Thursday, February 07, 2008

Book Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

"Faith is an oasis in the heart which will never be reached by the caravan of thinking."
Kahlil Gibran

At the end of Anna Karenina, this quote by Gibran seems a good summary of the novel that many call the world's greatest.

It took me a fair amount of time to read the sprawling epic set in Russia before her revolution. As a writer, I often thought it could be enhanced by better editing. The repetitions in it served to make it longer than necessary while not adding to the story line, and at times, it seemed an impossible task to get through.

However, I love character-driven stories that show "why" more than "what." Anna Karenina is all about the "why" the characters act as they do. Set in Russia before its Revolution, Anna Karenina is a true psychological study of not only the Russian people and their society, but societal and personal issues of all mankind.

Following the story of a married woman disenchanted by her dull life and marriage who steps out of bounds to seek passion, Anna Karenina shows the effects not only on herself, but on those she left behind and on all those who love her. At the same time, we have a story of the wealthy class versus the laborers, and the faithful versus the faithless and the searching. We have views of the government from the inside and out, of the arts, of philosophers, and of both men and women.

Tolstoy puts himself in the novel as one of the characters, with much of the story imitating his lfe. He was writing what he knew. Levin's thoughts are his. Many of the events are real events, fictionalized. This, somehow, makes it feel all more legitimate. The swaying emotions of the story are so passionate and true that it does have a tendency to exhaust the reader at times. Still, we remain pulled in by the unending action, the closeness of the characters who are vivid enough to be as real to us as they were to Tolstoy, and the truths revealed along the way.

Tolstoy was a well-educated man, but he did not stop at book learning. He went beyond, pondering the difference between book learning and real life experience, and laying all of that pondering out for us in the novel. There is no moral slapping us in the face and no judgment of any of the characters. They are who they are and we learn from who they are and how it affects their lives.

This is a story of love, of society, of faith, of doubt, and of truth. It should be required reading for all high school seniors before they enter the world where their decisions will be affecting all of us.

My favorite quotes from the book:

In the discussions which took place between the brothers on their views of the peasantry, Koznyshev was always victorious, precisely because he had definite ideas about the peasant -- his character, his qualities, and his tastes -- while Levin had no definite and fixed views on the subject, and so in their arguments Levin was readily convicted of contradicting himself. (pg.258)

The better he knew his brother, the more he noticed that Kaznyshev, and many other people who worked for the welfare of the public, were not led by an impulse of the heart to care for the public good, but had reasoned out in their minds that it was a right thing to take interest in public affairs, and consequently took interest in them. (pg.259)

God gave the day, God gave the strength for it. And the day and the strength were consecrated to labour, and that labour was its own reward. For whom the labour? What would be its fruits? These were idle considerations beside the point. (pg.297)

Levin maintained that the mistake of Wagner and his followers lay in trying to make music enter the domain of another art, just as poetry goes wrong when it tries to depict the features of a face, which is the function of painting. (pg. 717)

I assume that a salary is a payment for value received, and should conform to the law of supply and demand. If that law be ignored when fixing a salary -- as, for instance, when I see two engineers leaving college together, both equally well trained and efficient, and one getting forty thousand while the other is content with two; or when hussars and graduates of the law schools, having no special qualifications, are appointed directors of banking societies with gigantic salaries -- I conclude that these salaries are not determined in accordance with the law of supply and demand but simply through personal influence. And this is an abuse of great gravity in itself, and one which has an injurious effect on the Government service. (pg.754)

So it is with the unanimity of the Press. It's been explained to me: as soon as there is a war their circulation is doubled. How can they help considering that the fate of the people and the Slavonic races ... and all the rest of it? (pg.844)

When Levin puzzled over what he was and what he was living for, he could find no answer and fell into despair; but when he left off worrying about the problem of his existence he seemed to know both what he was and for what he was living, for he acted and lived resolutely and unfalteringly. (pg.824)

I was in search of an answer to my question. But reason could not give an answer to my questions -- reason is incommensurable with the problem. The answer has been given me by life itself, through my knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. And this knowledge I did not acquire in any way: it was given to me as it is to everybody -- given, because I could not have got it from anywhere. (pg.832)

-- Note: page numbers refer to the 1978 edition by Penguin Classics entitled Anna Karenin, London, England.

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