First Impressions: Anna Karenina

I’ve had an unread copy of Anna Karenina in my bedroom for about two years now. Last week, I decided to start reading it, bringing to it a hazy conception of the plot and a slight sense of inadequacy stemming from my chronic neglect of Russian novels. At this point, I’ve just started to read Part 2 (of 8), and so far, I am massively enjoying this book.

The main plot of the novel, of course, centers on Anna, an upper-class woman in a loveless marriage, and her disastrous affair with a dashing young army officer, Count Vronsky. In addition, there are several subplots starring the friends and family of both Anna and Vronsky. One of the first characters we meet, for instance, is Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, whose wandering eye threatens to destroy his own family. There’s also Oblonsky’s friend Konstantin Levin, an idealistic farmer who falls madly in love with a girl named Kitty. Poor Kitty was in love with Vronsky before he met Anna, and is left all alone after Levin, stung by her rejection, goes back to the countryside.

A few preliminary thoughts:

  1. For whatever reason, I went into this book expecting Anna to be a mostly unlikeable character. I may have been confusing her with the heroine of Madame Bovary, who, by all accounts, is very spoiled and selfish. So I was surprised when I found myself really liking Anna. Though the last few chapters of Part 1 see her starting to slip, she has, for the most part, been perfectly kind and decent to everyone she meets. Her affection for her young son Seryozha, and for children in general, endears her to me as well. She seems like a sweet person now, so I’m interested to see how my perception of her changes as the story progresses.
  2. I also might be interested to compare Anna’s situation with that of her brother: both are unfaithful to their spouses, but where Anna is publicly shamed and ostracized, Oblonsky, so far, has not suffered at all for his indiscretions. It might also be interesting to compare how Anna and Vronsky are each treated when their affair comes to light.
  3. I know that Anna’s story is going to end unhappily, but I dearly hope that Levin and Kitty’s doesn’t.
  4. Despite the Slavic languages professor who said that no English translation of Anna Karenina is “actively bad,” I still have some misgivings about this one. When I bought it, I didn’t pay much attention to the translator, Constance Garnett. I’ve since learned that, despite her being loved by many an English-reader, Mrs. Garnett is often reviled by native Russian speakers, particularly for her translations of Tolstoy. (Vladimir Nabokov called her translation of Anna “a complete disaster.” So there’s that.) Of course, not knowing Russian, I can’t judge for myself whether this is a good translation or not. Just the same, I’m already planning future rereadings of this book, just to see if I get anything from the other translators that I didn’t get from this one.

Anyway, those are just some tentative thoughts on the novel, pending a full review at some undetermined date in the future. Meanwhile, have any of you read Anna Karenina? What did you think? What translation did you read? Let me know in the comments.

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17 thoughts on “First Impressions: Anna Karenina

  1. I’ve read it, and greatly enjoyed it—but as it was such a long book and I read it several years ago, any detailed opinions have escaped my memory. I mean to re-read it one of these days, and see whether it or War and Peace (which I’ve read twice!) comes out on top as my favorite Tolstoy. I have the Pevear/Volkonsky translations, which are supposed to be some of the best—they’re an English and Russian married couple and translating team. I’m no expert on translations, but I read Dostoevsky in a different translation years back, and then really liked the Pevear/Volksonky versions in comparison when I sampled them afterwards.

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  2. In defense of Ms. Garnett (and against P and V):
    https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/the-pevearsion-of-russian-literature/

    And another for good measure:
    https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/01/the-pevearvolokhonsky-hype-machine-and-how-it-could-have-been-stopped-or-at-least-slowed-down

    This line sums it up for me about P and V: “Imagine someone translating Paradise Lost from English into Russian who had somehow missed that Milton was a Christian.” And Pevear, the ugly American, has gone on record saying he had no desire to visit Russia or better understand Russian culture.

    I was quite happy with the translation of AK I read, which was an updated version of Garnett’s translation published by Modern Library in 2000. I had begun with the P and V translation, but switched to Garnett’s around Part III. My reading experience was greatly improved.

    There’s also a new translation Prof. Morson likes from the past couple years, but I can’t remember the translator

    It should be noted that one of Nabokov’s third rule of translation was “the translator must not be a woman.” I have no respect for Vlad as an author or critic myself, but Garnett has earned my respect for her translations of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. If I could venture a guess, a lot of the anti-Garnett sentiment comes from hostility towards Victorian women rather than the merits of her work.

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    1. I hadn’t read that from Nabokov. I figured a native Russian speaker would know a good translator when he saw one; I didn’t account for the possibility of personal prejudice, though.

      And there’s no arguing with the commentator who said that Ignat Avsey gives a better rendering of the bar tune from Bros. K. 😂

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  3. I’ve not yet read it, but my husband just finished reading it last month, so we watched the BBC version starring a very young (pre-007!) Sean Connery as Vronsky! It was quite intriguing to see how much of the story they could cram into a movie that was less than two hours long, and my husband had several grievances (like the fact that they cut out Levin — he got name-checked once and that’s it), but I enjoyed it pretty well. Enough to make me want to read the book at some point.

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    1. It’s a shame that they got rid of Levin because I’ve really been enjoying his and Kitty’s story so far. I also found him to be a breath of fresh air in the sections dealing with Oblonsky, since Levin seems to be a little more moral and less petty than his friend.

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  4. I read the book a year or so ago – I don’t remember which translation it was – and while there were bits I enjoyed, I found it dragged toward the end and didn’t leave me with any desire to read it again. Oddly, the bit which has stuck with me the most is the description of labour from the husband/father’s point of view – which you probably haven’t got to yet, so I’ll refrain from saying more in case of spoilers.

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    1. If it’s the scene I’m thinking of, I’ve heard that it’s one of the better parts of the book too. Not sure how close or far I am from it, though.

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  5. I read Constance Garrett’s translation of White Nights and it seemed decent. I haven’t read anything else of hers, but I recommend that one.

    The Ocean at the End of the Lane was very good by the way 🙂

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