2011: A Year in Reading - Robert Butler on Tolstoy

So my daughter gave me a Kindle for my birthday and I’ve been greedily loading it with free public domain e-books. Among them is Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I’d never read but assumed I knew after seeing several film and TV adaptations.

Based on those experiences, I figured it was just a romance about a married woman who falls for the handsome young officer Vronsky and ends up throwing herself under a locomotive.

Well, it is, but that’s just a fraction of the book. Tolstoy offers a complex portrait of Russia’s upper crust in the 1870s, a society that within 40 years would be swept away by the revolution (amazingly, the book contains conversations about communism!!).

Tolstoy spends much time depicting the parallel romance of the graceless country squire Levin with the young Kitty … it’s a love affair of substance rather than of flash and exterior beauty. It’s given just as much weight as the Anna-Vronsky plot … in fact it provides an antidote to the self-obsession of those two “tragic” characters.

And speaking of Anna and Vronsky…Tolstoy gets so deep into their heads – unmercifully so – that it almost takes the notion of romance off the table. Vronsky is a shallow man perpetually in debt for gambling, while Anna seems lost in her inability to reconcile her need for romantic diversion with her role as wife and mother.

On top of that, Tolstoy produces some great descriptive prose. There’s a horse race segment so thrilling that you can practically hear the hooves pounding and feel the sickening crunch when riders and mounts are thrown to the ground.

I understand that some literistas view Anna Karenina as the greatest novel ever written. Don’t know if I’d go that far, but it’s pretty great.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.