What is it about Anna Karenina that gives it special status among the great novels? How is it that a sensational romantic tragedy of tsarist high society, interspersed with digressions into 19th-century Russian agricultural policy, written in a seemingly plain, straightforward style across 900 pages, still provokes both excitement and respect from readers as diverse as JM Coetzee, Jonathan Franzen and Oprah Winfrey, and lures Tom Stoppard to write the script for the latest of a dozen film adaptations? The book floats in some charmed section of the lake of literary opinion where the ripples from modernism and the ripples from Hollywood overlap without merging.
It is more admired than learned from. Anna Karenina couldn't be less like a conventional modern novel. Instead of a barrage of metaphors describing things in terms of other things that they resemble, Lev Tolstoy seeks the precise word for the thing itself. Instead of the solipsistic modern mode of events being experienced from the point of view of a single character, Tolstoy slips in and out of the consciousness of dozens of characters, major and minor. At one point he tells us what a character's dog is thinking.
Tolstoy doesn't believe in "show, don't tell". He likes to show and tell. The teller, the narrator of the book, is a formless, omniscient voice with no elaborate Rothian construct to justify his role. No first-person or free-indirect speech here. Even while we're in a character's head, it's the narrator who recounts the character's experiences through liberal use of such unfashionable phrases as "she thought", "he felt" and "it seemed to him that".
Tolstoy creates a space for the narrator's independence – the narrator is close enough to the characters to rely on them for his existence, but free enough to pass unchallenged judgment on their actions, and to tell us things about them that they don't know about themselves. The most powerful passages are those where Tolstoy slows time down to note each thought, gesture and feeling of Anna and her lover Vronsky, with a third entity present – the narrator – not only lodged deep in the two psyches, but standing back to tell us the ways in which one is misunderstanding the other.
Each time I reread Anna Karenina, picking my way past the attics and cellars and rusting machinery of Tolstoy's obsessions and prejudices, a new layer of his craft emerges, to the point where, for all my admiration of Joyce, Beckett and Kelman, I begin to question whether the novel form isn't too artisanal a medium for the surface experimentation of the modernist project ever to transcend the flexing of space and time that apparently conventional language can achieve in the hands of a master.
I'd noticed before that Tolstoy, whose characters spend so much time in Moscow and St Petersburg, barely describes these cities. Reading Anna Karenina again, I see that it's more extreme than that; urban buildings and landscapes are practically invisible, whereas the countryside is described in exquisite detail.
To Tolstoy the city is a static, artificial place. It is as if he does not believe cities are permanent, as though he feels that if he ignores them, they'll go away. It turns out that everything Tolstoy cares about, everything he describes taking place outside the character's heads, is alive and moving, in the non-human world of dogs and horses and leaves as in the human world. No human action is too small to be recorded: Karenin's knuckle-cracking, Anna screwing up her eyes, Vronsky touching the ends of his moustache. The characters are always smiling, frowning, blushing, twitching, fidgeting, touching, kissing, bowing, sobbing, and deconstructing these signs in each other. They come to us alive with intentionality, describing themselves in movement, waltzing through the ballroom, trudging through the marsh after wildfowl, racing horses, cutting hay.
As busily as Tolstoy's creations move through space, so plausibly they move through time. How hard it is in narrative fiction, be it novel or film, to represent the chaotic reality of the passage of time, when the way a person acts or thinks one moment doesn't necessarily have a direct connection to the way that person acts or thinks 10 minutes later, or the next day, or for the rest of their life. No other novelist I can think of takes the risks Tolstoy does with the readers' understanding of what his characters are by allowing the characters to be so true to the emotions of each particular moment, even when those emotions contradict the overall portrait. The most odious characters are never beyond momentary redemption, and the most admirable characters must endure patches of vileness.
One harsh, simplistic, but not entirely inaccurate reading of Anna Karenina is as Tolstoy's justification of his life up to the moment when he wrote it, through the character of his alter ego, the chippy, idealistic landowner Levin (Levin = little Lev), whose journey to faith, family and contentment down on the farm acts as a counterpoint to Anna's path of extramarital passion and death in the Babylon of the urban beau monde. Yet Tolstoy doesn't spare Levin, the character with whom he is most in sympathy.
When Levin is out shooting with a friend at dusk and summons the courage to ask after Kitty, the young woman he loves but who turned down his offer of marriage, he learns that she's still free and is seriously ill. At this moment of high drama and revelation, two woodcocks fly over, and he forgets about Kitty in the excitement of shooting the birds. "Now, what was that unpleasant thing?" he thinks afterwards. "Oh yes, Kitty's ill." Back at the house he admits to himself that while he's glad she's still available, he's even more pleased that she's sick; serves her right, he thinks.
It's not attractive for Levin to feel this schadenfreude towards the woman he wants to share his life with, or to have the overflight of a small game bird blot out all thoughts of her just when he's heard she might be dying. But Tolstoy has the confidence to relay these secret moments of unlove, certain – rightly – that by being true to his weakness in one particular instant in time he will make Levin more real and human without poisoning the instants of time to come, when Levin will show himself more like the man he wants to be.
