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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Is it fair to call any novel the “Greatest Novel Ever Written” - it does not seem to be so, but I can't help it. Anna Karenina is quite simply the greatest novel ever written and not just the best novel I've read. I cannot imagine any other novel matching this one as it possesses everything one wants from a novel – it is gripping, philosophical, enthralling, long, and utterly timeless. Long seems to be strange praise but I use it to say that I would have stayed with Tolstoy for as many pages as he needed to tell his story.

What struck me most about this 100+ year old novel was how timeless it is. When an author like Tolstoy sets out to tell a human story the setting is almost irrelevant because what makes us human is universal. The love, betrayal, and fear described are all never changing, it is our emotions that make us human, so that was not surprising but even on the philosophical level things are the same. We are having the same debates about social order, education, gender, and relationships that we were having all those years ago. However, to say that setting is irrelevant is maybe a bit flip because another element of the novel that amazed me was how clearly defined the social conventions were. Tolstoy made me feel late 19th century Russia. I felt that I could really see into this hidden world; it was so fully realized that I was immersed within it.

To get into a discussion about the characters makes me feel as though this is more of a book report than a review of my impressions because there are so many characters and they are all so connected no matter how tenuously. I guess this is because I feel that the novel is bigger than the sum of its parts. No amount of discussion of the romance between Anna and Vronsky or the moralizing of Karenin to Anna or even the subtle awesomeness of Levin will lead you to read this book and it will only serve to spoil you of the virgin delights I experienced upon first encountering the novel. With a novel as “Important” as Anna Karenina I find it best to go in blind, work my way out of the material, wrestle with themes, and then surrender to academia. Upon the completion of a great novel I like to do a little research, discovering all the things I missed within the novel and praising myself over all that I did observe.

The characters within Anna Karenina are both real and not. They are real in that they are full of selfishness, beauty, and contradiction just like the rest of us, yet they stand apart in that they are the vehicles of Tolstoy's ideas. They are there to represent both what is and what is not possible, and the ultimate goal of the tragedy is to expose an unyielding society whose fear of change and difference, seen as depravity, may sink not only one person but a nation. The novel definitely speaks to the changing society in Russia that came to fruition in the years after the novel was published.

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