Anna Karenina Read-Along: Parts 1 – 4

CLICK HERE to the second and concluding post Parts 5-8: And the Curtain Falls

CLICK HERE to read my movie review of Anna Karenina (2012)

Thanks to Joe Wright’s upcoming film adaptation, I’m motivated to go past that famous first line to embark on this read of over 800 pages. Also thanks to you who are willing to come along with me, and those who are cheering us on, I have more fun than doing this alone.

Reading Anna Karenina for the first time, my immediate impression is that it is lighter than I’ve expected, melodramatic and even comical at times. Last month I just finished listening to an audiobook version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, so I can feel the difference in tone as soon as I begin. Despite its being a more relaxed read, it strikes me with how sharp Tolstoy’s observations of human nature are, and how masterful he is in piercing through the human psyche, no less than Dostoevsky’s heavy dealing of crime or punishment…. ummm, this may well be Tolstoy’s take on the subjects as well.

In reading this first part of the book, I’m particularly amused by Tolstoy’s sensitive and spot-on descriptions of his characters. Here’s an early example. Levin, insecure in front of Kitty and his formidable rival Vronsky, responds to Kitty’s mother Countess Nordston as she sarcastically mentions him to Vronsky:

 ‘Konstantin Dmitrich (Levin) despises and hates the city and us city-dwellers,’ said Countess Nordston.

‘My words must have a strong effect on you, since you remember them so well,’ said Levin, and, realizing that he had already said that earlier, he turned red. (p. 51)

People turn colour a lot in the book, and I’m most curious to see that on screen.

Tolstoy’s observation of love, or maybe, his understanding of men, oddly, is articulated by Anna:

I think,’ said Anna, toying with the glove she had taken off, ‘I think… if there are as many minds as there are men, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts. (p. 138)

Anna’s words here remind me of a modern cinematic version of Anna KareninaThe English Patient. In response to Almasy’s (Ralph Fiennes) statement that “A thing is still a thing no matter what you place in front of it”, Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) responds: “Love? Romantic love, platonic love, filial love…? Quite different things, surely.” Is it merely coincidental that such a similar observation is pointed out in both cases by the female protagonist while the male character seems oblivious… just wondering.

But it is with the theme of forgiveness Tolstoy toys with that I’m most intrigued. No pun intended here, but I find some major twists and turns are based on this very notion of forgiveness in an ironic way. At the start Anna is the one urging Dolly to forgive her husband Stiva Oblonsky’s extramarital affair. No sooner has she succeeded as a mediator she becomes deeply entwined in one herself, one that apparently she cannot find a way out.

‘Be careful what you pray for,’ as if Tolstoy is saying. Anna desires forgiveness from her husband Alexi Alexandrovich. And he, upon seeing her suffer the near-death illness, throws away his wrath and grudges and forgives her unreservedly. Having read up to this point of the story, it appears that his spiritual epiphany is genuine.

Alas, Anna doesn’t realize that the whole package of forgiveness offered by her husband requires a mending of ways and a renewal of the marriage relationship. She has pleaded for magnanimity, now she gets it, and it sure doesn’t taste like what she’d wanted. Her brother Oblonsky tells Alexi Alexandrovich:

She’s crushed, precisely crushed by your magnanimity.” (p. 430)

What she wants isn’t forgiveness, but release.

It’s interesting to see how Tolstoy intersects and contrasts the three storylines of marriage relationship. Levin and Kitty at this point are only at the planning stage of their marriage, but look to be the couple that is bound for most bliss among the three. And if forgiveness does harvest its desirable crop, it can be found here in Levin discarding his grudge on Kitty’s rejection of his first proposal and the insult he has felt. He could well sympathize with Kitty, herself being a victim of her own delusional crush on Vronsky.

Levin’s agrarian idealism makes an interesting contrast to the high society of Petersburg and Moscow. I don’t know what will happen next with Levin and Kitty, will he move to the city or she to the country, will their love last? But that’s exactly the fun of reading, it lures you on. Why, Anna Karenina the novel used to be published as serial installments in a periodical from 1873 – 1877. The master storyteller must have known where to stop at the end of every episode.

