Many Kinds of Love: Anna Karenina

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1873; trans. Rosamund Bartlett, 2014)

AnnaKIf there are as many heads as there are minds, then there must be as many kinds of love as there are hearts. — Anna Karenina

Near the end of Anna Karenina, in Book Seven, there’s an extraordinary passage that concerns the birth of Russian landowner Konstantin Levin’s first child. Tolstoy depicts how Levin experiences his wife being in labor with great power and precision, giving both visceral details and a sort of stream-of-consciousness unfolding of Levin’s inner state. It’s an amazing scene to encounter in a nineteenth century novel, and encapsulates what I think causes so many to find this one of the greatest of all novels: Tolstoy’s ability to embrace and meet the great questions of life head-on, exploring them from all sides and bringing them before us with vivid particularity.

But wait a minute, you say. Isn’t the book about Anna and her doomed affair with Count Vronsky? Who is this Levin person? Knowing only the bare plot summary that is surely familiar to anybody with any acquaintance with world literature, I was surprised to find that Anna herself takes up less than half of the book named after her. The thread concerning Levin — his love and marriage, his struggles with work and family, his spiritual transformation — has more weight and substance, and most significantly it ends in hope rather than despair. I also felt that we came much closer to Levin’s inner life. We never really know why Anna attaches herself so desperately to Vronsky, except that she must have a man to love, even if that love quickly turns into poisonous jealousy. While Levin’s every thought and decision is presented in great detail, we see Anna more often from the outside than the inside.

So why is the book not called Konstantin Levin? Or, as Tolstoy called it in an early draft, Two Marriages? I wondered about this all through my reading. Towards the end it becomes clear that Levin shares Anna’s inner quandary, her inability to live without understanding “what I am and why I am here.” But being a man, he is saved by his work, by his involvement in a world outside of the home. This sustains him until eventually he comes to a kind of epiphany that gives him the power to move into the future. Anna, on the other hand, has abandoned her child for a man whose love dissipates under the force of her need of him, leaving her with nothing. Some see her fate as a patriarchal punishment for that “unwomanly” act. But it can also be seen as representing what will come to us all if we turn away from the living, growing potential within us, and pursue illusory satisfaction elsewhere. This denial of our true self leads to a fragmentation and alienation that again feels startlingly modern in a family chronicle of the late nineteenth century.

Tolstoy lets us into Anna’s mind in her final, desperate, half-crazed moments, in which her loss of self becomes complete.

“Oh yes, is my hair brushed or not?” she asked herself. And she could not remember. She felt her head with her hand. “Yes, I did have my hair brushed, but I have no idea when.” She could not even trust her hand, and went up to the mirror on the wall to see whether her hair had really been brushed or not. She had brushed her hair, but she could not remember who had done it. “Who is that?” she thought, looking in the mirror at the swollen face with the strangely shining eyes which were looking fearfully at her. “Oh, it’s me,” she suddenly realized…

By naming his novel after Anna, perhaps Tolstoy meant to ask us to try to understand her plight, not to condemn and dismiss her as so many other characters do within the novel, but to consider that her story is our story too. We can all make errors and take wrong turnings in life that lead us to forget who we are. What causes one person to rise up against those circumstances, and another to fall? That’s one of the great mysteries that Tolstoy causes us to ponder in his great novel, in the way that fiction most fitly can: not through abstract arguments, but through pictures, through people who become real and living to us as we read.

Quite a few different English translations of Anna Karenina exist. I read the new version by Tolstoy biographer Rosamond Bartlett, which seemed to me a very fine and scrupulous rendering. Bartlett states that she tried to retain some of the seeming verbal awkwardnesses of the original, which have sometimes been smoothed out in other translations, but I found hers highly readable and not at all convoluted or ponderous. Her aim was “to produce a translation which is idiomatic as well as faithful to the original,” and as far as I can tell she has done well. The one exception was her frequent use of the word “jolly,” which sometimes sounds forced to me, but maybe that’s just my American ear. I would love to read another translation for comparison, if you have one to recommend.

Since reading Is That a Fish in Your Ear? I’m ever more fascinated by the challenges and benefits of translation, and more appreciative of those who take on that important, difficult, exciting task. In an interesting article about some of the details of her translation, Rosamund Bartlett concludes, “Translators will keep ascending the towering peaks of world literature, just as there will continue to be assaults on Everest.” I’m grateful that they do, and that they can take us along with them.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Very Long Classic
Classics Club List #31


20 thoughts on “Many Kinds of Love: Anna Karenina

  1. Excellent review! Nicely put that Anna “has abandoned her child for a man whose love dissipates under the force of her need of him…” As you say, the counterpoint story of Levin and Kitty is one of the surprises of reading this novel, whose reputation rests on the force of Anna’s tragedy. I know that for me, it seemed initially distracting, even irritating, to jump to Levin’s interior thoughts so often, but the picture of marriage that the novel offers would be terribly one-sided without it, I finally realized.

