It’s a major commitment to read an epic novel these days, and I don’t do it as often as I did in my younger days. I can’t say my attention span hasn’t shortened in recent years due to various factors, and the task of reading an 850-page novel seemed daunting. But I’ve never read Tolstoy and every serious reader must at some point.
My copy of Anna Karenina has been sitting untouched on my bookshelf for years. I’ve eyed it a few times, and even picked it up once and read a page or two, but I didn’t go further. Until I did.
Perhaps unearned, I feel a sense of pride for simply having read this novel. Night after night, a half-hour here, an hour there, I’d chip away at the pages, at times intimidated by the slow going and the remaining length, but always looking forward to continuing.
But enough about me. What about Anna Karenina?
It was highly enjoyable and for the most part easy reading, especially compared to fellow Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky (CRIME AND PUNISHMENT). The storylines are simple and familiar: an extramarital affair between Anna and the dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky, which causes a scandal in St. Petersburg upper crust social circles and leads to Anna’s isolation, madness, and eventual tragic ending; paired with a second plot of wealthy rural landowner Levin finally landing the girl of his dreams, Kitty, after first having been rejected by her.
The novel was published in 1878, at a time of great economic and social changes in Russia, which are debated at length among a host of characters, all of them from the upper class of society. These are the people that own estates and horses and fine clothes and employ servants, nurses, and coachmen; and who travel abroad and have few cares other than the torments inside their own heads.
It’s those torments—the deep psychological penetration into the characters’ psyches—that make this novel stand out and likely spawned thousands of imitators. I’ve read dozens of contemporary social drama novels with similar structure and plotlines, although definitely shorter. I’d like to think Anna Karenina launched a new genre that continues to thrive today.
If you’re into a big reading project, one that will test your attention and commitment, yet entertain you along the way, introduce you to 19th-century Russian society, and prod your thinking, you would do well picking up Anna Karenina. If you can lift it. Me, I’m ready for something a bit shorter now, back in my 300-page sweet spot.