Anna Karenina is a novel that, to my mind, admits of no comparison, and the recent feature film could not boast of being nearly as impactful or masterful as its source material. In this review, I’d like to talk a little about both the book and the movie, which premiered in 2012 and features Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Domhnall Gleeson (among others).
To proceed justly, I’ll start with the novel, written by Tolstoy and published in 1877. In my previous review of War and Peace, I reflected on the tendency of literary masterpieces to appear intimidating and even unapproachable when viewed from a distance. And yet War and Peace is a spellbinding and engrossing work which could hardly be called inaccessible if length is not considered an impediment. Anna Karenina is also deserving of all its renown, and is also very accessible. However, it differs greatly from War and Peace. While the latter is more epic in style with its historical sweep over the Napoleonic wars, Anna Karenina is a novel focused primarily on relationships and individuals; on love.
What comes to mind when you think of “War and Peace?”
Maybe a word like “masterpiece” is springing forth, or perhaps even a grandiose claim calling it “the greatest novel ever written.” Then again, you might think of that famous quote from Henry James, who described Tolstoy’s tome as a “large loose baggy monster.”
So while there is no denying the value of War and Peace, or its place among the esteemed works of fiction, maybe it is more something to be feared than enjoyed. Admired from afar but not actually attempted, not when the idea of reading it is so daunting a prospect. War and Peace is certainly a gargantuan novel: in my edition, it surpasses 1200 pages (this edition is, by the way, the much-lauded translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, the dynamic duo who have also translated works by Russian authors Dostoevsky and Chekhov). Is War and Peace really a monster?
A Tale of Two Cities is the third Dickens novel I have read (after Oliver Twist and Great Expectations). The “bookends” of the novel are two of the most iconic lines in English literature: the lengthy opening sentence about the best and worst of times, and the final words that prophecy “a far better rest.” Yet these were pretty much the extent of my knowledge, and seeing as they were merely decontextualized quotes- famous lines to spout in a suitable situation- they did not tell me much.
Perhaps there is a fair number of people for whom A Tale of Two Cities was assigned reading in high school. For me, this was not the case; part of me wishes that it was, but then again, it’s very possible I would not have been able to adequately appreciate this great work at that time. Either way, I don’t think that this novel (or any Dickens’ novel) can be exhausted on a single reading. As with all Dickensian creations, A Tale of Two Cities is a feat of storytelling. Dicken’s voice is so unique- so lively and delightful (if I may call it that), such that it is always a joy to delve into his world.
Middlemarch, by George Eliot, is considered by many to be the greatest English novel ever written, and I can’t say I take issue with this sweeping statement. It is a masterful work, but this high praise, these assertions of greatness, do not need to be something that scares us away from reading a book like Middlemarch. Great novels such as this, especially when they are removed from us by past, may seem more difficult or like they require too much effort. However, they are not inaccessible; in fact, Middlemarch is very enjoyable to read, and the efforts that are put into reading and appreciating the book will be richly rewarded.
At the centre of Middlemarch are the issues of progress and change. Middlemarch itself is a provincial town in England, and the book is set just before the first Reform Bill, which passed in 1832. Along with the Reform Bill came many changes in the law and in the way that things were done and understood, but in the novel the possibility of such changes is regarded with suspicion by many of the townspeople. Yet Middlemarch, the novel, is not merely focused on the political tension preceding change, but on relationships, on love and on marriage.