All Tolstoy's mastery of time, space and language come together in a single moment in the middle of the book, when Anna's estranged husband Alexei Karenin, a dry, stiff government minister, and her lover Vronsky, a handsome young cavalry officer, meet beside the bed where Anna lies gravely ill after giving birth to Vronsky's child. Grief-stricken and ashamed, Vronsky is covering his face with his hands; Anna orders her husband, who is also weeping, to pull the hands away and expose her lover's face. With that gesture, Anna effects a reversal in the status of the two men. Vronsky, who had despised Karenin because he wouldn't fight a duel, is now humiliated and dishonoured; Karenin, flooded with forgiveness for everyone, wins back Anna's respect. In that moment of time, with Anna seemingly dying, the transformation is quite real. But time shifts, and the old reality comes back. Anna gets better and hates Karenin more than ever for his forgiveness. Vronsky restores his honour by shooting himself (he misses). The arc of Anna's destruction resumes. In the novel there are no turning points, only points, and characters travelling through them.
For a spacious novel so concerned with families there's a mysterious absence at the heart of Anna Karenina. The heroine has no childhood. She comes equipped with a son, a dull older husband, a brother, friends, a place in high society, but no past, no younger self. There is no description of how she came to be married. Her parents are, presumably, dead, and are never mentioned. She is fully formed, ready to fall in love with the dashing Vronsky.
It's not just Anna. Most of the other principal characters have no forebears on the scene. Levin was, like Tolstoy, orphaned at an early age. Vronsky's mother is occasionally present but when we first encounter him Tolstoy quickly tells us: "Vronsky never knew family life."
Although children as characters are present only in the background (with one brief exception), the book is preoccupied with the parent-child relationship: with having or not having children, with choosing between paternal-maternal and romantic-sexual love, or working out what to tell children when they ask what life is for. And the novel is about children in a deeper way, one that speaks to the stretched-out generations of the rich world now, where people in their 20s, 30s and 40s expect to have parents who are still alive and constantly reassure each other that they are young – that they are, in effect, still children.
Anna, Vronsky and Levin are in their early 30s, young in today's terms, but Tolstoy doesn't provide them with an earlier generation to backstop them, or to be remembered. They are obliged to stand independently as grown men and women. This means following an existing set of social rules, like Vronsky ("One must pay one's gambling debts, but need not pay one's tailor; one must not tell a man a lie, but one may lie to a woman"), or breaking rules, as Anna does, or inventing their own set of rules, as Levin tries to do. They can have children – they should, in Tolstoy's view, have children – but they cannot be children. However, among the principal characters, there is an intriguing exception: Stiva Oblonsky.
It's the Oblonskys, not the Karenins, who are referred to in the novel's famous first line: "All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." And the Oblonskys, Dolly and Stiva, are unhappy because Stiva is screwing around. Like the other main characters in the book, like Tolstoy himself, the Oblonskys are aristocrats, with the trappings of the upper class – rank, servants, a town house and a place in the country. But they're in debt, and the country house is falling to pieces.
Where Dolly, a kind, pious, modest, anxious figure, the mother of five living and two dead children, belongs very much to the old Russia, Stiva Oblonsky, her husband, is recognisable as the caricature of a modern man. Stiva is an old Russian short form of the name Stepan, but I can't help thinking of him as a tanned guy called Steve in a pink open-necked shirt. Beloved by everyone for his charm, his healthy glow and his radiant smile, he's generous, gregarious, greedy, hedonistic, trivial, shallow, fond of gadgets and sex with non-threatening women, infantalised by fashion and marketing. He serves six different kinds of flavoured vodka at his parties. He reads a liberal paper not because he's a liberal but because it suits his lifestyle. He uses his connections to get a cushy, well-paid government job and is selling off his wife's properties cheaply, yet still struggles to afford the life he thinks he deserves. "However much [Stiva] tried to be a caring father and husband," the narrator tells us, "he could never remember that he had a wife and children."
The clashes between the moralistic Levin and his friend Oblonsky, sometimes affectionate, sometimes angry, and Levin's linkage of modernity to Oblonsky's attitudes – that social mores are to be worked around and subordinated to pleasure, that families are base camps for off-base nooky – undermine one possible reading of Anna Karenina, in which Anna is a martyr in the struggle for the modern sexual freedoms that we take for granted, taken down by the hypocritical conservative elite to which she, her lover and her husband belong.
That elite does exert a growing influence as the book unfolds, and it is true that the moralistic side of the establishment prevents Karenin showing Anna mercy. A case could be made that the unhappy family of the opening is the Russian aristocracy in the 1870s, trying to hold the line against excessive change after the grant of freedom to millions of human beings it had owned as slaves, the peasant serfs, in 1861. The principal characters in Anna Karenina are literally part of one big formerly slave-owning family. Levin marries Kitty, who's the sister of Dolly, who's the wife of Stiva, who's the brother of Anna, who's married to Karenin. Even Anna and Vronsky are distantly related; their cousins are married to each other.
