Started on January 20th (and I confess opened in the wake of my disappointment over The Essex Serpent, a book I desperately wanted to love but in the end couldn't) and final page turned on March 1st, I have lived and breathed Anna Karenina for the last six weeks or so and what a ride it has been....and just to warn you there may be a few general spoilers ahead.
The Essex Serpent, loved by many of you I know when we last talked about it, did absorb me for a while but I slowly began to feel as if I was skating across the surface and that nothing would let me explore what lay beneath in order to engage with or even really care. Incongruency is fine in a book that complete absorbs, but in a book that doesn't it starts to jump off the page and bother...Royal London Hospital surely only given its 'Royal' status in the 1990s...or am I wrong? Plain old London when I patrolled the wards in the 1970s but enough to propel me out of the time zone and then I can't get back in. I read to the end because the book had been a special gift but as I always say, right book, wrong reader so please don't be deterred by my experience, and of course you will want to decorate a room to match the very beguiling cover.
In a way Tolstoy's famous opening lines could apply equally to both novels...
'All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way...'
But oh my word, how those lines stayed in my mind as I was privileged enough to watch the Oblonskys, the Kareninas, the Scherbatskys along with Levin and Vronsky as their lives unfolded in the hands of a master story-teller. Tolstoy invests such vision and insight into his characters mediating each through the eyes of others as well as themselves, establishing them as individuals very clearly and firmly in my imagination.
And that first glimpse of Anna, all elegance and unassuming grace, the gentle and tender expression, the shining grey eyes and rosy lips, the suppressed animation in her face. But for all her abilities to manipulate and charm Anna is at the mercy of those around her and slowly but surely the chains that bind her will ultimately be those that defeat her.
'I am close to a terrible disaster' says Anna,' and I am afraid of myself.'
It was haunting and impossible to resist...I was afraid for her too. Tolstoy's delineation of the social rejection and Anna's subsequent disintegration is powerfully and astutely wrought. The jealousy, paranoia and suspicion leading to darkness, terror and madness as the magnets that had once attracted and joined Anna and Vronksy in their affair reverse their polarities and start to repel and oppose.
Even though I knew full well how the book would end, I was still hoping it might be different...the train would be cancelled or something, and the tension became so unbearable that I actually set the book aside for a week or so to summon up a bit more gumption for the denouement which Tolstoy reserves for page 771. When, renewed and restored in the resilience department, I picked it up again I was right back in the flow...it's a clever book that can manage that with someone like me who would undoubtedly have picked up something else to fill the reading vacuum (Yes I did...Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb.) I knew the moment was coming and even planned where I would be reading when the 'moment' actually happened...sitting in Costa Coffee wouldn't have been right and proper at all.
I haven't seen any film versions of Anna Karenina yet and I'm not sure I want to for a while. Better to store the memories of this book in my imagination for a while longer, but huge thanks to those of you who said, once we had finished our year-long read of War and Peace, that Anna Karenina was a must-read, and for some of you a better read... and that includes me now. I didn't miss those prolonged skirmishes at the Battle of Borodino one bit, though I did perhaps weary a little of Tolstoy's final chapter in Anna Karenina. Am I allowed to say it felt a little like authorial self-indulgence...a sort of raison d'etre/ diatribe for his own religious stance when I would have appreciated much more about the impact of Anna's actions on those who knew her. Or maybe that was Tolstoy's point...apart from Vronksy (who did suffer) everyone else was over it and moving on.
So that's that, my very memorable Anna Karenina experience. There's something quite nice about finally reading a book like this. I remember when we finished Ulysses (gosh remember that) and I went shopping in Launceston and really wanted to stop people in the street and tell them. I thankfully overcame the urge then, and again now, but there's definitely a sense of literary pride in adding another classic to the list of Books Read.
And wondering too whether these books just await their moment in a person's reading life because Anna Karenina certainly chose the right one in mine.
So, to those who have read it please do share your thoughts, I'm desperate to talk about it all...
And if you haven't read it might the moment have arrived...