Last autumn, I took a class called “The Great Novel,” which quickly became the best class of my college career. The professor conducted the class as if it was a grad-school-level course, but every moment of the class and every page read was completely worth the hard work and intellectual exhaustion. In that class, we read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. At first, I hated the book. I thought it was slow, boring, and heavy-handed. But as the book went on, I fell in love. War and Peace might be the greatest novel I have ever read (although I’m still reserving the right of favorites to The Great Gatsby). Of course, Tolstoy did not consider his magnum opus to actually be a novel. It was so complex, so long and involved and busting at the seams with humanity, that he thought it defied category. Which, trust me, it does.
Tolstoy actually considered his first novel to be Anna Karenina. Before “The Great Novel,” I never had much ambition to read Anna. I already knew what happened at the end, and I knew the book worked in the same plane as Madame Bovary, which I read a few years ago. But after reading War and Peace, I was unable to get Tolstoy’s writing out of my head. The way he enters into the existence of every single character is unlike anything I’ve read before. I needed more. It was no secret in the English Department that the favorite book of my “Great Novel” professor was Anna Karenina. In fact, it was something of a running joke there. So I knew that book needed to be my first summer read.
So after three weeks of amazement, occasional boredom, and a lot of “fuckin’ Tolstoy” moments, I finally finished the book a few days ago. And I have to admit, I like War and Peace better. The characters of War and Peace were more attractive to me than the characters here, who were often frustrating to understand. I “got” them, but they were often so untrustworthy as characters and people that I couldn’t enjoy every moment I spent with them. But because the details and the flashes of extreme humanity in both all its glory and grossness were so perfect, I still admired the book greatly. Tolstoy is just so damn good at getting into every inch of a situation, a person, a moment. He’s an obsessive God, constructing every perfect inch of his novel and then going all-out to make us see his world. It’s ridiculous, and I will probably envy the way he shows us his entire imagination until the day I die.
But here’s the problem with Tolstoy: he has opinions. A lot of them. And he’s not afraid to nearly destroy an otherwise good book with them. The epilogues of War and Peace were so overcooked in Tolstoy’s “philosophies” that I could hardly stomach them. It’s his constant intellectual probing that makes his novels so good, and yet at the same time, it’s what so often turns readers off of him. It’s a prickly area for me when someone mentions Tolstoy. How can I love him so much as a writer, as an observer of people and place, but hate him so much as an ideologue? Tolstoy was the kind of person who honestly believed that listening to Beethoven could lead to a life full of wantonness and sexual destruction. He both loved and hated religion and spirituality. He was a bit of a misogynist, even though what people consider his greatest literary creation, Anna Karenina, was a woman. As a contemporary reader, it’s a little hard to get behind this kind of writer.
So how do I deal with my love/hate relationship with Tolstoy? The same way I deal with friends and family members; I try to love him despite all his faults. It’s hard at times. (All I have to do is think about the epilogues of War and Peace and my blood starts to boil). But a writer who so perfectly describes thoughts and emotions that every person has felt or understood at some point cannot be brushed aside. He gets so into the thick of human existence that it’s impossible to hate him as a writer and as a person. Do I want to punch him in his bearded face every time I read him? Yes. But I also want to kiss him and worship at his feet. The only way I can deal with Tolstoy is by getting over the bad and looking at the good. Because, Holy Shit, there is soooo much good in Tolstoy’s work.
Which brings me back to Anna Karenina. Despite my frequent frustration with the book and its characters, there were too many beautiful moments and sentences in it for me to discount it as a masterpiece. Here’s just a few amazing pieces:
- how Tolstoy describes a new parent’s pride after a newborn’s first sneeze
- the scene between Anna and her son, which is one of the most moving passages of literature I think I’ve ever read
- this: “Kitty did in fact conceal her new views and feelings from her mother. She concealed them not because she did not respect or love her other, but simply because she was her mother. She would have revealed them to any one sooner than to her mother.” Even 150 years ago, despite being a man, Tolstoy understood young girls didn’t think their mothers knew anything. (And if you’re reading this, Mom, of course Tolstoy’s wrong).
- Vronsky and Anna’s visit to the painter
- Levin reaching out to God when his wife’s in labor; gorgeously written
- the passage where Levin mows with the peasants
- most of all, the last few chapters before Anna’s [SPOILER ALERT] suicide, where Tolstoy completely enters her frantic mind; incredible
So there you have it. I wouldn’t necessarily go around recommending Anna Karenina to everyone (although I certainly plead that everyone try Tolstoy at least once), but I still enjoyed it as it was.
And now, onto something a little more fun….
Books Mentioned: Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (translated by Constance Garnett)
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace