Sunday, March 10, 2013
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in it's own way."
The first sentence of Anna Karenina is still one of the most recognized opening lines in world literature. Considered by many to be one of the "best novels" ever written, this epic work was originally published as installments in The Russian Messenger over the span of two years (1875-1877). This novel contains all the necessary ingredients for a modern-day soap opera or cable TV series- love, family, betrayal, marriage, scandal, and forgiveness. Yet, this story is anything but trite melodrama.
I recently spent two months reading all 923 pages of this sprawling masterpiece (Modern Library Edition). It was the perfect tome to hunker down with for the cold, snowy days of a Northern Michigan winter. Although the book was written almost 140 years ago, it is still surprisingly relevant, in many respects, for contemporary readers. It is a classic piece of literature that didn't feel like a chore to read. It definitely was not like One Hundred Years of Solitude. At least not for me.
As the title suggests, the character of Anna Karenina is the focal point of this fictional story. However, the novel is really about so much more than the consequences of one aristocratic woman's adulterous affair. Tolstoy's artistic prose weaves together a large and complex tapestry of characters, themes and plot lines, all set against the backdrop of late nineteenth century Russian society. In reading this book, at times it did feel somewhat like reading an op-ed piece. Tolstoy shared his own opinions- through the voices of the seven main characters- to expound upon his personal musings and moral beliefs about many of the most controversial topics of the day. He argues, for example, about such things as the virtues of rural vs urban life; or the distinction between class and society; faith and religion; as well as the emerging role (emancipation) of women in society. Anna, his tragic heroine, is made the poster child for what could happen if a woman stepped outside her "role" of wife, mother, caretaker.
Anna Karenina is a beautiful, emotional and insightful commentary on life. Read it for the love stories. Read it for the history. Read it to simply savor the language. It just might be one of the best books ever written.