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:
- 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.
- 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.
- I know that Anna’s story is going to end unhappily, but I dearly hope that Levin and Kitty’s doesn’t.
- 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.