Saturday, December 3, 2011

Final Thoughts Guest Post: Anna Que?

Guest post from group member MJ (follow him on Twitter here!):

Well, another Tolstoy epic, another tome that doesn't quite know how to end. I should say right now that I greatly enjoyed Anna K; for the first 60% or so, I mostly loved it, and for most of the remaining 40% I was definitely engaged. But I very much preferred War and Peace, and I think it has a lot to do with a point emphasized in the foreword to the Pevear/Volkonsky edition: whereas War and Peace is sui generis, Anna K is a much more conventional 19-century novel. And since I love my Dickens and Eliot, I've now concluded that Tolstoy simply was not as well-suited to the genre.

It's strange, because I find many of the classic, romantic novelistic components of W&P--particularly the melodramatic relationship of Natasha and Prince Andrei--completely absorbing, but I'm now wondering whether I'd like them a lot less if they weren't combined with sweeping battle scenes, historiographic philosophy, and the fantastically entertaining skewering of Napoleon and "great men" more generally.

Because now that I think of it, I don't really care much about most of the characters in War & Peace; I suppose I like Pierre, and Andrei is admirable in his way, but the girls and women are not really believable, and most of the other men are just types. Similarly, in Anna K, I found Levin and (to a lesser degree) Vronsky interesting, but most of the others--including the title character--did not strike me as having meaningful interior lives. So while the plot engaged me, I rarely found it psychologically deep, except when Levin was on the scene.

And oh, that denouement! [QUASI-SPOILER FOLLOWS] The end of Book VII was just not at all meaningful to me. Sure, it was sad, but it didn't mean anything, and I think this is directly attributable to Anna K's weakness as a character. And everything that followed was just kind of blah. Similarly, I happen to like the end of W&P--you've gotta have a heart of stone not to love a 40-page essay on historiography!--but it is kind of a weird way to end that book.

Which brings me back to my intro, and also to the picture that accompanies this post, which depicts another great Russian who didn't quite know how to finish what he started.

Guest Post: Final Thoughts on Anna Karenina

Over the next week, we'll be posting some final thoughts on ANNA KARENINA. Full disclosure: I myself am not done yet -- though I think I'll be done later tonight. Our first post of final thoughts on the book comes from group member The Dude Abides (follow him on Twitter!):

Finishing Anna Karenina at a whirlwind pace left me a little unsatisfied with the last part of the book. After we see Anna connect with her true love and Levin marrying Kitty things seemed to lag along like a telenovela that has a few weeks to go. But the tension picks up again when we see Anna constantly fighting with Vronsky as pressure builds in the saga of her impending divorce.

Levin seems happy yet but does not seem to have quite the married life and fatherhood he envisioned when he had starry eyes in courting Kitty. As if love were a map where you can see the road, both Anna and Levin take roads that have consequences that will turn dire in one case and apocalyptic in another.

The tension between Anna and Vronsky is firecracker-quick and results in some very schizophrenic moments for Anna. Confused as to whether he loves her anymore or has fallen victim to another woman, she ultimately chooses to end her life in a barbaric and tragic way that ties back to her first meeting with Vronsky in a train station. This quick and fatal decision seemed odd to me. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention to the build-up but it seemed like Anna turned into a mental patient in a quick few pages.

Continuing on to Part VIII, Levin goes through some mental gymnastics in dealing with the news of Anna's death, which leads him to a full evaluation of his being, both physically and metaphysically. In the fast-paced and hurried last section Levin nearly loses his wife and young child in a lightning storm -- an event that anchors his reality and transforms him into a religious man.

From the death of Anna on, the ending seemed hurried and disconnected from the rest of the story. It seemed weird that the suicide took little time to get through and the impact on others was curt and efficient. Perhaps Tolstoy clashed with his editors over the last part, maybe due to the idea he expressed there that all religions are equally good or maybe it was shoddy work to complete the serialization or maybe I just need to re-read it because I was rushing to finish the book. In any event, I did enjoy Tolstoy's work and thought it was a well-written and interesting story.