We live in a world of superlatives. Companies quantify their products to the point of lunacy in order to make it sound better (“It’s the number one animated family comedy in America!” “Ranked the top mid-size SUV under $30,000!” etc.), seemingly irrefutable statements of superiority can have several meanings (several companies claim to serve “America’s favorite fries.” Some base this on taste tests, others on sales figures. Can they both be correct?), and the word “best” is used so much in our everyday speech that it has lost all meaning. (In a recent commercial, chef-TV host-author-sex symbol-carpenter-NFL linebacker Rachel Ray tells a man that he’s “the best” when he serves her a cup of coffee that she purchased.) Why have we, as a people, become so afraid of sincere praise?
I think the reason might lie at least in part to the enormous sample size that exists these days, for everything. The reason why J.D. Power and Associates are in business is to offer car-buying insight for EVERYONE, no matter what kind they are thinking of purchasing; if they were only in charge of picking one car to be the overall “best,” they’d be a help to almost no one. In the world of popular culture, this task becomes even more daunting. There are SO MANY movies, bands, TV shows, and books out there that any claim for a particular sample to be “the best” feels arbitrary and short-sighted.
Click HERE to read an essay about, and like, Ulysses
Click HERE to read an essay praising the dysfunctional love of Wuthering Heights
Click HERE to read about the timeless beauty of Gone With the Wind
Click HERE to read about the ageless wonder that is The Brothers Karamazov
Click HERE if you think you’re man enough to read Jane Eyre
Click HERE to read about the cosmic brilliance that is The Iliad
For all of these reasons and more, I recognize the inherent dangers I am creating myself with the sentence at the end of this paragraph, but I am doing it any way. Of course, I have not read every book in the world (I once read a stat that every single day, more books are published than a person could read in his entire lifetime!), and yet just as you can recognize “the one” amidst a sea of other potential mates, and stick with them even as you meet thousands more, so too do I stand by my claim. Here it is: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy is (all caps, mind you) The Greatest Novel Ever Written.
Even if you know nothing about this book, you probably know something. It looks very long, for instance. It’s probably about rich Russian people. You might even have a sense that there’s something with a train in it. Correct on all counts; for all intents and purposes, Anna Karenina is a long book about Russian upper-class people, with a train featured tragically throughout. Any attempt at further synopsis would make this already too-wordy review into its own novella, so let me jump right to the reasons why this dry concept still achieves TGNEW status:
The Characters transcend their time and place – Perhaps the most difficult thing to do in writing is to create fully-formed and fleshed-out characters of both genders. To do so requires an almost supernatural ability to create another person’s soul from scratch; to fail to do so condemns the book firmly in the here and now. The characters that Tolstoy creates in Anna Karenina are so well conceived and crafted that it almost feels appropriate to say that they are real people who merely suffer from the bad luck not to have been actually born. If this is not impressive enough, many of the characters in AK are related to each other in some way (refer to the family tree that almost certainly exists in the front of any copy you find), and the characters, while still each unique as individuals, exhibit FAMILY traits as well. With characters this carefully cultivated, Tolstoy is able to create people that are so real they could live amongst us today, even though their world is just about as far from ours as can be imagined. If you read this book without finding, in an action or a phrase, something one of these characters does that resonates with you, in your life today, then you just weren’t looking hard enough.
Tolstoy’s use of perspective change – There’s no such thing as completely detached, impartial narrative; each of us sees the world through our own eyes. When writing a book, it’s a highly skilled author who can keep their own thoughts and opinions out of the heads of their characters, and let them tell their story. However, Tolstoy actually goes one better: in Anna Karenina, when the perspective changes from one character’s thoughts to another’s, so too does our concept of the world at large. Toward the beginning of the book, Anna meets and falls for the dashing Count Vronsky, though her marriage keeps her from acting on this impulse. The first time we meet her husband in the novel, we are in her head as she reunites with him, and before “we” have ever laid eyes on him, we are suddenly noticing his faults (his voice is too high, his ears are too big, etc.). As time goes by and Anna’s infatuation grows, her husband’s faults become magnified to the point that ending with Vronsky is the only possible result. Then, toward the end of the book, we jump back into Anna’s head as she is in the midst of a complete emotional breakdown. At this point, we convincingly join her as she blackly and chillingly sums up everything around her. In a lesser talent this sort of mind-hopping would be a failed gimmick. For Tolstoy, it’s revelatory.
