Let me begin this by saying that everything I write after what I’m about to tell you next is entirely secondary to Tolstoy’s classic, Anna Karenina. There are several things that people may point out about this particular Russian novel, but they’re not that important. What is important? It’s simple, really: the most essential fact about Anna Karenina is that Jesus Lord, this book is long. It is so long, in fact, that I have not finished reading it, and may not ever finish reading it. I suppose it was an inevitability that when I started my series of classic literature reviews that there would come a time when the classic literature would beat me, and indeed, that time has come. Anna Karenina has beaten me. I started reading it in November, shortly after finishing Mansfield Park, but I have not yet reached its 200th page. And in a book that spans 750 pages, it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve made basically no progress whatsoever. Have I read books that are longer than Anna Karenina? Yes. Have I read books that felt longer than Anna Karenina? No. In fact, I don’t believe it’s possible for there to be any book in the world of literature that feels longer than Anna Karenina. Except maybe War and Peace, which I am also not reading.
So, why am I going ahead and admitting my defeat so publicly? Well, first of all, there are other classics to be read, and I can’t let Tolstoy bog me down any longer. Secondly, even though I didn’t finish it, I still have opinions about it, and I’d like to share those with you now. Of course, all of my opinions are tempered by the fact that Anna Karenina is LONG, but as I pointed out at the beginning, that’s the most important fact about this novel, and if you take nothing else away from this quasi-review, I want you to understand how long this book truly is.
Did I mention that it’s long? Because it is. Long.
Anyway, when I started reading, I already knew everything about the story. Or at least the important points. Because the story of the novel’s eponymous heroine is a pretty famous one, and if you don’t want me to ruin it for you, close your eyes and skip to the next paragraph. See, Anna Karenina is married and has a son, but she falls in love with another man (Count Vronsky) and goes to live with him, which is a pretty scandalous thing to do, especially in the circles of the 19th century Russian gentry. Upon realizing that everything is a mess, and that neither Vronsky nor the married life she left behind could make her happy, Anna commits suicide by jumping in front of a train. As far as stories go, this is a pretty good one. I mean, it hits on the two major themes —
adultery and suicide love and death. So, you know, props to Tolstoy. I even had a theory going in that I was going to be able to compare Anna Karenina to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, since the two seem thematically similar, but it turns out I can’t do that. Why? I never got to read Tolstoy’s telling of Anna’s story, and can’t tell you how he handled it because he refused to get to the point. Even so, I can say with confidence that Chopin’s novel is superior because it is hundreds of pages shorter.
(If you were scrolling ahead so as not to have Anna Karenina ruined for you, you can start reading again now.)
Along with Anna’s story, Tolstoy tells the tale of country gentleman Konstantin Levin. I read somewhere (I think in the novel’s critical introduction) that Levin is based on Tolstoy. I guess this means that Tolstoy was unbearably self-righteous and annoying and also interested in cows. Every time the story would jump from the events surrounding Anna to the life of Levin, I had to roll my eyes (or doze off) because Levin’s story failed to capture my interest at all. And unfortunately for the novel, Levin’s story appears way too much.
In fact, I think the major problem with Anna Karenina, at least for an impatient reader like myself, is that it’s really hard to stay invested in a story when you read and read and read and look at what page you’re on in relation to the book’s overall page total and realize that you’ve virtually gotten nowhere. It’s full of all kinds of details and descriptions and curlicues, and while it was actually pretty easy reading, it was really hard to care. I just wanted Tolstoy to tell the damn story, and that didn’t seem to be on his agenda. I mean, I’m sure he got to it all eventually — there were 750 pages filled with relatively tiny print — but I just got tired of wading through the embellishments and asides while waiting to get to the real thing.
I don’t know if this could count as commentary on the differences between a modern reader (me) and more patient readers of days gone by (19th century Russians), or if it just means that Tolstoy needed an evil, heartless editor, but either way, I have been defeated by an Oprah book. If you need me, I’ll be hanging my head in shame.
To sum up:
— Anna Karenina is long.
— No, really. It’s long.
— If I had ever finished Anna Karenina, I’d be even more certain than I am right now that Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is better.
— It had a really good plot ruined by a really boring side plot.
— Anna Karenina is long.
So, even though I didn’t finish it, I’ve told you all you need to know. Because this is what I do — taking one for the literary team since 2005.