My serious intellectual pretensions as a fourteen year old meant that, when browsing through a Manila bookshop and exhausted by my family's marathon shopping trip, Anna Karenina was an obvious choice. I knew of Tolstoy from his infamously long novel and historical study War and Peace, which was, I conceived, the ultimate must-read for any aspiring literary snob. And though there it sat on the retail shelf, its skyscrapering reputation and formidable size overwhelmed my teenage head. Next to it, however, sat a shorter, though still sizable, novel with a beguiling black-haired beauty on its cover. I believed this would be the novel that would get me acquainted to the particularly heavy flavour of Russian literature. When I parted the hallowed leaves of fresh paper, I soon realised that this was no appetiser. Almost from the first tasty bite of the novel's famous first sentence, I realised I was at a literary Circe's banquet, and I would never want to escape.
Anna Karenina tells the story of a beautiful Russian princess who is married to a charmless old man and meets a handsome, young army captain called Vronsky. They fall in love, and she gives up everything to be with him and lives the life of a scandal-clad outcast. While this story develops, simultaneously we have another main character, Constantine Levin. As Anna falls, Levin finds happiness in his ascent into contented married life with another beautiful Russian princess called Kitty.
Levin was Tolstoy's most autobiographical character, a count (as opposed to the princes and princesses that stuff the rest of the novel), shocked to the core by the rankness of his once virtuous brother's downtrodden condition. He then searches for a truth that will show him how to live, and he finds it while walking in his family's estates. Levin became aware of the spiritual value of the work of human hands and uncovered his need of a simple life in order to understand his place in God’s creation. The back-to-the-earth approach here described resonated with the aspects of Rosseau that I had just study in my history class. I liked Rousseau's romanticism because it described the pure joy of my experience, riding horses across the forests and highlands of the Philippine farms of my childhood. Even the faint taste of the mountain air that my imagination brews realises the absolute and undiluted pleasure of physical labour and natural beauty. These feelings were partially responsible for my choosing zoology as my first degree; I wanted to be outside with God's created gems at all times. The novel also echoed very deeply of the Little Way of Therese of Lisieux which drew me at the time. Both Tolstoy's and Therese's glorification of everyday human labour triumphed against the cruelty, greed and monstrous ostentatiousness of Third-World wealth that was another part of my upbringing.
Anna Karenina's main theme is about two different versions of a life of love. Anna abandons her life of duty for her love with Vronsky. Love for Anna is about her own happiness and fulfilment of her needs. Many have described Anna's feelings as really being one of lust, and that Tolstoy punishes this lustful woman with the tragedy of her life. Really, Tolstoy is criticising the secular view of love as obsessional romance that takes over against the detriment of the other important parts of our lives. Levin's love story with Kitty, on the other hand, was a love that went hand in hand with his great spiritual quest and in a serious way completed it. Kitty and Levin's engagement scene was taken straight from Tolstoy's actual life, and the romance of the sacramental connection it suggested was ravishing. Levin's rise to virtue illustrates Aristotle's virtue theory. For Aristotle, all people must flourish as human beings, and the way that one flourishes is to by being moral, virtuous people. Levin, who exercises his morality by improving the lot of the peasants on his family estates, is able to see love as the gift from God that it is, and love fulfills his virtuous life with the joy of companionship.
If I should read the novel today, I would have known that the happily-ever-after of Levin's story was not the end of Tolstoy's love life (I have written about this subject elsewhere in the film review of The Last Station) , but as a teenager it gave me two things that I needed, romance and a virtuous direction; it portrayed the spiritual journey as something immensely beautiful and ultimately desirable. It was my first experience of romantic love and transformed my relationship with novels from what was once tedious homework to a great passion, the joy of which tucks me into bed at night and gets me out of bed in the morning.
Read it if: You find great joy in working with your hands, or if you are in love.