Can you remember what you were doing when you read Anna Karenina? With a novel as vast as this, probably every reader makes a note of when they start, or perhaps more likely when they finish, the book. It’s so overwhelmingly huge it is difficult to do anything else. For me, it was some 25 years after I had first started it. I remember listening to it read aloud to me in the car while I drove to work. I got as far as Anna and Vronsky travelling to Italy to a supposed life of bliss – that turned out to be anything but bliss. I stopped reading (or listening) at that point because I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that it was downhill all the way from that point.
Now, October 10th, 2016, I have completed the book, was it all downhill from that point? Well the big surprise was that the novel did not end with Anna’s death. Her suicide, one of the best-known events in C19 fiction, is followed by a much less discussed and commented section that seems to be about nothing more than Levin’s family life. Levin, who seems increasingly to be Tolstoy’s alter ego, has deep thoughts about the meaning of life – and eventually reaches a cosmic acceptance of his state, a kind of religious feeling that requires the renunciation of reason, and that gives him a feeling of universal acceptance of all religions, and a harmony with other people. However, in a rare moment of understanding by Tolstoy, when Levin rejoins society after this mystic moment of harmony with the universe, he immediately realises he has no more patience than before. He shouts at his servant, he gets annoyed with his friends and with his wife. Has anything changed, therefore? He realises it is a personal feeling, a sense of being, rather than anything he can communicate – even with his wife, and it is revealing how he pointedly refuses to try to explain his state of mind to Kitty. So at least Tolstoy has the magnanimity not to show his major character triumphant at the end of the novel. Levin has to take his place, as before, in the social scheme of things, where he will not impose his ideas on anyone else, but will have the satisfaction of a serene peace with the way things are.
Of course, it being Russia, things were not going to stay that way for long. Tolstoy would have hated the revolution, and would have hated the present state of affairs. Little cosmic acceptance in either world. But then again, we (or I) the readers are mighty pleased to be free of Tolstoy’s endless, boring asides while he tries to interest us in his concerns, which are of little interest to us. Such a major novelist wasting so many pages on trivia – the elections, Levin’s soul-searching, when his consummate skills meant he could have had us on the edge of our seats for four hundred pages, rather than alternating between frenzied admiration and boredom over eight hundred. Both inspired and boring, both infinitely aware of human feelings and ignoring them - that seems to be Tolstoy. I’m not inspired to read War and Peace.