Having seen the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation, I get an inkling of how screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare In Love, 1998) stylizes the classic. So as I read, I look out for scenes and mentions of the stage, opera, and other spectacles. There are lots.

All the great world was in the theatre.” (P. 128)

Alexi Alexandrovich goes to the opera and concerts frequently, and Vronsky prefers the comical Opera Bouffe to the more serious ones. The horse race is watched by all, while Anna’s reaction to Vronsky’s fall is watched most carefully by her husband. They are all watching each other, being the audience and the actors at the same time. And we the readers are all observers of this whole spectacle of a literary extravaganza.

Oh the joy of reading together. If only we could watch together as well…

Here are the links to other Read-Along participants (if you’ve written a post on Anna Karenina, do leave a comment so I can link to it):

Janell of An Everyday Life

Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza

Stefanie of So Many Books

oh of This Writing Life

***

In my original plan, the date for our second and final post to wrap up this Read-Along is November 11. I just realized that is Veterans Day in the U.S. and Remembrance Day in Canada. You may have a special post in mind to mark the occasion. So let’s change our wrap up post to November 15, which will also coincide with the U.S. release of the film the next day:

Anna Karenina Read-Along Parts 5 – 8 Concluding Post to come out NOVEMBER 15.

***

CLICK HERE to view the trailer of the film Anna Karenina (2012), directed by Joe Wright (Atonement, 2007; Pride & Prejudice, 2005), screenplay by Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare In Love, 1998, and the brilliant play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, 1967)

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review.

36 thoughts on “Anna Karenina Read-Along: Parts 1 – 4”

  1. Arti,

    i, too, am enjoying the story captured between the lines, through shadowing and foreshadowing parallels.

    The example you mention, of Anna’s coming to Moscow to mediate reconciliation, only to sever the young Kitty from Vronsky (which, of course, we know is a good thing); to then end up in St. Petersburg with the bold Vronsky by her side —

    ISN”T THIS SO OFTEN HOW LIFE IS, THE PLACE WHERE TIRED CLICHES ARE DRAWN FROM — “PHYSICIAN, HEAL THYSELF.”

    …Vronsky breaking the back of his mount during the horse race, practically tasting victory but losing in the end….

    OH, ANNA, SURELY YOU ARE DOOMED, AND YOU DON”T EVEN KNOW IT.

    …the way death as miracle, works as a truth serum to dissolve differences and encourage forgiveness …but is forgotten so soon after we recover our health and our bitter selves, to go on living a life of pretense, or better, to run away from reality and what we do not wish to face…

    AND IN THIS WAY, MAYBE IN ITS PUREST FORM, TRUE FORGIVENESS IS RELEASE. NO STRINGS. NO CONDITIONS. JUST LOVE AND RELEASE.

    ~~~~

    Can’t wait until I finish my other book club commitment — which too, is very good (Michael Chabon, so how can it be otherwise?) — to dive back into Tolstoy’s dream.

    Thanks for allowing me to tag along.

    Janell

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    1. Janell,

      First off, thanks for joining me on this journey. I’ve enjoyed our Midnight’s Children experience, and trust this time is going to be enjoyable as well, if not more. You point about death-bed resolution is so true… it’s easy to forget, and the fading of the danger often washes out our resolve. But every single decision involves multiple consequences, having ties to many. Seems like Anna wants release in some areas, but not in others. Like, I’m sure she’d want to be released of her obligation as wife, but not of her tie as mother; a release in her marital commitment, but not her bond with the child from her marriage.

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  2. I have only completed Parts 1 and 2, up to the part where Vronksy has “killed” his horse Frou-Frou in the race due to a mistake on his part. The mistakes on his part, on Anna’s part, are huge! This, of course, is only the beginning.

    It’s interesting that the theme of adultery is present from the very beginning. Tolstoy circles and circles around the relationships between men and women, which I find fascinating.

    For me, I have found the idea of happiness more present than forgiveness. But, I will be looking for that as I continue. Onward toward November 15.

