Saturday, 16 February 2013

Anna Kareninininininina

For my course I was told that by the end of term I had to read at least one hundred pages of Anna Karenina so that we could have a class discussion about it. I was thrilled, it's one of those books that I have meant to read for years and years and since there's so much hype about it, I felt I was missing out on something. I've never properly tackled any of the Russians before now (I tried to read Poor Folk by Dostoevsky about four times, but the thing is bloody impossible, and doesn't count) and I didn't think I was ready to just jump in with something like War and Peace. And it started off so well. I spend about two and a half hours on the bus every day, so I have no shortage of time in which to read, and the first half of the book flew by.

However, and it's a pretty big however, as I came to the end of the book my enthusiasm had seriously waned. I am forced to admit something that I'm pretty sure they can confiscate my English degree for. I didn't really like it. It's not that there wasn't a lot to be admired. My mum claimed that the sequence when Levin is going out of his mind waiting for his young wife Kitty to have their first child is fantastically written, and I have to agree with her. The section where Vronsky is racing his horse is something that I didn't think could be achieved in writing, but you are with him on the horse throughout all of the course. But as the story drew on I just found the whole thing fairly exhausting. There are huge swathes of the book dedicated to the thoughts of Levin on Russian agriculture and the place of the worker within the struggling economy. There is a long section in which Levin is forced to join Oblonsky at an election and commits social faux pas on every side before eventually voting incorrectly at the final moment. This felt a little clumsy and overwrought  but I'm so nervous about using those words in connection with what is so widely regarded as a timeless classic that I imagine I must be missing something. I can't fathom what that something is.

Even Anna herself, who starts as such a commanding force, seems to lack that something for me as well. I was fairly alarmed that I reached chapter fifteen of the novel before she appeared, and yet when she did arrive I could enjoy her only partially as her tumble into oblivion failed to have me onside. My sympathies were not captured as I struggled to understand her inability to make decisions. I don't think it's indicative of her difficult social position, as that is so frequently the crux of issues in Austen, and believe me, I love Austen. I am astonished to have to say of a book that is over five hundred pages long, that I wish it had a couple more chapters tacked on the end. What happened to Vronksy? Was Oblonsky still having affairs? How was his wife, who has such a terrible time throughout the whole novel? Why was Levin so suicidal after the birth of his son? Why don't I bloody get it?

My lack of satisfaction with Anna Karenina may lie in the fact that I have been spoilt. I have read Austen and devoured Middlemarch and adored Dickens in which the same wide spanning novels with tens of characters all have neat conclusions and a finality about them that leaves you turning the final page with a deep sense that everything is as it should be, the author has held your hand and led you through. But with Anna Karenina I felt that I was suddenly abandoned in the final pages, left without ultimate closure on any of the characters, except the tragic Anna herself, and floundered around trying to find meaning for myself. Maybe I didn't try hard enough, or perhaps my expectations were too high. I'm looking forward to the Joe Wright film, at the very least.