So I’ve spent the past few weeks rapidly and greedily devouring Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and what an absolute revelation it has been. At 806 pages, it seemed a little intimidating at first, not least because I hadn’t read anything by Tolstoy before. Despite him being such a seminal and celebrated author, my preconceptions of his novels told me he was someone with whose writing I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, relate to. But how wrong I was, and how glad I am about it.
Facetious though it may sound, these last few weeks really have felt to me as if I’ve been embroiled in an earnest and passionate love affair. Nothing else in my recent reading has come even remotely close to matching the intensity, the excitement – in fact, just the whole spectrum of possible human emotion – that I’ve experienced while reading Anna Karenina. I’ve read and re-read (and listened to the audiobook version for times when holding a hard copy just hasn’t been possible) and read and re-read, and I’m positively certain that this novel consists of an entire (and highly necessary) education that up until now, I had no idea I’d been missing out on.
Tolstoy was clearly someone who was deeply in love with life. How could he not be, for such detail, for such in-depth examination of each and every meticulously constructed character, to comprise this novel?
When he went in to the sick man, his eyes and his attention were unconsciously dimmed, and he did not see and did not distinguish the details of his brother’s condition. He smelled the awful odour, saw the dirt, disorder, and miserable condition, and heard the groans, and felt that nothing could be done to help. It never entered his head to analyse the details of the sick man’s situation.
But Kitty thought, and felt, and acted quite differently. On seeing the sick man, she pitied him. And pity in her womanly heart did not arouse at all that feeling of horror and loathing that it aroused in her husband, but a desire to act, to find out the details of his condition, and to remedy them.
The basic plot – a love affair between two aristocratic elites in 19th century Russia’s high society – doesn’t necessarily lend itself to becoming regarded one of the greatest novels ever written. Not at first instance, anyway. But Tolstoy, among other things, was a philosopher, a psychologist, and in his world, nothing and nobody is mundane. Nothing and nobody is commonplace. Everyone and everything is delightfully and uncompromisingly complex – and thus, complete.
There are no archetypes, no caricatures. The writing reads timelessly; we are reminded, constantly, of the sheer, unparalleled uniqueness of the human experience. Characters don’t feel like characters; they are afforded the richness and fullness and complexity of actual people. They have their joys and sorrows and struggles, their conflicts and turmoils, their triumphs and their despair, all laid out with meticulous, artful analysis. The famous opening line – ‘[a]ll happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ – hints at this forthcoming examination of human nature: it is the ways in which we hurt and suffer that make such an examination so fascinating. It is our distinct, individual reasons for suffering that set us apart, making us – whatever else they may make us – so overwhelmingly, and uniquely, human.