ever surprised! This book blew me out of the water!P.S. I have been thinking about this a lot. I read this book and loved it. But was I missing something because I didn't read it in Russian? Or, the better question is, how MUCH of it's awesomeness am I missing because I'm reading it in English?I'm actually very sad now that I can't (currently) read Russian.

Reynje

At least once a year since I was fifteen, I have attempted to finish Anna Karenina. I get to the exact same point each time (around halfway) and then just... stop. I have no idea why. It's turning into my book-nemesis, which drives me crazy because I want to love it. Anyway, I declare 2012 "Reynje vs Anna Karenina: Ultimate Book Smackdown". It's on.

Keith

** spoiler alert ** I don't understand why Anna Karenina is considered a heroine. Her greatest hardship is that she's in a not totally fulfilling marriage and has a child to raise. Boo-hoo. She flat abandons her son. The extent of her remorse is never fully developed. I scoffed at her suicide, didn't empathize at all.I don't like Tolstoy much. Too verbose, grandiose. He's a silver spoon guy, which would be fine if he didn't try to write about the common man. These attempts make me embarrassed for him.He wrote a lot about late-19th century Russian class issues. He does this well I think. But in this book it doesn't add anything. Seems like he's just eager to write about it; it's thrown into the story haphazardly, in a way that doesn't advance the story.The book is not a masterpiece.

Caris

I don’t know what to think of Tolstoy. This is the first work of his I’ve ever read. After reading Dostoevsky, I am thoroughly intrigued by Russian literature. Tolstoy, however, is vastly different than Dostoevsky. It’s like he’s Dostoevsky’s happy older brother. There are similar aspects such as pride, depression, and madness, but Anna Karenina just wasn’t as dark.It may have been more beautifully written. By the first page, it was if I could breathe again. As if all of the contemporary fiction, all the Dan Browns of the world, had polluted the air and Leo Tolstoy stepped up and personally applied the oxygen mask to my face, stroked my hair, and told me everything was going to be alright. Anna Karenina, in my opinion, was written at a time when writing meant something. It wasn’t something one did on his/her days off at Starbucks. “Oh, I’m working on my novel.” S/he says, sipping a latte.Tolstoy didn’t so much write as craft from the clay of humanity. This is especially evident by the dialogue in this piece, which essentially drives the plot. The conversations in this book are unparalleled. They range in subject from farming to love to religion, and each is far more in depth and philosophical than any conversation I’ve ever had.There were a couple of things I wasn’t thrilled about in this book. It was very long for the relatively few significant plot details that took place. It was like taking a canoe on a meandering stream and coming to places where the water slows to a trickle and you have to get out to push your vessel along until the water gets deeper. That’s just the nature of the story, I guess, but it made for slow reading. It took me nearly a month to finish this one. Also, I don’t think Tolstoy has really considered women. His women think like men think women think. I’m reading some feminist writing at the moment, and I notice how male dominated every aspect of this book is. It isn’t that the concerns of the women in his book couldn’t be those of real women, it’s just that they’re stereotypical. When the women are being logical, they are thinking like the men in the story. This doesn’t surprise me entirely, considering Tolstoy’s tumultuous relationship with the other sex.All in all, it was a good book. Something of a commitment, but good nonetheless.

