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Anna Karenin

by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy's Anna Karenin is one of the finest novels ever written.
Published by Penguin, Norton 1876,  ISBN 0140440410 [Book,Kindle]
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Anna Karenin (sometimes translated Anna Karenina) was completed by Leo Tolstoy (1828 - 1910) in 1876 and is considered by many to be one of the greatest novels ever written. Its popularity is evident today by its presence on the shelves of even small bookstores and a steady stream of film adaptations.

The English translation of the first sentence is:

"All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion." (Rosemary Edmunds translation)

This sentence in essence poses the main thesis for investigation in the novel. Tolstoy provides an interlocking profile of three marriages and a relationship, each with its own distinct character. As the opening sentence implies, some of the relationships are more harmonious than others.

Tolstoy was a master of depicting character - a few pages into the story and Oblonsky comes to life for the reader. The same is true of Ann, Kitty, Levin, and all of the other main characters. Tolstoy often achieves an immediate characterization by describing one character through the eyes of another, as in the early description of Kitty through Levin's love-struck eyes:

When he thought abpout her, he could conjure up a vivid picture of her whole appearance and especially the charm of her little fair head, poised so lightly on the shapely girlish shoulders, and the expression of child-like serenity and goodness. That child-like innocence of expression, together with the slender beauty of her figure, made up her special charm, which he always remembered; but what struck him afresh every time was the look of her gentle, tranquille, honest eyes and, above all, her smile, which never failed to transport him into some enchanted world, where his heart softened and he felt full of peace - as he remembered feeling on rare occassions in his early childhood. (Part 1, Chapter 9).

Anna Karenin has enough dramatic, historical, philosophical, theological, and aesthetic content to keep scholars busy for another hundred years. For me, it is Levin's search to find a place in the universe that resonates best with me, perhaps because I think Tolstoy shared some of his own struggles and joys through the eyes of Levin.

Tolstoy often captured moments of altered perception, such as in the description of Levin mowing hay:

The longer Levin mowed, the oftener he experienced whose moments of oblivion when it was not his arms which swung the scythe but the scythe seemed to mow of itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, as though by magic, without a thought being given to it, the work did itself regularly and carefully. Those were the most blessed moments. (Part 3, Chapter 5).

This describes an almost Zen-like flow. Marvelous!

I have told friends that if they could read only one book in their lifetime, Anna Karenin would be it. Time will tell if it holds its position in my heart.

I am familiar with two English translations: The Rosemary Edmunds translation published by Penquin Books and the Louise and Alymer Maude translations published by Norton Critical Editions. Evaluating translations is a career in itself. My impression is that the Edmunds translation reads slightly smoother but that the Maude translation may be closer to the original Russian. The Norton Critical Edition has more background information and commentary aimed at Literary Scholars.

These and other translations are often available at new and used bookstores. You can also order either of the two translations through the links below.

Book,Kindle reviewed by Greg Dixon
Sunday, July 25, 1999

Please see or or Kindle Store for online ordering, sample pages, and more reviews for Anna Karenin


Subject keywords: literature classic tolstoy russian 19th century