Anna Karenina – Most Over-rated Fiction ever? (Are there Worse?)

I have a fascination with Russia. I took four years of Russian language in HIgh School. The Hermitage is on my bucket list. I am interested in their brewing traditions. I grew up during the Cold War, and the Russian Bear was a fascinating constant presence in the psyche of that time.

But I had only dabbled with Russian Literature. I think I read a Dostoyevsky short story or two, and I suffered through One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but I never dared approach the real masterworks of Russian Literature. Frankly, I was intimidated by their reputation for sweeping drama and complicated casts. I wasn’t sure I was smart enough to keep up.

With my 2+ hours of commuting a day, though, I have been listening to a wide range of books, and I finally decided to tackle Anna Karenina from Audible.com. Broken into 4 chunks of 8 hours each, it seemed a big bucket of spackel to fill a gaping void in my intellect.

It wasn’t until 20 hours or so into it that I admitted to myself that I had been duped by the literature-industrial complex. Anna Karenina is an under-edited amalgam of pampered aristocrats’ interior dialogues and arch manners. By the time Anna finally jumps under a train, my only regret was that I was not there to give her a shove.

I blame Tolstoy, or his absent editor. The description of Levin’s wedding managed to drag itself out for miles and miles of my commute, for no apparent purpose other than to make us suffer as much as we do when we ourselves are stuck in ceremonies of cruel length. Lengthy interior monologues, including attempts to remember prior thoughts, are catalogued as if it is possible to care what some silly, self-absorbed pompous nincompoop would be thinking. And, though perhaps it was just my translation, I grew tired of hearing that Anna “screwed up her eyes” with eye-rolling regularity.

While the characters were mostly unlikeable and completely unadmirable, the most surprising thing to me (though I’m not sure it’s possible to deliver a surprise over 32+ hours or 900 pages, pick your poison) was how little I cared for any of it – the plot, the setting (cities are bad, country is good), the costumes, the social mores, etc.. Each of the characters came with an emotional amplifier that blared out at inappropriate times. Inconvenience or awkwardness was never merely that – it was always “unbearable” or “impossible”, as though the laws of medicine and physics bent themselves to sympathize with a person’s desire not to see or speak with another.

For years I’ve been ignorant of Russian literature. Now that I’m no longer ignorant, I feel mildly stupider for having spent so much time among the Russian aristocracy, who have less dignity and moral self-awareness than the characters on your average reality show.

6 Responses to “Anna Karenina – Most Over-rated Fiction ever? (Are there Worse?)”

  1. kcmeesha says:

    Dan, I avoided most Russian classics since they were mandatory in school and the post-book discussion was pre-determined as well. But something has to be said for the quality of translation. I was surprised to see my kid struggling with some English-language books which I remembered reading in Russian with ease. Then I realized that Russian translators pretty much rewrote these books in a fashion enjoyable to the Russian reader. Maybe it wasn’t the case with Anna Karenina.

  2. gonemild says:

    That could be, Meesha. And I’m not about to relearn Russian to try to reread the book in the original.

  3. Nick says:

    Anna Karenina was a product of its time. Looking back, after nearly a century of realism the likes of which Tolstoy could never imagine, is comparable to just now viewing Kubrick ’s polemic, A Clockwork Orange: what was all the fuss about?

    That said, turgid novels are all alike; every tedious novel is swollen in its own way…

  4. gonemild says:

    Fair point – there may have been a time when people wanted to read about stupid aristocratic pains in the ass, instead of people like the Kardashians . . .

    Your final sentence puts you in first place for Best Comment of 2013.

  5. Chip says:

    I was searching the web for an email address for you and–though failing in that endeavor–came across this blog entry.

    I agree, both with you and your commentators. I generally disliked the characters, found the story generally uninteresting and was unhappy with the language (although that was probably the fault of the translation).

    My experience with Anna Karenina was as a thirty disc audiobook. I slogged through the story until, when I got to disc 29, I thought we had backtracked a bit. Turns out I got two 27’s and no 29. The toughest part of the book was trying to decide whether finishing the story was worth going back to Barnes and Noble to swap discs. I decided that it was.

    I was wrong.

    Anyway, drop me an email and I’ll pass along what I really wanted to tell you.

  6. David says:

    Oh, there is plenty of more over-rated novels!

    Confederacy of Dunces

    All Henry Miller

    Every Novel Hemingway wrote except Sun Also Rises …

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