    I also appreciated your comments about the translation, and the link to the Guardian article by Rosamund Bartlett–how interesting! I first read the Constance Garnett, and have since begun the Maudes’ translation. Another new translation, by Marian Schwartz and published by Yale University Press, came out at the same time as Bartlett’s. In fact, I remember they were reviewed together in the New York Times. I am liking Schwartz’s version, and was delighted to get a great essay by Gary Saul Morson (“The Moral Urgency of ‘Anna Karenina'”) as the introduction. So, I recommend this one too, when you’re up for another go at it.


  2. This is a really great review! I’m re-reading Anna Karenina in a few weeks and your comments have given me lots to think about as I head into the novel. It’s funny, I never wondered about the title of the book… but I think you’re right that Tolstoy isn’t condemning Anna wholeheartedly, and that perhaps that’s why her tragedy gives the book its title, rather than Levin’s more hopeful story.


  3. A lovely review, and you have me wanting to read the book again. First time around I was so caught up with the story and the characters, and you’ve made me want to meet them again and think more about so many things.

    I read the Maude translation, and I liked it very much. And I like that they’d actually met Tolstoy.


    1. I’m interested in that one as well, for that reason. It was such a very rich and full book, I certainly will need to read it again to ponder more aspects.


  4. Well, I feel smarter just reading your review!

    It’s been a long time since I’ve tackled a book of this weight (metaphorically, anyway–i DID read the first two installments of Song of Ice and Fire this summer), and I am feeling inspired to do so. Now I’ll need to decide if I should re-read an old favorite, or challenge myself to one of those “I’ve always meant to read that” books. Madame Bovary and Vanity Fair are two I never tackled. Dickens and Hardy are my old friends. Any suggestions?


    1. I think both Madame Bovary and Vanity Fair are worth reading, although I didn’t exactly enjoy them, too cynical for me. They would be on my list to try again…but not in the near future. What about George Eliot?


  5. Great commentary Lory.

    I really need to read this book.

    You raise such interesting questions as to how a reader should be, or not be judging Anna.

    Translations are so important, perhaps that is especially so for Russian literature where the prose often is so rich and complex.


    1. I think you need to read this book too! It contains and embraces so much of life.

      We’re fortunate to have so many translations available for Tolstoy, whereas often there is only one option. But then there is the problem of which to choose…


  6. I am not sure anything could convince me to go back and give Tolstoy another try, but this was a really fascinating post anyway. I didn’t know that Levin occupied so much space in Anna Karenina, and was juxtaposed against her struggles in this way. (See, this is how I learn about world literature without actually reading it. :p)


    1. Glad to be of service! Seriously, never having read much about this novel, I was completely surprised that the other story thread was so important. Some people get impatient with it (there’s a lot about Russian farming methods, which some find tedious), but I found it helpful as a balance to Anna’s story.


  7. Lory, this is one of my favorite books! I was recently given a copy of Bartlett’s translation and am very glad to know you enjoyed it: next time around I’ll read it. I am fond of older translations, like the Maude, but they do need to be “reinvented” every few decades for a new generation, I am convinced. The Bartlett doesn’t look very different from the others, but I do notice there is a lot of repetition of the same words on a page, which is part of Tolstoy’s style. Apparently translators have tried to capture this in the 21st century. Am looking forward to the Bartlett (though I only allow myself to reread my favorite books every couple of years)!


    1. Bartlett noted the repetition in Tolstoy’s style in her introduction, but I did not find it distracting in the text. Nor did I find the sentences overwhelmingly long. A very readable translation! I’ll be interested to know what you think if/when you read it.


  8. A very thoughtful review Lory. I haven’t read this one, and had no idea Anna took up only half the story. Your insights into the story is so fascinating – before I felt like, just from what I know of the story through pop culture, I wouldn’t really sympathize with Anna, but your review has made me rethink that. I hope I will make myself read this one day – I am always a little wary of long books, but I haven’t been reading my classics lately, and this one looks like a great one to get back into the habit. 🙂


    1. Pop culture does not do justice to this book — I just saw the recent film and felt it completely distorted Tolstoy’s work by focusing almost exclusively on Anna. If you have the time, it’s definitely good to experience the original.


  9. I loved this book and I really enjoyed reading your review! I’m so excited you enjoyed it too 🙂 Even though Anna only gets about half the space in this book and even though I enjoyed Levin’s story, few characters stand out for me the way Anna does. I find her passion, her beauty, and her tragic story captivating.


    1. You’re right, of course — Anna is the more dramatic character. But I found that she and Levin made a very interesting pair, like two sides of the same coin. I found that balance essential to the impact of the novel.


  10. Your review sums up the novel very well, and I was interested to hear that the novel was originally called Two Marriages. I think what you say about Levin and Anna being very similar is true, and something I had not seen myself.


    1. Tolstoy apparently went through many drafts and several titles — it’s fascinating to read about his process. A lot of the “backstory” of Anna’s character got left out in the final version.


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