Friday, December 25, 2009

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

One sentence review of Anna Karenina: Tolstoy is sending God a job application, in case he's looking for a replacement.  Thanks, Tolstoy.

Full review: When Anna jumped in front of the train, I was relieved.  I'd been waiting for her to die ever since the race when Vronsky killed his horse.  When I turned the last page, I felt more like I'd faithfully accomplished a painful duty than like I was saying farewell to a beloved friend.

I find Tolstoy to be smug and self-satisfied to the extreme.  Tolstoy and Anna Karenina were recommended to me left and right; I was told that Tolstoy really understood women, and sympathized with their tragedy - I was told that there is a special term for his kind treatment of these tragic characters, "Toylstoyan pity."  And I think the term couldn't be more apt - because this is the ugly kind of pity.  The sort that slyly places the pity-er in a position of superiority.  The pity-er gets to enjoy being better off than the pitied person and self-consciously meritorious about his/her bleeding heart.  Such a bargain.

I was constantly aware of Tolstoy's craft, of the author pulling the puppet strings behind the scenes.  Their behavior frequently struck me as unnatural and artificial, and I could only make sense of it as the the author showing off.  He says: see, this horse that Vronsky kills, - this horse is Anna!  He says: see, this ill-fated love affair of Anna's has a foil in the lawful union of Levin and Kitty, such good and loving souls!  He says: see, Anna and Stiva are brother and sister, and they make parallel choices throughout the novel!  He says, over and over again: look at how brilliant I am, with my parallel plotlines and foreshadowing!

I think that Tolstoy is convinced his characters deserve what they get - Stiva deserves financial ruin and disrespect, Anna deserves death, Vronsky deserves pity and death, and Levin and Kitty deserve a happy life in the country.  Tolstoy is happy with himself for having grasped and described human nature, content in his ability to properly penalize or reward the actions and motivations of mankind, summarized so neatly in his characters.

I kept that that every time Levin appeared in the book it was Tolstoy chortling, "Here's the way to go!  If only you others would follow suit!"  Indeed, Tolstoy, if only we could all be more like you.  Thanks for letting us know.

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