Brett

Alright, I'm going to do my best not to put any spoilers out here, but it will be kind of tough with this book. I should probably start by saying that this book was possibly the best thing I have ever read.It was my first Tolstoy to read, and the defining thing that separated what he wrote from anything else that I've read is his characters. His characters are unbelievably complex. The edition of this book that I read was over 900 pages, so he has some time to do it. His characters aren't static, but neither are they in some kind of transition from A to B throughout the book. They are each inconsistent in strikingly real ways. They think things and then change their minds. They believe something and then lose faith in it. Their opinions of each other are always swirling. They attempt to act in ways that align with something they want, but they must revert back to who they are. But who a character is is a function of many things, some innate and some external and some whimsical and moody.So all the characters seem too complex to be characters in a book. It's as if no one could write a character that could be so contradictory and incoherent and still make them believable, so no one would try to write a character like Anna Karenina. But people are that complex, and they are incoherent and that's what makes Tolstoy's characters so real. Their understandings of each other and themselves are as incoherent as mine of those around me and myself.One of the ways that Tolstoy achieves this is through incredible detail to non-verbal communication. He is always describing the characters movements, expressions, or postures in such a way that you subtly learn their thoughts. He does an amazing job in the internal monologues the characters experience. You frequently hear a character reason with himself and reveal his thoughts or who he is to you in some way, and all the while you feel like you already knew that they felt that or were that. Even as the characters are inconsistent. There are times when he can describe actions that have major implications on the plot with blunt and simple words and it still felt rich because the characters are so full. The book takes on love, marriage, adultery, faith, selfishness, death, desire/attraction, happiness. It also speaks interestingly on social classes or classism. He also addresses the clash between the pursuit of individual desires and social obligations/restraints. There is just so much to wrestle with here.And you go through a myriad set of emotions and impressions of the characters as you read. At times you can love or hate or adore a character. You can be ashamed of or ashamed for or reviled by or anxious with or surprised by a character. And you feel this way about each of them at points. But it isn't at all a roller coaster ride of emotion. It's fluid and natural and makes sense. One of the many points that the book seemed to reach to me was the strength and power of love. Tolstoy displays it in all its power and all its inability. In the end love is not sufficient enough to sustain. He writes tremendous triumphs for it, and then he writes the months after when the reality of human failings set in. But love is good, and there is hope. Life can be better with love in it. Should I have kids one day I think I'll make reading this book a precondition for them to start dating (that and turning 25).I was also surprised by a section towards the end of the book where Tolstoy through Levin, my favorite character and the one that I identified with the most, makes a case for Christianity that was so simple but at the same time really impacted me. I guess I'll leave that alone here.Basically, I don't have high enough praise for this book. I hope everyone reads it. It is very long, and I found the third quarter or so slow. But I could definitely read it again. Not soon but it could become a must read every 15 years or so for me. Between he nature of the content and the quality of the words, I would say that this is the greatest masterpiece in words that I've ever found.

Brandi

One of the best novels I've ever read. There was only one part that dragged a bit for me--the account of the provincial election in part 6. I rather loved the detailed descriptions--especially Tolstoy's habit of describing the little idiosyncrasies for each character. I love that each character was allowed to grow and change from the beginning to the end of the book, the book more than any other I've read flows like real life--the characters react and grow make decisions and change with what is happening and not vice-versa. Because of it's length, you get to see what sometimes other books don't show--that the Earth doesn't cease to keep spinning because of someone's actions. And Tolstoy allows us to see what happens when "life goes on" after choices are made.The prose was beautiful, especially Levin's insight and reflections (not that I think I comprehended all of his philosophical musings). In fact, I think I loved Levin's story even more than Anna's--though to compare their stories is compelling. As I was reading about 3-400 pages in, I started wishing I had begun with a pencil in hand to underline particularly beautiful or insightful passages. I told myself I would next time--and for me if I already have plans to read it again before I'm through the first time that means it's a pretty fabulous book.

Madeline

** spoiler alert ** I finished this last night, but didn't write a review then because I needed some time to think over the entire book and decide exactly what I wanted to say about it. I'm going to start with a quick plot summary, because before I read this I didn't really know what Anna Karenina was actually about. So, in brief: Oblonsky has cheated on his wife Dolly but he convinces his sister Anna to talk to her and they don't get divorced; meanwhile Oblonsky's friend Levin is in love with Dolly's sister Kitty but she wants to marry Vronsky who is in love with Anna who is already married to Karenin but goes ahead and has an affair with Vronsky anyway so he rejects Kitty but it's okay because she marries Levin anyway and Levin has these two brothers and one is a drug addict and the other is a stuffy author and they don't do much but they're around a lot and then Anna leaves her husband but he won't give her a divorce and won't let her keep their son so she's very depressed about that and Dolly is the only one who will talk to her even though Oblonsky also works hard to convince Karenin to divorce Anna. Everyone got that? It really could not be simpler. Okay, on to the review part: I'm giving this book three stars because it seemed like the fairest rating, considering that some parts of this book deserved a five-star rating and some parts deserved one star. Everything with Anna and Vronsky was really interesting and amazing - I loved Anna so much, and I really wanted to be friends with her. She was lovely. Unfortunately, she and her lovah had to compete with Kitty and Levin, the other important couple of the story. And good god are they boring. Levin owns a farm, which means we get chapters upon chapters of nothing but him babbling on about farming techniques and how nobody does the job right and what he wants to do to improve his farm. Also, the book should have ended right after Anna killed herself, or at least ended by talking about how Vronsky was dealing with it. But that doesn't happen. In the last thirty-some pages of the book, Anna throws herself under a train, and for the rest of the book we get a little mention of how Vronsky has volunteered to fight in some war, but the rest of it is all about Levin and his farm and local politics and his spiritual crisis and OH MY GOD I DON'T CARE. Once I had read two chapters about Levin after Anna's death, I flipped through the rest of the book, saw that he was the sole focus of the rest of the story, and almost stopped reading. I could have, too, and I wouldn't have missed anything important.

Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont

I first read Anna Karenina when I was in my mid-teens. I remember being deeply moved by the story of Anna and her doomed love but I missed a lot of Tolstoy’s subtlety. I say this because I have now reread this magnificent book in the light of the recent film adaptation with Keira Knightley in the role of Anna.In my review of the movie I described the novel as a War and Peace of the emotions. But it’s actually much more than that. Though it is more intimate in an emotional sense than War and Peace Tolstoy also manages to capture the sweep and grandeur of a particular period in Russian history. It’s an effortless shifting of focus really, from interior feelings at one point to exterior settings at another, inside and outside captured with almost perfect comprehension.The novel opens with arguably one of the most recognised lines in all of world literature;All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.On my first reading I thought this was a reference to Anna and her own relationships, first with her husband, Alexis Karenin, a man she clearly does not love, a man she never loved, and then with Count Alexis Vronsky, the great passion of her life, a man she loved too much. But it’s not. In the immediate sense it’s a reference to the marriage of her philandering brother, Stiva Oblonsky, and Dolly, his much suffering wife. Beyond that it really touches on a variety of relationships. It touches, in a deeper sense, on a larger family, that of the Russian aristocracy, on the threshold of a precipitous decline.The title is deceptive. Much of the novel does indeed focus on the tragedy of Anna but not in an exclusive sense. It might just as well have been called Portraits of Marriage; for marriage and relationships is what it’s all about. Not all unhappy, I should add. For in counterpoint to the story of Anna, Karenin and Vronsky we have that of Kitty, Dolly’s sister, and Constantine Levin. This, as it turns out, is the novel’s one happy family, resembling no other. The idealistic and occasionally tiresome Levin is an obvious self-portrait of Tolstoy himself. I say tiresome because the author allows him to become a vehicle for his own economic, political and spiritual obsessions, which buzz at points as annoyingly as the bees Levin keeps on his country estate! For me the fascinating thing about Anna Karenina is just how well it captures a particular social milieu and a particular period in Russian history. I offer another possible title – Decline and Fall. There is pathology here, something symptomatic almost. At one extreme we have the insouciant Oblonsky, thoughtless and shallow, a scion of an ancient family in terminal decline. At the other we have Levin, a country gentleman who dreams of a communion with the peasantry, while always being apart from the peasantry. In the middle we have Anna, passionate, transient and destructive, a force of nature. On the outside we have the peasantry, looking on with incomprehension and bemused contempt. It’s often said that Anna Karenina is the greatest novel ever written. Greatness, it seems to me, is such and elusive and uncertain measure. There are serious flaws in the book which, at least to me, would seem to stop it somewhere short of ‘greatness’, at least understood as perfection. But there is something greater than greatness; there is brilliance. Anna Karenina is a brilliant book, one with breathtaking insight, a handling of character and theme that shows one to be in the presence of a true master of the art. Tolstoy’s understanding of human nature is as broad as it is deep. Although the novel has a third person grand narrative style, the focus changes with the mood, moving from a God-like perspective to interior consciousness with equal ease. Even Laska, Levin’s dog, is allowed a perspective at one point in the narrative! Tolstoy’s descriptive power is as grand as it is in War and Peace, though the richness of his country scenes stands in sharp contrast to the anonymity of his urban settings. Anna Karenina is a novel of consequences. In some ways it’s similar in handling to War and Peace, in that the author clearly believes that each individual destiny is shaped by forces that cannot be controlled. Anna is the novel’s boldest character, one who defies convention, choosing love over propriety. That is the beginning of her tragedy. I suppose it is possible to say that Vronsky also places love, the love of another man’s wife, before propriety, but for him the choice does not carry the same burden, a measure of social hypocrisy, perhaps, though the judgements here are our own, not Tolstoy’s. His task is simply to show the limits of freedom and the penalties of choice. The penalties for Anna are high. Unable to divorce, she grows increasingly uncertain of herself, increasingly insecure in her relationship with Vronsky, who can, after all, discard her in a moment and marry another, as his mother clearly wishes. Anna’s passionate nature turns in on itself, driven to destruction by recrimination, doubt and paranoia. Her story resembles no other in its unhappiness. It ends in a station; it ends in suicide under a train. Is there any happiness to be found here? Well, as I say, to contrast with the dark there is the light of Kitty and Levin. If Oblonsky represents shallow and cosmopolitan urban values, Levin – Tolstoy himself – seeks roots in the land, roots in ‘the people’, something of an idealised and unreflective giant. He finds contentment with Kitty and meaning in life, including spiritual meaning…at least up to a point. Tolstoy admired the work of Charles Dickens. But the thing about Dickens’ novels is that they all have one conclusion – the end of history. One feels that the action is done. All that remains is an endless summer of happy families, big meals and blessed death. Not so with Anna Karenina. Levin is a doubter; his quest is not over, his happiness less than complete. His is a story that is also destined to end in a station, the story of Tolstoy’s own future.