    (Are you loving it so far?)

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    1. Bellezza,

      I’m sure you’re trying hard to hold back and not say too much about the book since you’ve read it so many times. That’s why all the more I appreciate your joining us, doing it slow this time, just to chat and share. And yes, I’m enjoying this immensely. I’ve also found that I can enjoy Tolstoy’s writing and storytelling, while not necessarily need to ‘identify’ or ‘like’ the ‘heroine’. But I’m most curious to know how the plots unfold, and ready to be entertained by Tolstoy’s masterful storytelling. Again, thanks for accompanying us on this pleasurable experience.

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  3. Anna Karenina–the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation–was one of the seven or so novels (Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov included) that I read last semester for an Honors Russian Lit class. Needless to say, it was close to one hundred pages of reading for every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
    Still, for having read it so quickly, I thought Anna Karenina was awesome. Tolstoy writes incredible characters and has an insanely sharp eye for detail. I will say, however, that I was a little disappointed that, throughout the novel, Tolstoy seemed to be pressing an agenda, which–especially later in the book–becomes increasingly evident.
    I’m interested to know what you think of the ending, when you reach it.

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    1. benrdevries,

      You have a wealth of reading experience in Russian lit indeed. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Your comment has piqued my curiosity greatly. Yes, I’d love to read on and straight to the end to see what this possible ‘agenda’ might be. At this point, I only know about the famous ending of the protagonist, but none of the other characters, or any of the detailed plot lines. For now, I’m really impressed by the author’s incisive observations of nuances and human nature. I’m sure he adheres to a meta-narrative but like to see how he lays it out in his masterful depictions still. Again, thanks for stopping by and sharing your views.

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  4. I wish I had time to join you in this venture. It’s many years since I read “Anna Karenina” and I know I would get a great deal out of reading it again and in company. I haven’t yet had a chance to see the film, nor have I heard or read any critiques of it. My worry is that they will have “thinned it out” and that one or other of the main stories will have been lost or diminished as a result. I think, that if that is an option the director has taken then inevitably he will have diminished all the threads because one feeds the other.

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    1. Alex,

      The film is screening in the UK now. I’ve a comment in my open invite post on it. As expected, literature purists would not have welcomed a deviation from the source, yet some others may like to see a different take on how a classic can be brought to the screen in the 21st C. today and still appeal to modern audiences. That’s why I’m most interested to see it myself. There are many reviews out already, but I try not to read them before I watch the film. Do click on the link to the trailer at the end of my post. You can still catch up with our read-along and post on your blog come Nov. 15 Lots of time esp. when you’ve read it before. I’d love to read your thoughts on it.

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  5. I have to admit I’m still in part 3.

    I marvel at Tolstoy’s astute descriptions and behaviors concerning the human heart. I agree with you Arti that Anna wants just to be let go from a marriage with Alexei Alexandrovich. To start afresh with Vronsky seems to be the perfect solution to her. Alexandrovich is motivated to be magnanimous because of all the eyes: the eyes of society and the eyes of his god. How would these characters behave in modern culture?

    Another thought: of the characters watching each other (and being likened to an opera): Knowing next to nothing about opera, what is Tolstoy saying by Vronsky preferring the bouffe? That he does not see life in a serious aspect?

    Varenka was an interesting character to me. Her influence on Kitty changed Kitty for the better. I can’t wait until she and Levin marry.

    I’m a weird reader in that I love reading the mowing scene. Can’t you feel the exhaustion from using the scythe all day and enjoying a bowl of mash and ale? So simple and so refreshing.

    Well, that was more than one thought. I suppose I’d better return to the book. I’m enjoying the discussion thus far!

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    1. Vanessa,

      Thank you so much for stopping by and joining in the discussion. And LOL! You’re probably one of the few who enjoy all the detailed chapters on the harvest. But come to think of it, I too have found some parts quite interesting. I admire Levin for his humble stance, working with his hands, down-to-earth (literally) attitude and values, a great contrast to the high society of Petersburg. Stop by again and see more updated comments here. Feel free to respond to any of them. Again, thanks for participating. I’ve appreciated your sharing!

