There must be a reason why a late 19th century book spanning over 700 pages still charms its readers. And the reason would become obvious as soon as you read it, or any of Leo Tolstoy’s work, for that matter.
First, let’s talk briefly about Leo Tolstoy’s writing. There is a good chance that you are going to read the English translation, but even if you read it in Russian, you would find how Tolstoy weaves the complexity of details in the background of simplicity. His writing is crispy clear and reveals the naked truth.
But… this is still not the most impressive part of his writing. What separates Tolstoy from many of the writers of his generation (and generations after that), is how deeply he understands the psychology of his characters and allows the readers to experience his characters’ lives. The idea is to create empathy. Tolstoy firmly believed that the purpose of art (or literature) cannot be mere amusement or storytelling, but it has to lead people into better understanding of this world. This, he achieves by putting his reader in the shoes of different characters so that the reader could develop empathy instead of passing moral a judgement.
To count Anna Karenina among the finest works of literature would not be an overstatement. In fact, many would also include Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but that part we will discuss some other time.
What is it about?
Anna Karenina, which could be considered a romantic tragedy revolves around the life and the romantic conflicts of its major character Anna Karenina. She finds herself trapped between the social norms which expect her to stay faithful to her husband Karenin, and her love for another man called Vronsky. And there is a parallel story of another couple (Levin and Kitty) and their struggles. The story revolves around different characters and their points of view – which gives its readers some interesting insights to human emotions.
What happens then?
Sorry. We don’t write any spoilers. You will have to read the book for that.
How should one read Anna Karenina?
Now, that is a good question. The fact that it is a lengthy read can put off some readers. But, here is what you can do: Do not try to stretch yourself while reading this book. Go slowly. The very idea of art is to hold you in a moment. And Tolstoy does that beautifully. He slows time for you, while he presents the fine details and gives multiple perspectives. His art, in that sense, is more like life – you experience every moment of it, and although, you are having a fulfilling experience, yet you would have the curiosity to know what is going to happen next.
But, why should one read it?
The question is not silly, but its timing is. Anyway, there are a number of reasons one should read Anna Karenina. First of all, as said before, it is not just a piece of art but a rich experience in itself. A writer once commented, “whatever Tolstoy lacks in art, he compensates it with life.”
Secondly, the novel gives a deep insight to human relationships and the psychological state of individuals. Of course, the former is based upon latter, but the way these two are intertwined and guide one’s life can be observed through this book. At one point, even a dog’s point of view has been mentioned and it does not feel unnatural at all. This tells the range of Tolstoy’s writing and how well he can adapt to his character’s mindset.
When you are reading Anna Karenina, you live an alternate life. You see the rich life of a village. You experience the static urban settings. You hear people laugh and scream. You watch them suffer. You understand their struggles and journeys to overcome those struggles. You live alongside the characters and experience the richness of life.
A great novel heals. Which is exactly what Anna Karenina does. While the characters go through a lot of pain and suffering, we empathise with them and learn the hard lessons of life. We do not judge those characters, instead, we sit with them and see them experience the same pain that we once suffered. It helps one in healing its old wounds.
The novel flows like a stream of river. Flawlessly and beautifully. In the words of William Faulkner, “it is the best ever written novel.”