Dia

What turned out to be the most interesting to me as I devoured this lush book was Tolstoy's amazing ability to show how we change our minds, or how our minds just do change -- how enamored we become of a person, a place, a whole population, an idea, an ideal -- and then how that great love, which seemed so utterly meaningful and complete, sours or evaporates just days, hours, or even minutes later -- in short, how truly fickle we are. And at the same time, each of the characters was in some way stable -- they had their particular drives, their needs, their anxieties, which gave their changing passions some kind of coherence and thus gave themselves their "selves." Tolstoy's ability to capture the tiny thoughts that the characters themselves were perhaps unaware of -- preconscious material consisting largely of rationalizations and fears, but also sometimes of genuine compassion -- and to present these thoughts with precision, subtle irony, and tenderness -- was a great delight. (He deals in this preconscious material rather than in unconscious material -- there is nothing symbolic or metaphorical in his writing -- he writes quite naturally of "things as they are." My partner and I enjoyed contrasting him with Kafka.) I also am very glad that I read an unabridged version. Some of my favorite parts of the book didn't involve the title character -- I loved the mowing and hunting sections -- these were the parts where true joy (and meaning, as Levin finds) were found. And I think these are the parts not included in abridged versions.

Tyler

When the Russian elite first read this idyll to their vanity, they must have fallen headlong into the reflecting pool right after Narcissus. For now, you see, not only are they rich and powerful, but according to Tolstoy they’re also supremely virtuous. The theme of this book does the trick.Say a painter decides to do a Madonna and Child. Looking around, he frowns as he sees that this subject has already been painted thousands of times in every possible way over the ages. To stand out, he decides to paint the biggest, baddest Madonna and Child ever. Such is Tolstoy’s approach to the book’s theme, an admiring homage to God, family and class.Though the author paints on a sprawling canvas, this theme handcuffs the plot, which gets so predictable that it can be seen hundreds of pages in advance more or less what will happen. This same sprawl handcuffs character development because the characters have to be all bad or all good in order to make the author’s point. So the book needs exemplary writing in order to work.Here, however, Tolstoy never really trusts us to extract the message from his story. He tends to spell it out for us in case we didn’t get it the first time. After a few promising paragraphs, or pages, the prose gets eclipsed by remarks better suited to religious tracts, the kinds with cartoon crosses and all caps, and a penchant for showing up anonymously in public places. As a result, too much of the author can be seen and not enough of his story.Further damaging the narrative is the laughable misogyny by which the Stepford-wife females make fools of themselves. At one point, for example, three upper class women victoriously demonstrate to a dazzled peasant cook that their recipe makes the tastiest jam. All through the book, the corset-yanking writer pulls out every cliché, right down to the hooker with a heart of gold who, mortified by her own scarlet shame, literally (with a shawl) effaces herself before a ruling-class woman of virtue and promptly exits the stage after a disgraceful cameo. We’d have a veritable encyclopedia of sexism except that these caricatures must in turn compete with more subtle excoriations of liberals. The eponymous Anna, her eyes glittering, showcases the step-by-step descent into nihilism that liberalism causes, abetted by freethinkers and possibly even by atheists. Though more subtle, this condemnation is still much too obvious to the reader.Choking on dogma, the story scrapes bottom awhile. But luckily, about page 700, the author drags the manuscript off the mortuary table and applies shock. Over the next 240 pages, he tones down the agitprop, and Levin’s generally well written epiphany in the last 60 pages shoves this Frankenstein past the finish line. The author tries to mine the same vein as Dostoevsky, another religious conservative. But where Dostoevsky succeeds brilliantly, Tolstoy fizzles. The urge to moralize so impedes the narrative flow that it ruins the effect. What’s left is an archipelago of excellent prose floating on a pond of unctuous treacle.I wanted to give this novel at least some credit for these stretches of good writing. But sadly, the distractions in the writing conspired with a predictable plot and monochromatic characters to turn this book into a train wreck.

