first published in The Independent as part of their ‘Book of a Lifetime’ series:
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), Penguin Classics
I first read Anna Karenina twenty years ago when travelling across the Peruvian desert on a long bus journey, and it has stayed with me ever since. The flatness of the desert, with looted and bleached bones from the Paracas tombs spilling right up to the highway, made a peculiarly complementary backdrop for Tolstoy’s tale as it played back and forth across the Russian steppe.
Despite his reputation as a thinker, it was the physicality of Tolstoy’s description of individual scenes which first attracted me: Oblonsky rolling his ‘full, well-tended body’ over the springs of a sofa as he wakes in the spare-room, exiled by his wife; the needles of hoar-frost against the black of Kitty’s gloves as she skates. It is this physicality that makes Tolstoy, like Gabriel García Márquez, translate so well. And again like Márquez, another writer to whom I early made a lifelong allegiance, Tolstoy sets the intensity of such moments against long stretches of intervening time.
He wrote Anna Karenina in his late forties, looking back at himself as a young man through his portrayal of Levin. The novel came at a turning point in his live, midway between the young gambler and womaniser who had fought in the Crimea and the feisty sage of the late years. Not long afterwards he had a spiritual conversion and began to give up his land, title and worldly goods, including even the copyright to his books. But all that was still to come. Anna Karenina is the last flaring up of his worldly interests, with its often mischievous and attentive descriptions of St. Petersburg society and the affairs of the rural steppe: how much we enjoy the moment when Oblonsky deliberately wears his oldest clothes to go out shooting, so as to point up the arriviste new boots of his companion.
Above all, the long hold the book has exerted over me comes from Tolstoy’s ability to exploit, with great tenderness, the frail gap between what we intend and what we achieve, from Levin’s endlessly prepared yet never delivered engagement stratagems to the blind automatism of Anna’s desire that renders her good resolutions, and ultimately her life, void.
On a recent pilgrimage to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s house in the woods on the edge of the steppe and the model for Levin’s estate, I was shown in a back storeroom the ostentatious full-length bearskin coat that he bought himself with the substantial first royalties from Anna Karenina. I like to imagine the pleasure with which he saw the first snowflakes of winter fall on the black fur.
(c) Hugh Thomson 2006