When it comes to Christmas and birthday gifts, I’m very easily pleased. And so when my cousin Hal asked for present suggestions prior to my annual visit to Yorkshire, I emailed him with the names of the books I had left to read from the Top 100 and was delighted to receive copies of Bleak House, David Copperfield and Anna Karenina. While I can’t say I wasn’t slightly unnerved by the size of the three books – all of which are over 800 pages – I was looking forward to ticking them off my list in due course.
And so it was that having finished Alone in Berlin I decided to begin Anna Karenina. In order to complete the BBC Big Read by February 2016 I need to read two complete novels a month, and figured I might as well try and get one of the big ones out of the way at the beginning of the year. The first Russian novel I’ve ever attempted, i knew nothing of the story and was slightly concerned – as I often am when dipping my toe in new literary territory – that it would be a long, hard slog.
How wrong I was. Published in serial installments from 1873 to 1877 in the periodical The Russian Messenger, Anna Karenina is widely regarded as one of the greatest works of literature, with American writer William Faulkner describing the novel as ‘the best ever written’.
Generally considered Tolstoy’s best novel, Anna Karenina is set in 19th century Russia and tells the tale of the doomed love affair between the sensuous protagonist after whom the books is named, and dashing officer, Count Vronsky. Opening with one of the most famous lines in literature; “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” the reader is immediately drawn in to a tangled web of adultery, loveless marriages and finely interwoven stories that weave their way through the tale.
When Anna Karenina first appears in the novel, she is visiting her brother Stiva Oblonsky, whose wife Dolly has just discovered his affair with their children’s nanny. Such a scandal, however, pales in comparison to Count Vronsky’s pursuit of Anna, who eventually risks everything; including both her reputation and her relationship with her son, to embark on an affair with the Count.
The story is a beautiful one; a page-turner to the very end; its climax, a tragic one. It’s easy to see why Dostoevsky called Anna Karenina flawless; indeed it very nearly is.