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    2. Vanessa,

      Oh yes, your point about Vronsky prefers opera bouffe than serious opera could well reflect his character. The female to him is a kind of entertainment, something to pursue for his pleasure. But later though he seems quite genuine. I’ll have to read on to find out more.

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  6. Since I don’t think I’ll be able to get to the book in time this is a great ‘Cliff Notes’ if you will, in preparation for seeing the movie. I’m enjoying reading your thoughts and I think you’re correct about forgiveness. My very hazy recollection is that its her husband’s forgiveness that really kills Anna. Crushed, as you quoted, by his magnamanity.
    You mentioned watching for the spectacles highlighted in the trailer – it does look like Wright and Stoppard have smartly made the most of this very glitzy era. The dances look stunning and I’m excited to see more. But one thing has been niggling at me. Seeing Vronsky dancing, I’m curious about both the character and the casting of this character. Aaron Taylor-Johnson seems like such a wisp of a boy to play Vronsky. A slim little boy toy for Anna to play with. In the version my husband worked on Sean Bean was Vronsky (Sophie Marceau was Anna, Alfred Molina her husband) who seems much weightier. Perhaps it’s the age. He was 40 when he played Vronsky while Aaron Taylor-Johnson is just 22. It’s not just the physicality, it’s the wealth of experience a more mature man brings to a role vs a very young one. But how did Tolstoy envision him? Does Taylor-Johnson fit the part? Aack – I may have to reread after all. Thanks for hosting this read along.

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    1. Sim,

      I’ve read that the film’s storytelling is like a theatre, where the events take place on stage, or maybe like a ring in the circus, with Anna in the audience watching. An interesting cinematic styling of the classic. Considering Stoppard is a playwright, and his previous works, I can’t wait to see how that’s done.

      As for your other point, I’m afraid I’d have to agree with you that there might be a miscast, albeit I’m saying this without having seen the film. Aaron Taylor-Johnson at 22 just may not be the best choice as Vronsky, whose stature physically, socially, and within the military ranks are prominent and respectable. And Jude Law as the hard-nosed, career-minded government official just might not be an apt choice. It’s hard to convince me that Keira Knightly would forsake Jude Law to fall for someone five years her junior. Nothing against Aaron Taylor-Johnson. I love his portrayal of the teenaged John Lennon in Nowhere Boy, another book to movie adaptation.

      Also, I haven’t seen the previous AK adaptation done by your husband. I must get a hold of it. I’m sure that casting is more true to the book. Thanks for sharing!

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      1. I have to agree with Sim. When I saw the trailer I thought this Taylor-Johnson fellow looked so small and young to be a Vronsky. It will be exciting to see how it works in the film. I too will look for the 1997 adaptation.

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  7. Oh Arti, I like what you say about forgiveness here. Such a good point! And there is Also Levin and his brothers who need to forgive Nikolay all his wild ways. But you are right, Anna ends up not wanting forgiveness but release but in a way forgiveness turns out to be both easier and more suffocating. I also like your observations on the visual elements and how they are all actors and audience at the same time.

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    1. Stefanie,

      First off, thanks so much for reading this with me. It’s much more fun this way. And about the audience and actors, you must see the film. I’m patiently waiting for it to come out in Nov. after we’ve finished our concluding post. This new adaptation is one that uses the theatre to bring out the story. I’m sure it will be one innovative take on the book.

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  8. In college, I took a course on the great Russian writers. I’m not sure why I’ve never read Anna Karenina. Maybe I’ll give it a shot, although I’m too late to join your current reading.

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    1. You’re not too late Paulita. While you’ve missed posting this first part, you can always start reading now and by November 15, you just post about your reading up to then. If you finish, that’s great. If not, you can still join in the discussions. Love to have you share your thoughts with us.

