Having just read Anna Karenina for the third time, I will set out what I said about it a few years ago after reading it for the second time, and then add a few observations.  The book is a great work of art, and it may cast its spell in different ways on different viewings.


So, how did the most famous affaire of western literature start?

Her bright grey eyes which seemed dark because of their black lashes rested for a moment on his face as if recognizing him, and then turned to the passing crowd evidently in search of someone.  In that short look, Vronsky had time to notice the subdued animation that enlivened her face and seemed to flutter between her bright eyes and a scarcely perceptible smile which curved her rosy lips.  It was as if an excess of vitality so filled her whole being that it betrayed itself against her will, now in her smile, now in the light of her eyes.  She deliberately tried to extinguish that light in her eyes, but it shone in spite of her in her faint smile.

You cannot put that on the screen.  It is the pure magic of genius.  How might lover-boy, Count Vronsky, react?

Marriage had never presented itself to him as a possibility.  Not only did he dislike family life, but in accordance with the views generally held in the bachelor world in which he lived [ as an aristocratic officer in the army], he regarded the family, and especially a husband, as something alien, hostile, and above all ridiculous.

Lover-boy gets worse.  He knows his attentions to her at the opera will be obvious and commented upon.

He knew very well that he ran no risk of appearing ridiculous….in the eyes of Society people generally.  He knew very well that in their eyes, the role of the disappointed lover of a maiden or of any single woman might be ridiculous; but the role of a man who was pursuing a married woman, and who made it the purpose of his life at all cost to draw her into adultery, was one which had in it something beautiful and dignified and could never be ridiculous……

How does the beautiful Anna Karenina fall for such a cheap and hollow devotee of human blood sports?  She had married an older man, a dry, didactic civil servant who spoke to her superciliously, a devoted civil servant and father, a man of God, who had no soul at all.  He was not really a man.  Anna muses to herself.

They do not know how for eight years he has been smothering my life, smothering everything that was alive in me, that he never once thought I was a live woman in need of love.  They do not know how at every step he hurt me and remained self-satisfied.  Have I not tried, tried with all my might, to find a purpose in my life?   Have I not tried to love him, tried to love my son when I could no longer love my husband?  But the time came when I understood that I could no longer deceive myself, that I am alive, and cannot be blamed because God made me so, that I want to love and live.

This is a primal cry for release.  We already know that Vronsky may not be the man to carry the load, but now we know that Karenina will be a cold implacable enemy who will not even seek a duel, but will seek to rein in and humiliate an errant wife with all the power at his male disposal – including his power over his son.  How would Vronsky’s code rule his conduct toward Karenina?

The code categorically determined that though the card-sharper must be paid, the tailor need not be; that one might not lie to a man, but might to a woman; that one must not deceive anyone except a husband; that one must not forgive an insult but may insult others, and so on.  These rules might be irrational and bad but they were absolute, and in complying with them, Vronsky felt at ease and could carry his head high.  Only quite lately, in reference to his relations to Anna, had he begun to feel that his code did not quite meet all circumstances, and that the future presented doubts and difficulties for which he had no guiding principle.

One such doubt or difficulty might be Anna’s becoming pregnant.  What did the code of the military nobles say about pregnancy?

The novel starts with the well-known line: ‘All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’  Prince Oblonsky thinks that his wife is passed it – at thirty-four after a few kids – and he has been caught playing around.  Ironically, it is Anna, his sister, who persuades his wife, Dolly, to forgive him his lapse.  Does Oblonsky learn his lesson?  Not a bit of it.  Nothing like a tumble in the hay with the staff to get out the cobwebs.  We get this 600 pages later:

‘Why not, it’s amusing?  Ca ne tire pas a consequence.  My wife won’t be the worse for it, and I shall have a spree.  The important part is to guard the sanctity of the home!  Nothing of that kind at home; but you needn’t tie your hands.

It reminds you of the defence of prostitution by Saints Augustine and Aquinas as the shield of marriage.  A bit on the side may be good for you.  It is almost like the defence of necessity.

The Russian nobility was useless and doomed.  God and his Orthodox Church were corrupt and dying.  The bourgeoisie were no better – and they were about to show that they could not pick up the political baton.  Men were exploring the difference between immorality and amorality.  Women were just left to rot.  The whole rotten edifice would expire under the seething ego of Lenin and the lust for power of that sadist, Stalin.

It was the tragedy of Anna Karenina that having married a cold man, she then fell in love with an empty man.  Vronsky was not fit to tie her laces either as a character or as a person.  But they have to be condemned by Society.  They knew that.  They are like Adam and Eve cast out of Eden.  The sex is hot and guilty and they have no future.  After they go to bed together for the first time, we get this:

Then, as the murderer desperately throws himself on the body, as though with passion, and drags it and hacks it, so Vronsky covered her face and shoulders with kisses.

She held his hand and did not move.  Yes!  These kisses were what had been bought by their shame! ‘Yes, and this hand, which will always be mine, is the hand of my accomplice.’  She lifted his hand and kissed it.  He knelt down and tried to see her face, but she hid it and did not speak.  At last, as though mastering herself, she sat up and pushed him away.  Her face was as beautiful as ever, but all the more piteous.

