Anna Karenina, and I wasn't disappointed. Reading Tolstoy, more than anything, leaves me with a warm feeling toward Tolstoy. I do try, when reading, not to assume too much about the author, but again and again found myself mentally nodding: yes--he understands, about this or that character's thoughts, fears, frustrations, spiritual struggles.
Anna Karenina tells parallel stories about two couples, or rather, a triangle and a couple: Anna, her husband, and her lover; and Kitty (Anna's sister-in-law), and her husband Levin. Anna's sterile marriage and disastrous adulterous relationship are contrasted with Kitty and Levin's marital and spiritual growth.
Tolstoy really does do a remarkable job of getting inside characters' minds--men, women, and children. I caught myself wondering if he had asked his wife, for instance, exactly what it's like, physically and emotionally, to struggle with breastfeeding. He seems to understand the mental exhaustion of a mother with many young children and an irresponsible husband. And this is a man, writing in the 1870s! He captures the stress and frustration of an introvert forced to spend large amounts of time with argumentative people. He takes us inside the minds of all three members of the triangle--and I couldn't imagine any of them acting in any other way than they did. Their choices all seemed inevitable outcomes of their personalities. Even Anna's young son, the victim and onlooker, is fully realized.
Spiritual struggle is a major theme in Anna, as it was in War and Peace. From this angle, too, I felt the skill of the characterization. Levin is the character I would have expected to wrestle with questions such as the meaning of life and the existence of God. His development from agnostic to believing Christian is treated in depth, and doesn't feel like prosletyzing. Again, I wondered if Tolstoy was remembering his own experience, as it seemed to unfold so naturally.
Was Leo Tolstoy a warm, wise, and understanding man? There's no way to know for sure, of course, but that's how I think of him now.
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