For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love. Even though it’s a very Russian novel that occasionally addresses problems in that country during the nineteenth century, it appeals to modern-day readers because Tolstoy’s works show that the events that have the greatest impact on our lives are not the major ones, but the ordinary, everyday ones. But unlike Tolstoy’s other magnum opus, War and Peace, Anna Karenina is much more straightforward in getting that point across.
Yet, it’s not a perfect novel. This statement may surprise those who have heard it declared not just one of the greatest, but the greatest novel ever written. For the most part, the novel is brilliant in its depiction of the lives and loves of the two main characters—Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin and, of course, Anna Arkadyevna Karenin—who end up taking different moral and spiritual paths. However, one cannot help but feel that, after a while, Anna is just a supporting character in her own story.
That story begins when her brother, Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky, or Stiva, asks her to come to his home in Moscow to help him with his marital problems. Stiva’s wife, Dolly, discovered that her husband had been unfaithful to her, and now refuses to talk to him. Even though she is able to convince her friend to forgive Stiva, Anna herself is not exactly in a state of marital bliss. She’s no longer content with her husband, Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, and is looking for the kind of romance one finds in the novels she enjoys reading.
Dolly’s sister, Kitty, is also looking for the same kind of romance, which is why she gets excited when she thinks an officer named Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky is going to propose to her. Before he does, though, Levin, who has been a great friend of Kitty’s family ever since childhood and truly loves her, asks her first. Because Levin is not part of the high society that Kitty belongs to, she declines his proposal. Her mother, a princess, also believes that Vronsky would make a better match for his daughter.
However, Vronsky starts pursuing Anna after meeting her at a train station. At first, she spurns his advances, but eventually, they become lovers. When he learns of their affair, Karenin initially threatens to divorce her though later changes his mind after Anna has a health scare. Karenin forgives Anna and permits her to stay with Vronsky, even though they are still married; however, the lovers find it very difficult to live together in a society that doesn’t look too kindly on adulterers. Things worsen when Anna later decides she does want a divorce and Karenin refuses. He also doesn’t allow her to see her son, Seryozha. As a result, her relationship with Vronsky becomes strained.
Meanwhile, Levin is trying to forget about Kitty—who ends up with her own health problems as a result of Vronsky’s rejection—and focus on his estate. He is passionate about his work and spends a lot of time thinking about reforming agriculture in Russia. After a while, though, both Dolly and Stiva eventually convince Levin to see Kitty again. Their meeting leads to a reconciliation, marriage, and birth of their first child, although just as Anna realizes that one cannot turn to love to find all of the answers, so does Levin.
For Levin’s story, Tolstoy based it on his own experiences, making it both interesting and problematic at the same time. It’s interesting because we can learn some things about Tolstoy the man, who tried his hand at farming. We also learn about Tolstoy the husband, since he modeled Levin’s relationship with Kitty on his own with his wife. However, Tolstoy may have put too much of himself into Levin’s story. Some of the lengthy passages involving Levin and his brothers do not really advance the plot, especially later in the book. And Levin’s story drags on for far too long after Tolstoy makes his point.
That said, Anna has more to recommend than not. Tolstoy makes his characters, even the minor ones, rich and complex, showing both their good and bad sides without ever passing judgment on either one. For example, there are times when Karenin seems incapable of love. And he doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with his son, whom at one point thinks about giving him up because he’s simply not interested in him. The word cold is used to describe him, but so is magnanimous, and as the novel progresses, we see the more human side of Karenin. During a scene where Anna thinks she’s going to die in childbirth, Karenin struggles with seeing her for what may be the last time.
Alexei Alexandrovich’s wrinkled face took on an expression full of suffering. He took her hand and wanted to say something but simply could not get the words out; his lower lip quivered, but he was still battling his agitation and now and then glanced at her. Each time he glanced, he saw her eyes, which were watching him with a touching and ecstatic tenderness as he had never seen in them.
But it isn’t just the observations of and insights into these characters that make Anna Karenina great. Even though Tolstoy was committed to giving readers a realistic story, he does at times play with the reader. For example, early on, after Anna arrives in Moscow, a man gets run over by a train at the station. “It’s a bad omen,” she declares. It appears to be a foreshadowing device, but later on, Tolstoy makes us question how much of an “omen” it really was . . .
So while Anna Karenina comes recommended, one might ask, “Do we really need another translation?” especially considering the popularity of the Oprah-endorsed Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky version. The selling point for this edition, though, is that translator Marian Schwartz, who has won numerous awards for her translations, has maintained Tolstoy’s idiosyncrasies. Apparently, the author had a tendency to be repetitive, and in the past, translators have edited to text to avoid these duplications. Trying to retain a writer’s quirks isn’t always a good idea: Pevear and Volokhonsky tried it with Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago a few years ago, and the result was a very clunky text. Schwartz took a risk, but the risk seems to have paid off because she seems to understand the rhythm Tolstoy was trying to create with his language. Here is an example:
Although Vronsky’s entire inner life was filled with his passion, his outward life rolled, relentless and unchanged, down the old familiar tracks of society and regimental connections and interest. Regimental interests held an important place in Vronsky’s life, both because he loved his regiment, and even more because the regiment loved him.
The first time I read these sentences, I didn’t even notice all of the repetition; yet, I feel like it wouldn’t read the same without them.
Still, some readers may feel this is not enough of a reason to pay $35 for something that can be downloaded for free in a different iteration. Those who are thinking about doing that should consider this: Schwartz’s version is not only more accurate, but the language is clearer and more tuned to a twenty-first-century reader than the no-cost alternatives. Here is the Constance Garnett version of the three sentences I had quoted in the previous paragraph:
Although all Vronsky’s inner life was absorbed in his passion, his external life unalterably and inevitably followed along the old accustomed lines of his social and regimental ties and interests. The interests of his regiment took an important place in Vronsky’s life, both because he was fond of the regiment, and because the regiment was fond of him.
In terms of word count, the sentences are not that much longer, but Schwartz’s version has more punch: The phrase “his outward life rolled, relentless and unchanged” works better for me than “his external life unalterably and inevitably followed.” And “he loved his regiment” uses active voice, as opposed to the passive voice in “he was fond of the regiment”; and while it’s not wrong to use passive voice, the active voice has a greater impact on the reader.
So if you haven’t read any version of Anna Karenina yet, you should read Schwartz’s version. If you’ve read another translation, give this one a shot anyway. After all, an excellent translation like this one can only make the experience of reading Anna Karenina even more enjoyable.