Tolstoy Pre-Freuds Freud – Interpretation of Dreams was written in 1899, while the last page of Anna Karenina was published in 1877. Twenty-two years before Freud, Tolstoy had already anticipated and put into practice the notions of subconscious thought and fears bubbling to the surface. Again, here are two examples. After Anna first meets Vronsky (which obviously excites and titillates her), she gets on a train, begins reading a romance novel, and starts fantasizing about herself as the heroine of her own epic romance. She has a long, hard letter opener in her hands, and it is made clear that she is absently yet unequivocally rubbing her hands up and down this phallic object; it’s a subtle, yet revelatory, moment. The second example is even better (though I take no credit for discovering on my own: a brilliant professor told me about this). Anna takes a train to meet her brother at the start of the novel. As she steps onto the platform, she notices a hobo for a moment, then walks by him (almost no mention is made of this; blink and you’ll miss it.). She then sees Vronsky, though they don’t speak. At the end of the scene, someone tragically falls into the path of an oncoming train, and is killed. So: fleeting image of hobo, dashing Vronsky, random tragedy. Later in the novel, when this meaningless moment is well past, Vronsky and Anna are very involved with one another, and Anna begins having bad dreams. In her dreams, a scary hobo begins yelling at her, and she has a sense of impending doom. Anna prescribes all manner of meaning to these dreams, ultimately seeing them as premonitions leading to the book’s tragic ending. However, Tolstoy has laid out all the clues beforehand: these dreams mean NOTHING! They are only subconscious connections to things she has seen but doesn’t remember. It’s not the dream itself that dooms Anna, it’s her willful – yes – interpretation of them that does her in.
It can be read in two different ways – This is maybe my favorite aspect to this novel, and it goes a long way to proving my improvable thesis. Tolstoy has given us enough in Anna Karenina that it can be two completely different books depending on how you choose to interpret its main character. Here are the two camps, in brief:
1. Anna as Tragic Heroine – It is possible to see Anna as a beautiful woman in a male-dominated society, caught up in a situation over which she has no control, and which ultimately leads to her tragic end. For these people, Anna’s beauty will shine through even her least attractive moments, and they’ll agonize with her over the choices she ultimately makes. The end will seem unfair, yet despairingly inevitable.
2. Anna as the Creator of her own Misfortune – The more complicated and interesting interpretation. Remember that Anna openly wishes to be the heroine of a romance novel. Then, remember that in a true romance, one of two things always occurs: either the story ends at the MOMENT that the lovers get together, or one or both of the characters dies tragically so they can’t be together. In other words, there’s a reason why Romeo and Juliet ends the way it does; if star-crossed lovers are able to marry and settle down, they’ll eventually fall into the same ruts to which every couple falls victim, and there’s nothing less epically romantic than arguing about whose turn it is to take out the trash. When you read AK with this in mind, you suddenly see that Anna tends to relish the excitement and danger of her affair, yet willfully throws away any chance to make it less illicit. She CONTROLS these events, and in doing so, she creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where she saw what her end had to be, then saw everything else that happened to her as leading to that end. (Tolstoy, when asked why he named the book Anna Karenina, replied that she would not let him call it anything else.)
Anna Karenina is all this and more. I am forever recognizing moments from the novel in things that happen to me in my real life, and the true testament to Tolstoy’s genius is that I am able to glean perspective and insight because of this similarity. Take my word for it, and pick up a copy of Anna Karenina as soon as you get up the nerve. The first thing you’ll realize is that it’s far more readable and understandable than you ever thought possible. The last thing you’ll realize, when you finally turn that last page, is that you just sampled a taste of pure Greatness.