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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Anna Karenina - a book I hated because of the main character


Back in the 90s there was a show called Ally McBeal, which I didn't mind except for one key flaw. I couldn't stand the main character - Ally McBeal.

The show itself was quirky, funny, had some interesting characters. But Ally McBeal herself was just irritating beyond all reason. In fact, I often said that if that character was killed off and the show continued as Not Ally McBeal, I would have watched it.

Anna Karenina is the classic literature Russian novel version of Ally McBeal. It's an interesting time period, in an interesting place, in a long-gone cultural epoch, full of interesting characters having interesting discussions. Except for Anna Karenina, who has to be the most unlikeable romantic heroine ever written. If the book was called anything else and her character cut from it completely it would be a much better book.

Even the cover was bad
Consider this, throughout the book, Leo Tolstoy repeatedly tells us that Anna is "gracious" and "charming" and "delightful" and "witty", and yet, we never see any examples of her grace, charm, delightfulness or wit. It's like telling us a comedian is the funniest man who ever lived with jokes that would make us cry with laughter. And then not telling us any of the jokes so we can see what you mean.

Anna is a narcissistic, self-obsessed, well there's no polite way to say this so here goes, utter cow. The story starts with her mooning around because, despite having an incredibly privileged life in an era when peasants stayed poor until they died at a very young age, and a faithful husband, when so many other women are being cheated on left, right and centre, and a son who she loves, she feels she doesn't have the romantic 'love' that she deserves to have. It's her 'right' to feel in love and her husband is denying her that right and so on and so forth, for pages and pages of self pity at her supposedly awful 'circumstances'.

Then she falls in love with a cavalry officer, Vronsky, who initially at least is painted as a fairly thoughtless, self-interested guy. He is attracted to Anna because of her beauty, charm, wit etc etc - you know the stuff we never actually see any evidence of except that we are told she has it. And then they start knocking boots. Her husband finds out but doesn't want the shame of divorce, so basically accepts it. Then Vronsky resigns from the army and he and Anna leave Russia and wander round Europe in a romantic hump-fest. At some point in all this Anna gets pregnant and goes back to her husband, who takes her in and promises to look after the baby girl. But pretty much as soon as she drops the sprog, Anna is back off with Vronsky. She gets mad at her husband for not letting her see her son - the son she so readily abandoned because she was in love. But now the separation from her son becomes yet another way that she is the poor, wronged soul in all this.

But, hey, she came back to him, so lucky Vronsky, right? No, not really. Because pretty soon Anna is mad at him for not loving her enough no matter what he tries to do, and so she decides to spite him by throwing herself under a train. Now, I have to admit I have a soft spot for trains, and finding out a train was the way the world was rid of Anna Karenina has only made me love them more. Of course, such a death was devastating, ruining poor Vronsky's life even further, so much so that at the end of the book he has returned to the military life and gathered a volunteer army to travel to the Balkans to fight the Turks and most likely die in the process.

If that was all there was to the story, it would be dreadful. But there are some other stories and characters within the book that kind of redeem it. The character Levin, for example, clearly a cipher for Tolstoy himself in many ways, is very interesting, even if he is obsessed with 'modern' farming methods and issues of land ownership. Levin's wedding ceremony is really well described and vivid, especially the daze that both he and his wife feel they are in during the proceedings, as if everything was a dream. There is also a scene where Levin and his wife, Kitty, sit by Levin's brother's death bed waiting for the inevitable, which rings incredibly true and is very sad.

There is also a lot of incidental detail about the lives of the rich in comparison to the lives of the poor. The gap between the worlds of peasants and gentry is noticeable and it's easy to see how Russia would prove fertile ground for the communist revolution a generation or so after Tolstoy. With hindsight you can see it coming, with the contemporary social issues in Anna Karenina indicators of a society with gross inequality and subjugation of the masses.

All that additional content makes the book worth reading.Someone should create an excised version with Anna's tiresome demands to be loved taken out. I predict Not Anna Karenina would be a much better book.

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