‘It’s all over,’ she said.  ‘I have nothing but you left.  Remember that.’

‘I cannot help remembering what is life itself to me!  For one moment of that bliss….’

‘What bliss?’ she said with disgust and horror, and the horror was involuntarily communicated to him.  ‘For heaven’s sake, not another word!’

This is high-voltage writing, indeed.  Vronsky is not up to looking after Anna as the gates of a duplicitous society are shut in their faces.  This is how Dolly laments the raw injustice of it all.

‘And they are all so down on Anna!  What for?  Am I better than she?  I at least have a husband whom I love.  Not as I wished to love, but I still do love him; but Anna did not love hers.  In what was she to blame?  She wishes to live.  God has implanted that need in ourselves.  It is quite possible I might have done the same.  I don’t even know whether I did well to listen to her at that terrible time when she came to me in Moscow.  I ought then to have left my husband and begun life anew.  I might have loved and been loved, the real way.  And is it better now?  I don’t respect him.  I need him,’ she thought of her husband,’ and I put up with him.  Is that any better?  I was still attractive then, still had my good looks,’ she went on, feeling that she wanted to see herself in a glass.

Another primal lament.

The disintegration of the union – the end of the affair: anything except that weasel word, ‘relationship’ – is etched in acid.  As happens when lovers fall out, the degradation is mutual.

‘I don’t want to know!’ she almost screamed.  ‘I don’t!  Do I repent of what I have done?  No!  No!  No!  If I had to begin again from the beginning I should do just the same.  For us, for you and for me, only one thing is important: whether we love each other.  No other considerations exist.  Why do we live here, separated and not seeing one another?  Why can’t I go?  I love you, and it’s all the same to me,’ she said, changing from French to Russian, while her eyes as she looked at him glittered with a light he could not understand, ‘so long as you have not changed toward me!  Why don’t you look at me?’

He looked at her.  He saw all the beauty of her face and of her dress, which suited her as her dresses always did.  But now it was just this beauty and elegance that irritated him.’

What was that argument about?  Whether they should be seen together at the theatre.  She goes – and she gets cut – brutally.  She is the fallen woman – Eve – incarnate.

The other story is about Levin and Kitty who strongly resemble Pierre and Natasha in War and Peace.  It is comparatively prosaic and for our tastes now, too preoccupied with the emancipation of the peasants, Russian agriculture and the death of God.  And their story is up and down.  It may remind you of T S Eliot on Hamlet ‘Emotion is in excess of the facts as they appear.’  You can edit a lot of the politics out – as in War and Peace.

There are pieces of bravura writing, as in the ball scene, the steeple chase, and the duck shooting.  We get realism from minute detail.  Here are snippets from the wedding of Levin and Kitty – you have heard it all before.

‘Why is Marie in lilac?  It’s almost as unsuitable at a wedding as black.’

‘With her complexion, it’s her only salvation,’ replied Princess D.  ‘I wonder why they are having the wedding in the evening, like tradespeople.’

‘It is more showy.  I was married in the evening too’, answered Mrs K and sighed as she remembered how sweet she had looked that day, how funnily enamoured her husband then was, and how different things were now.

A count is chatting to a princess ‘who had designs on him.’

She answered only with a smile.  She was looking at Kitty and thinking of the time when she would be standing there beside the count, just as Kitty now stood, and how she would then remind him of his joke…….

All the details of the ceremony were followed not only by the two sisters, the friends and relatives, but also by women onlookers who were quite strangers, and who – breathless with excitement and afraid of missing anything, even a single movement, and annoyed by the indifference of the men – did not answer and often did not hear the latter when they jested or made irrelevant remarks…..

‘Now hear how the deacon will roar” Wives obey your husbands.”’

It was ever thus.  The girls swoon and the boys turn green.  Have you never seen a secretary parade the ring, then the album, and then the baby – and the rest go gaga?  Someday all will this be mine!  It is just the look that ensainted barristers get on their face at a judicial welcome.

The quarrels get worse.  Anna is on drugs.  The end comes like a kaleidoscope.  The final descent into what now seems the only possible outcome for this star-crossed lover is written – it is composed – with murderous power.  They first met on a railway station and it will end at one.  Anna sets out on her last journey.  She looks outside her horse-drawn carriage.

‘They want that dirty ice cream, that they do know for certain’, she thought, looking at two boys stopping at an ice cream seller…  ’We all want what is sweet and tasty.  If not sweetmeats, then dirty ice cream.  And Kitty’s the same – if not Vronsky, then Levin.  And she envies me, and hates me.  And we all hate each other.’

She gets to the station.  She is somehow drawn to a platform.  A goods train approaches.  This is how it all ends.

