Latest Review: "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Christopher Iacono on one of the great Russian classics, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, translated by Marian Schwartz and published by Yale University Press.

I recently had a brief correspondence with Marian about [epic] classic literature and the mediums in which one can experience said literature. For my part, I’ve recently discovered that I love love LOVE the combination of reading and listening to these huge works of classic literature, particularly those that have been translated by great translators (some of whom I know personally, or have met, or have relished hearing other people gush about). There’s just something about physically seeing the translator’s work on a respective author’s work, seeing and identifying the choices said translator would have had to make in the process, and then changing it up with listening to the words, how they sound, that makes the book-enjoyment process somehow more electric for me. (And I would be remiss if I didn’t say it helps when the audiobook reader does [and expertly keeps up with] different voices for the characters.) In the past years, a few of my favorite books I’ve listen-read that come to mind are The Tin Drum by Günter Grass and translated by Breon Mitchell, and Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes and translated by Edith Grossman. I can’t stress enough how great not only the books themselves are, but how wonderful the translations are. Call it a feeling.

I think there’s something to be said for letting ourselves enjoy and appreciate books through both of these outlets. Did your parents read to you at bedtime when you were younger? If they did, do you remember it as a pleasant experience? I won’t lie, I loved it, and continued to ask my parents to read to me at night well through the 5th, and maybe even the 6th grade—stopping only once homework (and the procrastination thereof) got to be too much and my time was spent more on that. But even throughout my grade school years, even with my parents reading to me at night, I still spent most of my free time reading on my own. Looking at it now, this was perhaps my childhood way of getting both the visual and audio pleasures of reading that I today recognize as an enjoyable combination, and that I apply to my daily life. When I run, for example, I listen to audiobooks instead of music. When I drive long distances, most often I have an audiobook playing. When I have some down-time at home or when traveling, even sometimes [within reason] when I’m cooking, I read physical books. And with these gigantor classics I love doing both. I don’t have a system for when I switch off the audio and reach for the visual, or vice-versa. It could be because I can’t find my headphones; it could be because I need both hands for the cooking. But when the mood strikes, I switch, and get a different but no-less wonderful book-enjoyment experience.

My point in all this is that I wrote Marian to ask whether she knew if her translation of Anna Karenina was going to be made into an audiobook. Unfortunately, she didn’t know, but it did put the conversation in a space of mind I would be keen to spending more time digging around in. Maybe I like this kind of listen-reading because I’ve heard so many of these translators speak on their work, and I can hear them in the audio version (albeit in a different voice), working through the translation and finding the right turns of phrase, the best synonyms, hearing the alliterations and emphasis on jokes—and with the visual, hard copies of these books, I can hold their work in my hands, feel the weight of it, take in with my eyes the same layout the translator saw and pored over…

This is already long and could maybe be its own article—for which I apologize. Maybe I’ll transfer this to its own page later on and stop with the stealing of Chris’s thunder (hi, Chris!) for his great review. So I’m going to cut myself off, finally, right now, and keep my fingers crossed that someone decides to audiobook Anna Karenina in Marian’s translation. In the meantime, I’ll be reading the hard copy.

Here’s the beginning of Chris’s piece:

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.

For the rest of the review, go here.


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