Today I am supposed to post about books 1-4 of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy for Arti’s Anna K readalong. I am not going to give a synopsis of things so far but there might be spoilers for those who haven’t read the book. I don’t believe what I say will actually spoil anything unless you are the kind of person who likes to know nothing about a book before reading it, then you might want to look away (though really, I don’t think knowing details in this case ruins it).
What has surprised me most about the book is how completely indifferent I am to Anna. Bookman loved Anna when he read it and her fate brought him to tears. A hopelessly romantic co-worker of mine counts this as her favorite book and she gushes about Anna and Vronsky and how tragic their love is. Everytime Anna comes on the scene I wait to be swept away but to be honest, she kind of annoys me.
She and Vronsky are supposed to have this passionate love affair going but Anna doesn’t really exhibit much in the way of passion and neither does Vronsky, at least not when they are together. Sure, Vronksy gets himself all worked up about seeing Anna, practically stalks her in the beginning until she gives in to him. And Anna, her pulse quickens and she breathes a little faster, she throws propriety to the wind and looks at Vronksy too much and talks to him too long. She tells her husband that she hates him and loathes the sight of him and that she is pregnant with Vronsky’s child and she cries frequently. But there are no declarations of love in hurried whispers we get to overhear, no stolen kisses we get to worry over their being caught at, no love letters we get to read. To me, their relationship has no fireworks.
Oh yes, I feel sorry for Anna, trapped in a loveless marriage to a man twenty or so years older than she is. Mr. Karenin is not a bad man though. He loves and trusts his wife. His fault is being an old, boring bureaucrat and I can’t see that as a fault. I find myself feeling sorry for Mr. K rather than Anna and that just seems like I’m all messed up and there must be something wrong with me for not being caught up in Anna and Vronsky’s romance.
Where I do find the romance is between Levin and Kitty. Shy, hard working Levin who feels socially inferior to Kitty and morally superior to everyone who flits about the mindlessness of high society finally gets up the nerve to ask Kitty to marry him and she turns him down because her mother has her convinced Vronsky is going to marry her. But of course Vronksy is just carrying on a flirtation with no intention of marriage and then completely throws over Kitty when he meets Anna. Levin doesn’t know all this, he goes back to his farm in the country and loses himself in his work. Meanwhile Kitty almost dies of a broken heart.
But one thing leads to another and in spite of misunderstandings and fears of being rejected, Levin and Kitty finally declare their love for each other while playing a letter game one evening at a party. Now that’s romantic!
A few people I know told me to skip the peasant scenes so while I was reading I kept waiting for some long, drawn out, 50 to 100 pages of peasants kind of like the whale processing scenes in Moby Dick (not expecting the peasants to be chopped up and boiled down for blubber but was expecting long, detailed chapters about peasant life). Every time I was with Levin on his farm and he’d begin thinking about agricultural improvements and what not, I’d think, ok, here we go. But it would only last for ten pages or so and I figured that must not be the peasant stuff I am supposed to skip. There have been lots of peasants and farming and talk of improving the labor force and raising production and all that, but it has never really been boring. It’s actually been kind of interesting watching Levin trying to figure out how to get his peasants to buy in to his improvement schemes. Levin has ambitious and radical ideas and he has all of Russian history to fight against. He tries and fails and then tries something else and I find myself admiring him even when he has backward ideas.
I really like the way the book is structured. We get several chapters of Anna’s story and then we switch to Levin and Kitty for several chapters and the book so far is switching back and forth with sometimes Levin meeting Mr. K or Kitty hearing of Vronsky and then there are a bunch of secondary characters moving in and out of all parts of the story. I haven’t noticed whether there is a regular number of chapters given to each, for instance whether Anna gets four chapters and then we get Levin for four chapters before going back to Anna. Instead it seems like the story is broken up in a natural way. Tolstoy doesn’t do cliffhangers, he lets big events play out before changing the scene. Still, I find while I am reading about Levin I wonder what Mr. K and Anna and Vronsky are up to and while I am reading their story I wonder what Levin and Kitty are doing. I like that. I like thinking things continue to happen with characters while I am focusing on certain other ones. That’s good characterization. That’s a good writer and a great story.