The Real 'Anna Karenina': Through Tolstoy's Eyes

Anna Karenina gets around. She's had a second career touring the world, dropping in on television studios and movie sets, portrayed by Greta Garbo, Sophie Marceau, Vivien Leigh, and Jacqueline Bisset, among others. Russian comic book artists even reinvented her in a graphic novel set in the New Russia, complete with "cell phones and cocaine, sushi bars and convertibles." And the latest screen version, with Keira Knightley as Anna, put us squarely in the realm of fan fiction, presenting the story reimagined as a theatrical production.

And, of course, the novel has been translated into English many times.

But what if none of those translations fully appreciated, let alone conveyed, the true glory of Tolstoy's characters and story lines and the perfect way they mesh because they failed to notice that Tolstoy made some of his most important points not explicitly but in the way he used language? That he did at least as much showing as telling?

What if Tolstoy was an innovative stylist as well as a masterful psychologist and storyteller?

Tolstoy's style thrilled and actually astonished me when I reread Anna in the late 1990s, decades after my last reading. Here was a writer after my own heart, breaking rules and conveying facts, ideas, and opinions in ways that were not just unconventional: they were confrontational.

Tolstoy stripped down his vocabulary, used repetition to create rhythm, to emphasize, and to create webs of meaning that he cast over the entire novel. And these are just the beginning.

Even a look at the first page reveals some of these innovative devices.

Tolstoy gets right in the reader's face at the very beginning with the so very famous first line about happy and unhappy families. "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" -- as many translations render it.

It's human for the reader to want a neat dichotomy here: happy families are one way and unhappy families are the opposite. Happy families are all alike (as it is so often mistranslated), and unhappy families have their special ways. But Tolstoy did not, in fact, say "identical" or "alike." He said that happy families "resemble one another." In other words happy families do have many things in common, but the differences can be interesting. He does not dismiss them outright.

This lexical nuance is only a starting point. "Resembles one another" is simply longer than "alike" or "identical." The sheer word count slows the reader down, drawing attention to this subtle point. The book's high drama may center on the unhappy families, but Tolstoy also wants us to take careful note of Levin and Kitty, one complicated but ultimately happy family.

It's a technique Tolstoy uses over and over in the novel. He piles up words to slow the reader down. He forces the reader to physically spend more time on the points he wants to emphasize.

Take the paragraph immediately following the famous opening.

Stiva Oblonsky -- who, as we later learn, is Anna's brother -- has been found out in an affair with his children's former governess. We would be justified in expecting Tolstoy to tell us in so many words what a bad man Stiva is (this is not his first offense) and how terribly his wife and family are suffering as a consequence.

But he does not say this in so many words. In fact, characters are described as "bad" only when they describe themselves (as does Anna, in a rare moment of clarity).

What Tolstoy does say is that Stiva's actions have destroyed his home's order -- "The Oblonsky home was all confusion" (as in the Tower of Babel). Tolstoy practically bludgeons the reader with his insistence that we need to be looking at the consequences of Stiva's actions for his household, rather than for Stiva himself, when he repeats (with slight variations) the same phrase three times in the space of two sentences, twice back to back:

"This had been the state of affairs for three days now, and it was keenly felt not only by the spouses themselves but by all the members of the family and the servants as well. All the members of the family and the servants felt that there was no sense in their living together and that travelers chancing to meet in any inn had more in common than did they, the members of the Oblonsky family and the Oblonsky servants."

Tolstoy could easily have replaced the second instance of the phrase with a pronoun, or split up the first two phrases -- as past translators have done. He could have said straight out that this "state of affairs" had made the entire household "very unhappy." Instead, Tolstoy slows the reader down at the critical point, signaling his greatest concern: what happens to a husband, a wife, or a child when a person they love, trust, and rely upon violates that love, trust, and reliance. Stiva does it to Dolly. Anna does it to Karenin, Vronsky, and most damningly, her son and daughter. Their wrong is in hurting others.

Like her brother Stiva, Anna is too self-centered to be guided by concern for others. Contrary to popular opinion, Anna Karenina does not glorify its tragic lovers. Anna Karenina is not a beautiful and passionate woman who sacrifices everything to be with the love of her life but a beautiful and passionate woman who is also self-centered and dishonest and wreaks havoc on those who love her and ultimately on herself.

No one wrote of love and suffering more magnificently than Tolstoy. But you won't find the novel's depth or beauty in any Hollywood screenplay. Anna Karenina isn't a soap opera. It's a masterpiece.

Marian Schwartz' new translation of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina has just come out with Yale University Press.