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    1. Jeanie,

      Yes, wouldn’t it be great if we could go watch the film together. That would be a surreal experience. 😉 As for reading the book, you know, you still have over a month… not too late yet. And I must say, it’s a relatively ‘lighter’ read, I mean not so heavy as Dostoevsky. I’m sure you’ll find it enjoyable.

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  9. I normally don’t read read-along posts of books I haven’t read because of the spoilers, but I was tempted to read yours, and now even more tempted to read the book. If I had a copy I would join, but for now I’ll satisfy myself with reading your posts and try not to watch the film yet!

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    1. Claire,

      That’s so nice of you to say that… It’s been a pleasure reading along with others, albeit just a few. I’ve had enjoyed the last read-along of Midnight’s Children. How I’d wish you could join us. Sure love to hear what your thoughts are. Maybe start now… you don’t have to finish it all, or… maybe a quick skim over for some sections. Thank you for stopping by, reading this post and leaving your comment!

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  10. I didn’t think I’d read “Anna Karenina”, but enough is coming back to me – particularly the names of the characters – that I’m sure I must have at some point.

    What intrigues me is that it was released as a serial. Did the serialized portions correspond to the eight parts? I was thinking about it in terms of my current post about polishing and burnishing – to think Tolstoy had to do that multiple times in the process of writing this, letting sections of it go, over and over. My goodness.

    Any thoughts about Kiera Knightley as the choice for Anna in the film? I don’t have any opinion yea or nay, but I was surprised by it.

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    1. The serials were over a period of four years. I’m sure they must have come out in more than eight parts. But I don’t know about the specifics. Anyway, do you think its coming out as serial ‘downgraded’ the material a bit? Not written as a finished novel, more like uh..hum… Downton Abbey. You sort of create your plot as you go along. I really don’t know exactly.

      As for Keira Knightly playing Anna, I’m not too surprised. You see, the whole movie industry has come down in age, I feel, for higher appeal I suppose. Like Vronsky is played by 22 year-old Aaron Johnson. Seems like youthfulness and good looks translate into higher box office sales than acting talent and experience. Anyway, my interest lies in the execution of the whole production … I’m fascinated by the whole theatrical concept to present the stories. Do click on the link to the trailer. What do you think of it?

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  11. I just started Anna Karenina. I am only a few chapters into the book but I agree that the tone is much lighter than I thought it would be also. I tried reading War and Peace many years ago but put it down after 200 pages and sadly have yet to return to it. After reading your thoughts, I am inspired to progress with Anna and finish it in time to see the new movie release!
    Happy Reading,
    Rebecca @ The Key to the Gate

    Like

    1. Rebecca,

      I’m excited to hear you’re also reading AK. You’re most welcome to join us since we still have a month to go before posting our second and final post on Nov. 15 (before the film release the next day). Just stop by and join in our discussions. If you’ve written a post let me know so I can link your blog here. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment! Hope to hear from you again. 😉

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  12. I had to read this a long time ago and got through it. Somehow. For a grade, don’t ya know? Since then I have had it on my phone and have enjoyed reading random parts and enjoyed the language and laughed out loud. Now, I am about 200 pages from finishing the translation you read. I have some ideas for a post on it.

    Basics are: it is about life. Real life. Love in its pain and its glory, birth and death and jealousy and despair and ambition and lack of it—about family in all its frizzled and frazzled and frenzied and cherished states.

    That’s my start anyway. I expect to post my review soon and will let you know. In the meantime, come on over and check me out?

    Good post

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    1. You’re welcome to write a post on it come Nov. 15 and stop by again to join in our discussions. This is an expansive book, dealing with so many story lines, characters, themes, and nuances. It’ll be rewarding to exchange views after we finish reading it.

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  13. I have resolved to read one dead-Russian’s writwer’s book each year from now on.

    I have posted my comments on Anna Karenina on my page. Am not sure how to post on your page, but will come back periodically to see what is going on.

    Like

    1. Adam,

      Oh have you visited Calgary? Yes, it’s a lovely city, mostly sunny even in -20C. Glad you’re into great books. In a way, don’t you think Tolstoy and Proust had a lot in common in their observations and writing?

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