Melanie

OK people...This is the BBE (best book ever)...I think I’ve read this three times; on my own and once the classroom setting. Though it’s famous for the first line, (“All happy families are alike…”) I actually have a tough time getting through the first 400 pages (JUST KIDDING!). Actually, this is the type of book that you love for 100 pages, hate for 100 pages, love for 100 pages, etc. I can see how this could deter readers, but I’ve found that the love/hate dynamic keeps me interested and makes this very re-readable.Although Tolstoy named the novel after the character of Anna Karenina, her story (which centers on infidelity with Count Vronsky, who is quite possibly the most toolish man in literature, is really only one half of the book. This could have just as easily been titled, “Levin” after the other main character, a gentry land owner searching, like many of us, for love and the meaning of life. The sections centering on Levin and his family are definitely amazing and occasionally sublime. The stories of Levin and Anna Karenina do intertwine, along with about 1,000 other characters, so I suggest you read this version as it has a 'cast of characters' section, that while making you feel silly when you have to turn to it, is uber-handy. My slavic lit prof also said this is the best translation as of 2003, and I’ve read it in other translations and have noticed quite a difference. Towards the end of the book there is a section when Levin walks through the fields of his home, looks at the stars, and has this moment of complete cosmic understanding. My description of this section is crap, but I’ve re-read this book just to get to this one paragraph alone.

Brad

** spoiler alert ** WARNING: This is not a strict book review, but rather a meta-review of what reading this book led to in my life. Please avoid reading this if you're looking for an in depth analysis of Anna Karenina. Thanks. I should also mention that there is a big spoiler in here, in case you've remained untouched by cultural osmosis, but you should read my review anyway to save yourself the trouble.I grew up believing, like most of us, that burning books was something Nazis did (though, of course, burning Disco records at Shea stadium was perfectly fine). I believed that burning books was only a couple of steps down from burning people in ovens, or that it was, at least, a step towards holocaust.If I heard the words "burning books" or "book burning," I saw Gestapo, SS and SA marching around a mountainous bonfire of books in a menacingly lit square. It's a scary image: an image of censorship, of fear mongering, of mind control -- an image of evil. So I never imagined that I would become a book burner. That all changed the day Anna Karenina, that insufferable, whiny, pathetic, pain in the ass, finally jumped off the platform and killed herself. That summer I was performing in Shakespeare in the Mountains, and I knew I'd have plenty of down time, so it was a perfect summer to read another 1,000 page+ novel. I'd read Count of Monte Cristo one summer when I was working day camps, Les Miserable one summer when I was working at a residential camp, and Shogun in one of my final summers of zero responsibility. A summer shifting back and forth between Marc Antony in Julius Caesar and Pinch, Antonio and the Nun (which I played with great gusto, impersonating Terry Jones in drag) in Comedy of Errors, or sitting at a pub in the mountains while I waited for the matinee to give way to the evening show, seemed an ideal time to blaze through a big meaty classic. I narrowed the field to two by Tolstoy: War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I chose the latter and was very quickly sorry I did.I have never met such an unlikable bunch of bunsholes in my life (m'kay...I admit it...I am applying Mr. Mackey's lesson. You should see how much money I've put in the vulgarity jar this past week). Seriously. I loathed them all and couldn't give a damn about their problems. By the end of the first part I was longing for Anna to kill herself (I'd known the ending since I was a kid, and if you didn't and I spoiled it for you, sorry. But how could you not know before now?). I wanted horrible things to happen to everyone. I wanted Vronsky to die when his horse breaks its back. I wanted everyone else to die of consumption like Nikolai. And then I started thinking of how much fun it would be to rewrite this book with a mad Stalin cleansing the whole bunch of them and sending them to a Gulag (in fact, this book is the ultimate excuse for the October Revolution (though I am not comparing Stalinism to Bolshevism). If I'd lived as a serf amongst this pack of idiots I'd have supported the Bolshies without a second thought).I found the book excruciating, but I was locked in my life long need to finish ANY book I started. It was a compulsion I had never been able to break, and I had the time for it that summer. I spent three months in the presence of powerful and/or fun Shakespeare plays and contrasted those with a soul suckingly unenjoyable Tolstoy novel, and then I couldn't escape because of my own head. I told myself many things to get through it all: "I am missing the point," "Something's missing in translation," "I'm in the wrong head space," "I shouldn't have read it while I was living and breathing Shakespeare," "It will get better." It never did. Not for me. I hated every m'kaying page. Then near the end of the summer, while I was sitting in the tent a couple of hours from the matinee (I remember it was Comedy of Errors because I was there early to set up the puppet theatre), I finally had the momentary joy of Anna's suicide. Ecstasy! She was gone. And I was almost free. But then I wasn't free because I still had the final part of the novel to read, and I needed to get ready for the show, then after the show I was heading out to claim a campsite for an overnight before coming back for an evening show of Caesar. I was worried I wouldn't have time to finish that day, but I read pages whenever I found a free moment and it was looking good. Come twilight, I was through with the shows and back at camp with Erika and my little cousin Shaina. The fire was innocently crackling, Erika was making hot dogs with Shaina, so I retreated to the tent and pushed through the rest of the book. When it was over, I emerged full of anger and bile and tossed the book onto the picnic table with disgust. I sat in front of the fire, eating my hot dogs and drinking beer, and that's when the fire stopped being innocent. I knew I needed to burn this book. I couldn't do it at first. I had to talk myself into it, and I don't think I could have done it at all if Erika hadn't supported the decision. She'd lived through all of my complaining, though, and knew how much I hated the book (and I am pretty sure she hated listening to my complaints almost as much). So I looked at the book and the fire. I ate marshmallows and spewed my disdain. I sang Beatles songs, then went back to my rage, and finally I just stood up and said "M'kay it!"I tossed it into the flames and watched that brick of a book slowly twist and char and begin to float into the night sky. The fire around the book blazed high for a good ten minutes, the first minute of which was colored by the inks of the cover, then it tumbled off its prop log and into the heart of the coals, disappearing forever. I cheered and danced and exorcised that book from my system. I felt better. I was cleansed of my communion with those whiny Russians. And I vowed in that moment to never again allow myself to get locked into a book I couldn't stand; it's still hard, but I have put a few aside.Since the burning of Anna Karenina there have been a few books that have followed it into the flames. Some because I loved them and wanted to give them an appropriate pyre, some because I loathed them and wanted to condemn them to the fire. I don't see Nazis marching around the flames anymore either. I see a clear mountain night, I taste bad wine and hot dogs, I hear wind forty feet up in the tops of the trees, I smell the chemical pong of toxic ink, and I feel the relief of never having to see Anna Karenina on my bookshelf again. Whew. I feel much better now.

