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The World’s Best-Written Soap Opera

Anna KareninaAnna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Reviewed by Doug Brown

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Thus begins Tolstoy's classic tale of two extended families. I am not a fan of soap opera/romance as a genre, and the concept of reading an 800-page one only crossed my mind due to my classics year project. I knew I wanted to get some Tolstoy under my cultural belt, and when the choice came down to Anna Karenina vs. War and Peace, 800 pages won out over 1,200 pages. Yes, I'm that shallow.

But speaking as someone who would rather stare at a blank wall than watch a soap opera, Anna Karenina is a really, really good book. I can't compare other translations, but in Pevear and Volokhonsky's hands the prose shimmers. There are several wonderful sequences where we follow someone's wandering thoughts, and how things they catch out of the corner of their eye affect the course of those wanderings. These passages capture well how our minds flit from topic to topic, while maintaining a thread, arriving back at a topic from different vectors. Another description that I quite liked was this one of frustrating ineffectuality:

"All this bustling, going about from place to place, talking with very kind, good people, who well understood the unpleasantness of the petitioner's position but were unable to help him -- all this tension, while producing no results, gave Levin a painful feeling similar to that vexing impotence one experiences in dreams when one tries to use physical force."

I thought I was the only one who experienced that phenomenon in dreams, but apparently not. There are many passages in the book where people speak sentences and phrases in French (and some in German), and these are all conveniently translated in footnotes on the same page. References to Russian places, people, and things that would have been known to Tolstoy's readers are annotated in endnotes.

This is a long book; that needs to be honestly stated. There were moments where I would mentally calculate what percentage of the book I had left to read, but then I would come across a wonderful observation about people, society, politics, or some other topic, and it would be at least another 50 pages before I surfaced again. Tolstoy definitely spent a lot of time pondering the role of agriculture, workers, and modernization in Russia, as there are parts of Anna Karenina where it seems Tolstoy included his notes for another book on that subject (in fact the character Levin is working on a book on this topic). But what makes this a classic that will always endure is the fully-realized characters. During and after a conversation we see how one person mentally interprets another's actions, and then later we see what the other person was actually thinking, and how they interpreted (and often misinterpreted) the first person's actions. While some characters may sometimes behave in scandalous ways or do the wrong things, there are no "bad" people here; just people, complex and contradictory. This is full-immersion literature, and I'm glad I made the plunge. Good literature offers a reflection of ourselves, and Anna Karenina is an ornate but limpid mirror that shows us in all our paradoxical intricacy.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. War and Peace (Vintage Classics)
    Used Trade Paper $11.00
  2. Anna Karenina
    Used Trade Paper $5.95

5 Responses to "The World’s Best-Written Soap Opera"

    jean jacobs February 6th, 2010 at 1:05 am

    Tell me, please, promise me that Mr. Brown is a precocious 9th grader. And, in which case, congratulations to Powell's for seeking a larger audience for "good literature."

    Katharine Daly February 6th, 2010 at 5:48 am

    Is this review meant to satirize the limited reach and dulled expectations of the modern reader? I hope so.

    Katharine Daly February 6th, 2010 at 5:51 am

    Is this review meant to satirize the reach and expectations of the modern reader?

    Katharine Daly February 6th, 2010 at 5:52 am

    Satire, surely.

    Katharine Daly February 6th, 2010 at 5:55 am

    Mr. Brown is a master of irony.

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