But she did not take her eyes off the wheels of the approaching second truck, and at the very moment when the midway point between the wheels drew level, she threw away her red bag, and drawing her head down between her shoulders threw herself forward on her hands under the truck, and with a light movement as if preparing to rise again, immediately dropped on her knees.  And at the same moment she was horror-struck at what she was doing.  ‘Where am I?  What am I doing?  Why?’  She wished to rise, to throw herself back, but something huge and relentless struck her on the head and dragged her down.  ‘God forgive me everything’, she said, feeling the impossibility of struggling….A little peasant muttering something was working at the rails.  The candle, by the light of which she had been reading that book filled with anxieties, deceptions, grief, and evil, flared up with a brighter light, lit up for her all that had been before dark, crackled, began to flicker, and went out forever.

I think that Tolstoy loved Anna.  I first read this book forty years ago when I was plainly too young.  This time, I was half in love with Anna myself, but she was never going toward an easeful death.  For me now, Anna Karenina is the largest female hero in all our literature (specifically including Shakespeare for this purpose).

Madame Bovary is very different.  The book is an exquisite indictment of the French bourgeoisie –as damning as Tolstoy’s indictment of the Russian nobility.  The book has no sympathetic characters, but for me at least, Emma has none of the heroic grandeur of Anna – even down to her tawdry, protracted, and melodramatic suicide.  Emma is just a bored housewife with a spending problem and an inept way of putting it about.

(Turgenev introduced Flaubert to Tolstoy.  ‘Sometimes he seems Shakespearean.  I cried aloud with admiration as I read….In any case, he has balls!’  Flaubert complained that Tolstoy repeats himself and philosophises.  Turgenev replied that Flaubert had put his finger on the spot – Tolstoy ‘has also conceived a philosophical system at once mystical, childish, and arrogant: this has doubly spoiled his second novel (Anna).’)

Anna Karenina is a stunning, colossal achievement of the human spirit.  As with Joyce, you are left wondering how a man could get into the head of a woman (unless you are one of those poor, blind, drab souls who think that men and women are the same.)  If you ask me whether Anna was a hero in Shakespeare’s mode – one whose end follows from some flaw in her character – my response is that you are begging the question posed by the whole bloody book.

That question is simple enough.  Could Anna have a life?


The analogy with the fall of Adam and Eve still holds good for me – the woman takes the hit, and the consequences of the original sin are inexorable.  But rather than look to Madame Bovary, which was written about twenty years before Anna Karenina, we might look rather at Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which came out at about the same time and caused a sensation across Europe.  Nora has a hollow marriage like Anna – to a shallow man who looks upon her as a kind of doll.   In the end, Nora does the unthinkable – she repudiates the marriage, and walks out – slamming the door.  (Hedda Gabler’s repudiation is more extreme.)  Tolstoy tells us this of Vronsky:

For the first time he vividly pictured to himself her personal life, her thoughts, her wishes; but the idea that she might and should have her own independent life appeared to him so dreadful that he hastened to drive it away.

That is Nora’s husband, word for word.  Anna says of Karenin, ‘He does know what love is.’  Neither does Vronsky.  During one of their first tiffs, we are told that Vronsky ‘felt something rising in his throat, and for the first time in his life he felt ready to cry.’  Anna says of her husband ‘He is not a man but a machine, and a cruel machine when angry…..I am like a hungry man to whom food has been given.’  When Anna confesses to her husband, his only thought is of Society.  ‘The one thing that preoccupied him was the question of how he could best divest himself of the mud with which she in her fall had bespattered him….’  You can’t get meaner than that.  We saw a similar reaction from Nora’s husband.  When the affair disintegrates, Anna asks of Vronsky ‘What did he look for in me?  Not so much love as the satisfaction of his vanity.’  There is a lot of Vronsky in Donald Trump, the quintessence of self-centred shallowness.

Both of these works are fierce protests at the miserable standing of women and at the hypocrisy and emptiness of the responsible ‘Society’.  The author pulls no punches on the misery of women in child bearing and rearing.  Dolly Oblonsky is well and truly unattractive at 34, and Anna has to take steps to stop going the same way.

‘Altogether,’ she [Dolly] thought, looking back at the whole of her life during those fifteen years of wedlock, ‘pregnancy, sickness, dullness of mind, indifference to everything, and above all disfigurement.  Even Kitty – young pretty Kitty, – how much plainer she has become!  And I when I am pregnant become hideous, I know.  Travail, suffering, monstrous suffering, and that final moment – then nursing, sleepless nights, and that awful pain!’

The social debates at the other end – with Levin – can get wearing but you might strike gold.  There is a discussion about why Russia is in a Serbian war.  Someone says this was a case where ‘the whole people directly expresses its will.’

‘That word people is so indefinite,’ said Levin.  ‘Clerks in district offices, schoolmasters and one out of a thousand peasants may know what it is all about.  The rest of the eighty millions….not only don’t express their will, but have not the faintest idea what there is to express it about.  What right have we then to say it is the will of the people?’

So much for Rousseau and the ‘theory’ of the French Revolution.  Tolstoy says the problem here is ‘pride of intellect.’  He was dead right, and this is still a very great book.  It is as elemental and doom-laden as Greek tragedy.

It is not possible to do justice to this book on film; I have seen two good ballet productions; but in my view it is best taken as opera – straight off the page.