Monday, August 03, 2009


Well, recently, in an American poll of writers, "Anna Karenina" was voted the greatest novel of all time. It is difficult to understand why. Certainly, it's a very good novel: but the best? No, I don't think so. It's certainly not as profound as Tolstoy's other masterpiece, "War and Peace". At the time of Anna Karenina's publication, several critics dismissed it as a tale of self-indulgent adultery in high places. Of course, this is too extreme and simplistic a view, yet it has a kernel of truth in it as well. None of the characters are truly sympathetic. Anna leaves her husband and son for the somewhat characterless Count Vronsky, and derides and scorns Karenin for his attempts to hold the marriage together. After that, with somewhat breathtaking audacity, she insists on a divorce (which Karenin refuses to give) and the right to have her son live with Vronsky and her (it might be an issue today, but it was a non-issue in the Tsarist Russia of the time: the state and the church were absolutely on the side of the wronged husband). The subplot of the novel which involves the husband of Vronsky's former love, Levin, also fails to produce a wholly appealing character. One feels that Levin, with his spiritualty, belief in the land and the peasant and agonised search for spiritual truth, is the character Tolstoy most holds up for our admiration. However, he frequently comes across as a misanthropic bore whose occasional spells of overt sentimentalism do much to repel the reader. Still, his final realisation that spiritual truth is different from and separate to reason, will strike most readers as profound (at least in the way it is worked out in the novel). This is contrasted with Anna's very limited final sensibility that tells her everyone in the world really hates each other; and she dies with spite in her heart, believing--correctly--that her suicide will be the total ruin of Vronsky--and that this will be her final revenge on her lover for not loving her enough (though how he could have loved her more, it's difficult to see).

Contrast all this with "War and Peace" which has as its main theme the movement of history itself and examines such ideas as how much free will man really has. The pre-Marxist view expressed in the novel that great cycles of history have deeprooted causes beyond the ambitions of Kings and Princes, was striking for its time and gives expression to a philosophical view of history that still makes sense for many people, even today. Moreover, the novel has a "cast of thousands" and historical characters such as Napoleon, the Russian commander, Kutuzov, and Tsar Alexander himself, are compellingly portrayed. Furthermore, the fictitious characters are more sympathetically drawn than in "Anna Karenina" (especially in the case of the lethargic, but likeable, Count Bezuhof). Finally, the only explanation I can think of for putting "Anna Karenina" in a higher position in the list of 'greatest ever novels' than "War and Peace", is--the likely enough one--that far more readers have reached the end of "Anna Karenina" than the end of "War and Peace" (which is 500 pages longer, and intellectually more demanding). The top 3 novels in this interesting American list (which never included a single novel by Dostoyevsky, but yet found space for several far weaker novels by American writers) were:

1. Anna Karenina

2. Madame Bovary

3. War and Peace

My own top 3 would be the same--but in a different order:

1. War and Peace

2. Anna Karenina

3. Madam Bovary

All in all, a great triumph for the realist novel!


Blogger dreamwind55 said...

First, I love your blog.
I never got to finish "War and Peace", so it might be a masterpiece indeed, but I can't have a legitimate opinion. I am not really into Russian realist writers (but I managed to read Gorky’s reminiscences of V.I.Lenin –heck, I’m form Romania, former Communist country, it was compulsory school reading).
I read ‘Madame Bovary” and in as much as I like Flaubert, I think it’s overrated. The only point of interest in this novel was the development of Emma and the fact that psychologists have found a name for that specific kind of disorder and delusion. But nevertheless, Flaubert was famous for his choice of words, so unless I read the novel in French, all criticism is just a criticism of a fair replica, but just a replica. Translations can never do justice to the original.

12:20 AM  
Blogger John Wallen said...

Thanks for your kind words dreamwind55: they are much appreciated. Mostly I just express my heartfelt opinions here about matters important for me and hardly expect to make much of a stir in cyberspace. Anyway, thanks once again. I advise you to finish "War and Peace". It's difficult to conceive of a greater novel (like those arguments about God being the greatest being one could possibly conceive of), though I must admit it was only a broken ankle and being laid up for months that finally gave me the free time to read W&P. In the end, the realist novel is perhaps the type of novel that most people can most easily connect with and understand. However, I'm also a great admirer of the modernist novel, believing "Ulysses" to probably be the greatest novel of the 20th century--though "Finnegan's Wake" was definitely taking a step too far into the dark closet of literary obscurity.

12:38 AM  

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