Thursday, November 30, 2006

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

(Book Review)

Yet another infamous epic Russian novel. I suppose like most people, I tend to group all these long 19th Century Russian novels together. For me, “Anna Karenina” falls in the same category as “Crime and Punishment”. I don’t know if that’s fair or not. Perhaps its just my ignorant American bias. I know Tolstoy and Dostoevsky differed politically, but the structures of their novel seem similar. And my reaction to their novels is pretty similar as well.

“Anna Karenina” is often described as the story of a married woman caught in an adulterous affair. Just like the plot of “Crime and Punishment” is often described simply as a young student who commits murder. I think the initial reaction of most people is, “Wow, these books must be pretty boring? How can so many pages be devoted to such a simple plot.”

But once you start reading both books, you find that there are a lot of subplots. You also find that, despite occurring over 100 years ago in another continent, both books seem to accurately capture a number of facets of human nature. You find yourself thinking that characters in the book sound like people you know in real life. And that the thought processes of the characters sound a lot like your own thought processes.

And just when you’re starting to enjoy these books, and think, “Hey, these epic Russian classics aren’t so bad after all,” then about 200 or 300 pages into the book, you realize that all the set up for the plot is complete, and the story isn’t moving forward anymore. Instead, what you have for another 400 or 500 pages is just the situation slowly simmering as the characters think over what to do, or discuss with each other.

And if you’re like me, somewhere along the line you begin to loose your patience and say, “Oh for the love of Pete, will you just get to the end already?”

But that’s just me. Maybe you’re a little more sophisticated. I guess the thing with these kind of Russian novels is that you don’t read them for their plot. You read them for the philosophy contained inside. And if you’re a deep thinker or have an appreciation for philosophy, you’ll do fine. If you’re like me, and get antsy when 100 pages go by without some sort of train crash or explosion, then this isn’t the book for you.
As most people already know, this is the story of a married woman who falls in love with another man and has an affair. Although there are several sub-plots, as mentioned above. Thematically Tolstoy uses some of these to set up alternative examples of marriage. But he also uses these various sub-plots to show how one adultrous affair between two people has ripple effects outwards into the lives of many others.

The affair results in multiple tragedies, although it is unclear (or at least unclear to me) if Tolstoy is criticizing the selfishness of the adultrous couple, or if he is criticizing the strict social customs and rules at the time which make this affair into such a big deal. Maybe a little bit of both.

Since this novel was written in the 19th century, during a period of upheavel in Russia and European history, there is also a lot of questions about class and the relationship of the landowners to the peasants. These must have been burning questions at the time, because every 19th Century Russian novel I've read so far has dealt with these issues. From a contemporary standpoint, much of this is now just historical interest. If you're a history geek like me, you might find this the most interesting part of the book.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Some claim that the song "Rocky Racoon" is a parody of a Bob Dylan ballad, much like "Back in the USSR" is a parody of The Beach Boys. The Old West-style honky-tonk piano was played by producer George Martin.

Link of the Day
I haven't been watching the Simpsons the past couple weeks, but according to this video clip here, and the article following, it looks like they've been taking on the Iraq War and Army Recruiting

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