I’m rereading Anna Karenina, inspired by the blogger A Work in Progress, who is on her first read of the masterpiece–lucky gal! I’ve read this several times and will seize any excuse to read it again. When I first discovered it, I neglected all my classes for a month and toted it along with my heavy lexicons so I could read it on the Pentacrest between classes. I gushed about AK to all my friends, but the only fellow Tolstoy nut I met was a library circulation clerk who recommended the great Maude translation, which had been condoned by Tolstoy.
The first 100 pages are so exquisitely symmetrical and balanced, pellucid with vibrant portraits of the dozens of characters, rich with episodes of daily life, and baroque with romantic complications intertwined with foreshadowings of tragedy, that I see no reason to dabble in Joyce or Broch: Tolstoy is the great pre-modern artist; I just keep reading Tolstoy.
The novel opens with Tolstoy’s vivid rendering of the chaos in the Oblonsky household caused by Stiva’s affair with the ex-governess. His wife Dolly has discovered a note from the governess in a pocket and says she will leave him.
There’s the famous beginning sentence:
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The household is in confusion. Anna Karenina, Stiva’s sister, travels to Moscow to negotiate peace between the husband and wife. And she is such a lovely person that all are charmed by her: Dolly, who appreciates her kindness, is won over, though there is something in the Karenina household she dislikes; the Oblonsky children crawl all over their aunt, either because they love her or because she is nice to their mother; and Dolly’s sister, Kitty, a beautiful, lively young woman who has just declined a proposal from a kind, honest, blunt landowner, regards Anna as an ideal older sister/ role model. Dolly and Stiva make peace due to Anna’s efforts.
Kitty expects Vronsky, a charming rake, to propose to her at the next ball. Vronsky, alas, is infatuated with Anna. When the charming, naive Kitty arrives at the ball, she senses there is something wrong between Anna and Vronsky. Anna seems displeased, rushes off with the dancing director, and snubs Vronsky. But later Kitty perceives their intimacy and is crushed.
Although Tolstoy disapproved of Anna, the rest of us do not. He drew a rich, complicated, intelligent, sensual woman whose sad marriage sends her into the underworld of 19th century women who live with lovers.
I have three translations of AK: my old Constance Garnett edition is illustrated by Fritz Eichenberg.
Oh dear: which translation to read?