A great story marred by little things

(This review of Anna Karenina is edited down from the 2,224-word post I wrote for my old Angelfire site around 2004.)

My translation: 4 stars

Overall rating: 4.5 stars

Translation issues, summed up:

The Louise and Aylmer Maude translation is dreadful. They “translate” names, refuse to use superdiminutives like Katyenka and Dolyenka, use inaccurate transliteration (e.g., Alesha instead of Alyosha), use Russian measurements without properly explaining their conversions in footnotes, and employ outdated language like “to-morrow.”

Particularly goofy is when Levin starts calling Kitty “Kate” after he realises she’s a full, mature woman. Did the Maudes think the nickname Katya were too foreign and confusing for Anglophone readers?!

Tolstoy’s actual material:

This book is for the most part very well-written, but there are parts I could’ve done without—Levin diddering about on his estate, shooting birds, mowing grass, planting crops, pontificating about agriculture, philosophy, and religion; Vronskiy’s horse race; the voting; and the death of Levin’s profligate brother.

Anna and Vronskiy are very draw to one another since meeting, dance all night at a ball, and have engrossing private conversations, but we’re given no motivation for their feelings and illicit affair.

Their so-called love story is rather unconvincing, since it doesn’t delve into their motivations or feelings for one another on a deep level. For two people having an affair, we don’t get any insight into their hearts and minds!

I was disgusted Levin is 32 to Kitty’s 18 when the book starts. Kitty’s also in love with 30-year-old Vronskiy, though he doesn’t realise it and breaks her heart by leaving town. However, Kitty and Levin really did seem to be in love later on and trying to make a happy family.

We know Levin loves Kitty and why, but we don’t get any motivation into why she loves him and accepts his second marriage proposal. I don’t buy a teen girl being head over heels for a guy in his thirties.

Levin talks it over with her dad, and decides to show her his diaries before the marriage so she’ll know all of him. In spite of her religiosity, she doesn’t mind he’s an agnostic, but finding out he’s not a virgin makes her weep. Come on, he’s 33 or 34. It’s hard to believe anyone that old would be a virgin.

Kitty’s family and Levin try to set Kitty’s 20-year-old friend Varyenka up with Levin’s 40-year-old halfbrother Sergey. I was supremely glad when Sergey decided against it, wanting to stay true to the memory of a tragic romance.

The title character only occupies about half the book. Levin’s story is an interesting subplot, but I expect a book carrying a character’s name to be mostly about her. Levin is boring when he’s musing about agriculture, religion, philosophy, and politics. He also starts obsessing about how it’d be better if he were dead.

He’d rather live like a peasant than a rich man. At the beginning of the book, he’s resigned from his seat on his local Zemstvo because he’s sick of politics.

Anna goes mad and becomes depressed. She’s shunned and avoided; spoken of as a vile, terrible woman; left hanging by her jerk husband over whether he’ll grant her a divorce; and legally denied rights to her son. Her husband is legally considered the father of the baby she had with Vronskiy, which means he can take her if anything happens to Anna.

Vronskiy is rather insensitive to the entire situation. He isn’t treated like a pariah. He gets to keep all of his old friends and hangouts. People don’t slander him in the streets or run away from him. He doesn’t seem to grasp what all this is doing to her. He thinks she’s selfish and unreasonable to demand he spend more time with her and be considerate of her feelings.

The famous scene with the train only ends Part Seven, not the entire book. For the next fifty pages, Anna’s barely mentioned. We barely gauge anyone’s reactions to what she did.

The ending was a complete cop-out and very disappointing. It’s supposed to tie up Levin and Kitty’s story, with him struggling to overcome his aversion to making a family life over his morbid musings about death and his boring ones about agriculture. However, I don’t buy Levin suddenly having an epiphany and getting religious faith, after spending the entire book as an agnostic.

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7 thoughts on “A great story marred by little things

  1. I’ve known people in their thirties (and forties, and beyond, who were virgins… particularly older women, but a few men; one of my best friends … he died a few years ago from a freak accident was at 47… it’s not impossible, but very unlikely, and it definitely sets up the person as a bit of an odd duck).

    That said… clearly some of this was autobiographical whether Tolstoy intended it to be or not. Noble by birth, he plowed his own fields and lived as the peasants did. The world we live in now is a very different one socially than it was in his day as well. I remember my grandmothers and mother always talking about how much more attractive and desirable older men were. My father’s father was almost twenty years older than my grandmother, and she always talked about what a strong, handsome man he was. The fact that he was established in a home, had a solid job, and she’d known him since childhood as a close family friend probably helped. They had four children together, parted on when he died, and she never even had anything close to another relationship, barely more than hand-holding until over ten years later.

    It sounds a bit like you’re seeing an old story with slightly modernized glasses. And… who knows, maybe the translators messed up more than names…

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    • My original review had some passages about how it was obvious Tolstoy’s own religious feelings and conversion played into the book. Though even taking that into account, the end still seems unrealistic to me, since there was nothing so much as hinting at this religious epiphany for the entire 700+ previous pages. It seems too deus ex machina.

      I’ll definitely admit my own personal feelings on age-gap relationships starting when the younger party is below a certain age do color my reaction to reading about them in older books. I always liked guys in my same grade, and then discovered my attraction to younger men my senior year of high school. (The first guy was only a year and seven months younger, and one grade below me.) I personally was never into older guys at all, though I know that puts me in a rather small minority of women. From what I’ve read, larger age-gap relationships historically were more common on the U.S. frontier and in high society/royalty, though there were obvious exceptions. It’s one of those things I have to admit is a personal stumbling-block, in spite of knowing how it was more common in previous generations.

      Some of my favorite famous couples did have large age gaps, like Charles and Oona Chaplin (36 years) and Harpo and Susan Marx (20 years). I’m also following a really cool age-gap couple on YouTube, with the wife 53 years older than the husband (though she looks about 20 years younger, and he looks like he’s about 30).

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      • Neat… I never actually went looking into the possibilities of various age relationships. I just knew some age differences just “worked” and older men seemed to be the way it way for a while (which never made sense to me, since usually women live longer even if you take out war and infancy deaths into account).

        I didn’t see your original review… now it all make a bit more sense. And yeah, I’ve read a few of Tolstoy’s shorter works that were like that. Almost as if he lost focus in the center and then realized he needed to wrap things up quickly.

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  2. Translations are often disappointing, but since I can’t read anything in Russian, I have to accept the translator’s version. You, a least, can pinpoint the issues. The last I remember of Anna Karenina is a late night my junior year in college when I had to finish that story for a test the next day. After reading your review, I can see why I face-planted before The End.

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  3. I haven’t read this book and didn’t really know anything about it, so this was an eye-opener. Sounds like it can be frustrating in places, but a lot of older books can be. Sometimes you have to treat them as a capsule of the time they were written in rather than something truly timeless, and that can be interesting.

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  4. You know what it reinforces to me? The different of writing in the now, versus back in the day when it was so difficult to edit anything. I see that most my old classical reads, but there’s a level of forgiveness for it. I think the most interesting part is the mentality you see from another time period. The way each of the characters interacted with society might be something that agitates the heck out of our modern sensibilities, but they were true to the time. Unfortunately.

    Meanwhile, I LOVE the new look of your blog. Super nice.

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