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I like big books.

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina - Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear, Leo Tolstoy Reading (and re-reading) the 10 best novels of the 19th century.

Part 1: Anna Karenina

While I moaned and complained throughout the reading of this book, I can't deny it's literary power. This isn't a book I'd pick up to read to pass the time. You need a sense of mission or purpose when sitting down with it. It unfolds like a train wreck in painfully slow motion. Beautifully narrated at times, it can become a bit tedious in its laborious detail. I think it's also getting harder and harder for literate audiences to identify with the wealthy courting culture of the great European societies, where characters claim poverty when their annual income is cut to middle-class levels and "destitution" means having oysters and champagne fewer times a month.

That being said, Tolstoy captures the human condition better than ANY other author I've ever read. The novel captures the petty jealousies, flights of fancy and profoundly dumb social strictures that bind us, make us do dumb things and prevent us from achieving true happiness and it does so in such simple and straightforward language you kind of have to wonder how lame and literally incompetent you are that you've lived thirty years without finding the correct words to express the same ideas and sentiments. What is amazing is that in spite of the work's length, it shows surprisingly intricate structure. The fact that it was serialized in its initial publication makes that fact all the more impressive.

By sheer coincidence, I'm also reading Edmund Morris's brilliant Theodore Roosevelt biography The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and just finished a chapter that contained a review of Anna Karenina by Roosevelt in a letter to his sister from his Dakota ranch. In it, he professes his dislike of Anna herself and how disagreeable he thought the interweaving of Anna and Levin's stories were, being only tangentially related - going so far as to suggest that they should have been two separate novels. He did, however, find that Tolstoy showed remarkable restraint by not judging his characters when they did good or bad things, and merely related them as immutable and painful facts so ordinary to the human condition. As much as I admire and respect Teddie, I have to disagree on all counts. There's a purposeful and masterful duality of structure in the story that is meant to contrast the choices Anna makes and her fall from grace with the rise of Levin, not necessarily in material fortune, but most definitely in spiritual ones. Seeing his life unfold makes the changes occurring in Anna's all the more pitiful and painful. While it's true that he does avoid moralizing, Tolstoy most definitely means to show the reader the profoundly unhappy consequences of Anna's illicit affair and the happiness brought to Levin in the end by his industriousness and morally upright life.

The strength of this novel lies in the passages between rather than the chapters and the progression of the plot. Even though his characters are rich beyond most modern reader's comprehension, they suffer, triumph and revel in the same basic things. They find profundity in a blue country sky and a day of physical labor, they're at times feckless and frantic, read too much into things, get lost in their own thoughts and build mental prisons for themselves, all rendered in such splendidly vivid detail that you can't help seeing bits and pieces of yourself in almost every one of the characters. It's awkward, shocking, revelatory and kind of disgusting when you realize you've been through and probably thought some of the same crazy things, but in the end, it's genius. Tolstoy well-deserves his place on the pinacle of the all-time best lists.

On to #2, Madame Bovary. 8|