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Let’s Get Literal – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 39/100Title: Anna Karenina
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Year: 1878
Country: Russia

Well that was a step up from UlyssesI mean, you would get pages and pages of text that didn’t deviate completely from the main plot line. Okay so that isn’t the highest bar to set when reading a book – but try reading a large tome of Russian fiction between hospital visits and unsuccessful job interviews.

Having read both War and Peace and Anna Karenina I am in the rather cool position of covering both of the big Leo Tolstoy books. Doing a rudimentary comparison between the two books I have to say that I preferred War and Peace. Why would that be?

Simply – it’s the plot lines. For a book called Anna Karenina I was surprised the more of the book wasn’t about her and her story. So much of the book gets bogged down in Levin (who is the Tolstoy surrogate) and his relationship with Kitty that my interest started to wain. In War and Peace all the main threads kept me interested – not so much here.

The thing is, this book would have worked with just the Anna and Vronsky sections – which is what I imagine most of the cinematic adaptations have done. These are the best sections, but even then the whole thing is shrouded by the spectre of punishing the woman who loses her virtue.

It’s one of those tropes that you can spot a mile off in these older books – a woman loses her virtue and she must be punished. It is infuriating. She has an affair because, much like Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, she is bored with her life to the point that she can no longer feel anything.

In the case of both Bleak House and Anna Karenina it’s not like the women have married mean or abusive husbands. It’s just that there is no passion in their lives because the men are more concerned with station and reputation. Both husbands love their wives, but the age gap is so great that the life of the still youthful wife is being wasted.

The love triangle is more sad than romantic in this book. No one ends up happy and no one gets anything they really want. You can see it coming a mile off (especially if you know about that ending), which is what made the Levin and Kitty story rankle with me.

With Levin and Kitty it is meant to be a story of marrying for love despite initial obstacles. However, their relationship isn’t that interesting despite the fact that they have their issues. We also end up with Levin going away from his atheism/agnosticism and reverting to his Christian values because of this relationship – which I know is of it’s time, but that also left a bad taste.

I think I missed something with this book and that is likely because I have not been in the right frame of mind to read something so heavy and, in places, tragic. Then again there aren’t a lot of light reads on this list, so if I want to complete this list I will need to find a way around all that.

For now it’s back to the world of comics as I follow up Hajime no Ippo with a boxing manga from the 1960s.

Let’s Get Literal: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Still writing through dictation only. God, I want my wrist to get better.

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 30/100Title: War and Peace
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Year: 1869
Country: Russia

It has taken me 30 days, but I actually finished War and Peace! Sure finishing off the us Proust epic novel is probably a far greater achievement since it is four times as long, however this was not a slog at all. Actually I think I might have found a book that will rank among my favourites.

This is not in any way, shape or form due to the philosophy or the detailed battle sequences that Tolstoy peppers the novel with. Oh no. I actually did a bit of speedreading to get through some of those sequences. To be honest I did not particularly enjoy Napoleon as a character. So why did I love this? Five words: Pierre, Natasha, Andrei, Mary and Denisov. These five characters will now rank as some of my favourite characters in literature. In particular, and I know that this is common, I adore Pierre.

It pained me to not watch the BBC adaptation of this since I did not want to be spoiled at all. Now that I finished I’ll definitely be watching this. Especially because I think their choice for Pierre was inspired. I have been a fan of Paul Dano since seeing him in Little Miss Sunshine and L.I.E. so I’m keen to see his interpretation.

The great thing about war and peace is that it took the parts of in search of lost time that kept me going and just magnified it. No character is flawless and by a similar token no character is completely flawed. Even Anatole, who is a despicable playboy, is someone you can’t help but pity.

If I were to describe this book as being about how the Russian high society was rocked to its very core by Napoleon’s invasion it would be accurate but miss the point completely. It is so much more than that. In every way is really just about the human condition. I think that is the point. You really do not know the make of a person until they are thrown into crisis. An example of this would be Natasha: she starts off as a giddy and beautiful debutante but by the end she has grown up into a kind and sensitive woman. She becomes a stark contrast to her mother the countess who is easily upset at the prospect of living her life in less comfort, but does nothing to remedy the situation. There is a section where she would rather take a few more rugs than spare a cart to save the lives of Russian soldiers.

The central figure of this is undoubtedly Pierre. I fell for him almost immediately as I guess I could identify with him as being the oddball and finding it hard to relate to those around him. The best thing about him is that he tries. He is very opinionated, rather lustful and enjoys his fair share of alcohol, but there is always that part of him who wants to be better. This leads to his fleeting and membership of the Freemasons after his marriage collapses on itself (not his fault completely as she was a bit too close to her brother). As characters go he goes on one hell of a journey in terms of physical, emotional, spiritual and geographic. The man he is on the other side is still very much him, but maybe one who is a bit closer to the truth.

The version that I read Anglicised some of the names. For example Nikolai became Nicholas and Andrei became Andrew. So when I was talking about this with my mum who was watching the TV show there was a bit miscommunication going on. I adored his translation because of all the helpful footnotes and yet I felt a bit cheapened because of these English names.

I’ve yet to read Anna Karenina. However, I know about how it ends. So I was reading this book with an incredible amount of trepidation. The body count is high since this is war, but apart from a few exceptions I was very happy with how this book ended. Scratch that I was bloody relieved. There is a scene where Pierre is on the brink of being executed and I was so desperate for this not to be the way ended for him. I should have known better as he is the Tolstoy surrogate, but I kept thinking of that damned train.

I know that this is a book where a lot of people get put off because of the ridiculous length. This is not feel like one of the longest books ever written. I regret that I was able to finish it so quickly. There is a scene nearly halfway through that describes how this book made me feel. It is winter and the Rostov family are having a party where Natasha, Andrei, Sonya and Petya are dressing up. It felt like such a warm slice of life that you could just nuzzle down into. That was this book. Sure there was tragedy and heartbreak, but that is life. I just felt that over the course of the month I got to know some truly spectacular people and now, for the time being, they’re out of my life again. Maybe one day I will get around to reading this again.