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Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a famously long book – and Anna Karenina is not exactly short, either, at 940 pages of densely packed text. It’s the story of a group of Russian aristocrats and their loves and lives – kind of a soap opera, really.

It focuses on two characters in particular, Anna – wife of an older man, a government official, Alexey Karenin – who falls in love with a young military officer, Alexey Vronsky, eventually going off to live with him – which is a big scandal – losing access to her son in the process; and Konstantin Levin, a landowner who struggles with his peasants’ stubbornness, with his feelings for a young debutante, Kitty Shcherbatsky, and with his feeling towards religion.

Actually, Levin feels more like the book’s main character – his eventual conversion mirrors Tolstoy’s own experience, according to the introduction, and he’s a much more likeable character. He’s somewhat shy, or rather lacks confidence in his ability to bandy words with his contemporaries – and lacks the ego to want to do so. Anna on the other hand is rather annoying. Her plight is one that is very much a function of the time she lives in, but she is rather weepy and whiny and completely self-absorbed.

All the characters in the book are are aristocrats and it was written in an interesting time in Russia’s history. It seems to portray a top-heavy social system: the nobility have the time and money to enjoy their leisure – to travel, to work on projects, to have affairs; the common people work hard and hold hard to their old ways of doing things. One of the most interesting parts of the novel is Levin’s back and forth with his tenants, trying to get them to use modern ways and equipment and their intransigence. Another interesting facet was the occasional mention of communists; Anna Karenina was written 40 year before the revolution, but it clearly shows that such seismic forces were long at work in the country.

The writing style was fairly bland, I found. It focuses a lot on dialogue and inner monologue, with minimal embellishment. The translation was a little weird. It seems to have been originally translated into British English (by David Magarshack), and then converted partially into American English for this edition. Spellings are American – ‘gray’, words ending with ‘-ize’ etc – but a lot of the vocabulary is British – ‘chemist’s’; Anna’s son calls her ‘Mummy’.

This wasn’t a terrible read, but it was a long one and one that didn’t have much impact on me. The emotional import of the story was both dated and apparent only through a thick glaze of 19th century politeness. The aspects of the book that most appealed to me were the social and historical ones. If only Count Leo Tolstoy had realised he was writing a historical novel, he could have included more information on the bewildering array of counts and princes and how Russia worked.

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