Terry

In the beginning, reading Anna Karenin can feel a little like visiting Paris for the first time. You’ve heard a lot about the place before you go. Much of what you see from the bus you recognize from pictures and movies and books. You can’t help but think of the great writers and artists who have been here before you. You expect to like it. You want to like it. But you don’t want to feel like you have to like it. You worry a little that you won’t. But after a few days, you settle in, and you feel the immensity of the place opening up all around you. You keep having this experience of turning a corner and finding something beautiful that you hadn’t been told to expect or catching sight of something familiar from a surprising angle. You start to trust the abundance of the place, and your anxieties that someone else will have eaten everything up before your arrival relax. (Maybe that simile reveals more about me than I’d like.)My favorite discovery was the three or four chapters (out of the book’s 239) devoted to, of all things, scythe mowing—chapters that become a celebratory meditation on physical labor. When I read those chapters, I felt temporarily cured of the need to have something “happen” and became as absorbed in the reading as the mowers are absorbed in their work. Of course, the book is about Anna and Vronsky and Levin and Kitty and Dolly and poor, stupid Stepan Arkadyich. It’s about their love and courtship and friendship and pride and shame and jealousy and betrayal and forgiveness and about the instable variety of happiness and unhappiness. But it’s also about mowing the grass and arguing politics and hunting and working as a bureaucrat and raising children and dealing politely with tedious company. To put it more accurately, it’s about the way that the human mind—or, as Tolstoy sometimes says, the human soul—engages each of these experiences and tries to understand itself, the world around it, and the other souls that inhabit that world. This book is not afraid to take up any part of human life because it believes that human beings are infinitely interesting and infinitely worthy of compassion. And, what I found stirring, the book’s fearlessness extends to matters of religion. Tolstoy takes his characters seriously enough to acknowledge that they have spiritual lives that are as nuanced and mysterious as their intellectual lives and their romantic lives. I knew to expect this dimension of the book, but I could not have known how encouraging it would be to dwell in it for so long.In the end, this is a book about life, written by a man who is profoundly in love with life. Reading it makes me want to live.

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