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Is Anna Karenina the best novel ever written?

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has quite a reputation. The other Russian literary titan, Dostoyevsky, dubbed Anna Karenina “a flawless work of art”, as did Nabokov and William Faulkner.

 

But is it, really? Some people I know detest Tolstoy, and Anna Karenina especially, even though Russian literature is one of their favourite genres.

The debate could go on forever, I suppose, but I’m inclined to agree that Anna Karenina is truly magnificent, in spite of my natural tendency to be biased against everything over-hyped. Without giving away spoilers, here’s why.

At 800 pages, Anna Karenina appears to be a daunting task. It’s easy to be put off by such a long book – just looking at it is enough to inspire an internal monologue, “How will I ever get through it? How long will it take me? What if I hate it? How many hours would I have wasted?”….and so on.

And then there’s a plot. Truth be told, Anna Karenina, as a story, is rather uninteresting. I’ve been asked to summarize the story, and all I could say was this:

“Married woman falls in love with a bachelor and doesn’t know what to with her life. And there’s this other guy, who lives in the countryside, who falls in love with a woman and wants to marry her.”

Rather simplistic, but what else is there to be said?

Because Anna Karenina is not about a plot, nor excitement, nor drama of any sort. When describing any particularly dramatic event, of significance to the story, Tolstoy doesn’t mince words. The seemingly most important events occupy a few lines at most, whereas seemingly trivial things occupy pages and pages.

The book is about life. Anna Karenina is a glimpse into the lives of real people – who they are, what they do, what they speak about, and how they occupy their minds and their time. And in this respect, it truly is a flawless work of art. No other writer I know of – not even Dostoevsky – has been able to create such realistic characters and describe them so well. No other writer has been able to portray the times, the thoughts and opinions of people, in such a credible manner.

And the most incredible part about it is, his descriptions seem to transcend space and time. Many issues spoken of in the book are things even we can relate to, had we pondered on those questions before. For example, the question of labour (which was what gave rise to Communism in Russia): is it fair that a land-owner should reap all the profits, and that people who actually work are given small salaries? In questions like this, Tolstoy gives no definite opinion and is careful to articulate all views on the matter.

You’d think a book like this would be heavy and pretentious, but it isn’t. It’s very light, easy to read, and engaging even when dealing with topics that should be dry. It’s almost as if Tolstoy stepped outside the world, detached himself from humanity, and examined society with absolute clarity.

Some people say Anna Karenina is a “spiritual book”. Some mean this in a very obvious sense, in that there is some reference to Christianity, and are uncomfortable with this. But then 19th century Russia was Christian, and there would be no realism in the book without some mention of Christianity. The book is indeed spiritual, but not in a dogmatic, theological sense – but in the feeling it gives of each individual merely playing a trivial, insignificant role throughout the course of his life.

Because the book is so layered and so real, I detest this glamourised trailer with a passion:

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