The tragic consequences of the pursuit of love for love's sake, in defiance of the rules laid down by one's peers and one's family, is an eternal story, and that story is in Anna Karenina, but that story is not, by itself, the book Tolstoy wrote. Anna Karenina is no Romeo and Juliet story of star-crossed teenagers unjustly destroyed by their elders' cruel laws, but a story of adults vexed by boundaries. It is the portrayal of a clash between an old world of rigid religious codes, duels, fixed gender roles and strict class division and a new world of divorce, separation, custody battles, women's self-determination and uncertain moral rules.
It's not that Tolstoy sympathises with high society's mixture of moral outrage and gladiatorial blood lust over Anna and Vronsky's affair. While it's true he allows Anna not a moment of sexual pleasure, he had censors to contend with, and makes it clear how unsuitable a partner for Anna her husband is. As the book goes on, in step with Tolstoy's increasing religiosity and his disenchantment with the project, he does put an increasing and sometimes oppressive emphasis on women's role as mothers. But none of this means he ever loses compassion for or patience with the painful, intricate detail of Anna's dilemmas.
Anna's love for Vronsky is a nobler affair than the infantile sexual consumerism embodied in Stiva Oblonsky, the emblem of modernity. Yet for Tolstoy the line between sexual freedom and sexual greed is not a clear one. He looks ahead to the era we live in now, where the dragon of sexual repression has been slain and sexual freedom prevails, and where, better as life is, we haven't rid ourselves of the reasons Anna throws herself under a train. A woman may still marry a man she doesn't love, still feel shame and guilt for having an affair with someone else, still hate him for forgiving her, still (more rarely, certainly) lose custody of her son, still find that people she thought were her friends side with the husband, and still find that the man for whom she left the husband, the man she loves sincerely and passionately, doesn't understand her at all.
I'm not sure Tolstoy ever worked out how he actually felt about love and desire, or how he should feel about it. He was torn between compassion and moral rigour, between lust and self-denial, between loving his wife and being bored by her. His uncertainty is reflected in the dual portrayal of his wife in Anna Karenina – as the virtuous, somewhat frumpy Dolly, worn out by childbearing, like the woman his wife was when he was writing the book, and as the feisty, pretty teenager Kitty, like the woman his wife was when he married her. They must have seemed to contradict each other, yet each was true to her time; and Tolstoy, for all that he was a master of time, was only a slave to truth.
• James Meek's novel The Heart Broke In is published by Canongate on 30 August. Joe Wright's film of Anna Karenina opens in the UK on 7 September.
Anna Karenina opens with one of the most crazy-famous sentences of all time:
"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"
We're at the Oblonsky household in Moscow. Dolly has caught her husband, Stiva (a.k.a. Stephen; Stiva's his nickname) cheating, and now she's threatening to leave him. Stiva Oblonsky's sister, Anna Karenina, wife of Alexis (or Alexei) Karenin, is taking a train from Petersburg to act as a marriage counselor.
Anna arrives at the train station with an elderly woman named Countess Vronsky, whose son, Alexis (or Alexei) Vronsky is immediately smitten with Anna. (It is confusing that both Karenin, Anna's husband, and Vronsky are named Alexis. This is where Russian patronymics come in handy: Vronsky is Alexis Kirillovich and Karenin is Alexis Alexandrovich.) Before the group leaves the station, a drunken guard is crushed to death underneath the train. In an effort to impress Anna, Vronsky gives money to the man's widow.
There are a few obstacles to Vronsky and Anna's courtship. First of all, as we have already said, Anna is a married woman. What's more, she has an eight-year-old son, Seryozha (a.k.a. Sergei; Seryozha is his nickname). And to make matters even worse, Vronsky is already courting Dolly Oblonsky's sister, Kitty.
Anna succeeds in reconciling the Oblonskys, and Kitty and Anna become friends. Constantine Levin, who is good friends with Stiva Oblonsky, comes to Moscow to propose to Kitty. But Kitty rejects him because she's in love with Vronsky. So Levin runs back to the country, where he feels most at home.
After Kitty has refused Levin in favor of Vronsky, she goes to a ball (along with everyone in Moscow) where her heart is broken by Vronsky. Much to everyone's surprise, Vronsky neglects Kitty in favor of Anna. Having saved her brother's marriage, Anna leaves for Petersburg the next day. When Anna takes a break during the train ride, she bumps into Vronsky. He's following her from Moscow to Petersburg.
Once Vronsky turns his romantic attention to Anna, Kitty falls ill. Her treatment is to go abroad and visit a German spa with her mother. Meanwhile, in Petersburg, Vronsky continues to pursue Anna. Resisting the temptation of an affair, Anna begs Vronsky to reconcile with Kitty, but Vronsky replies that he is in love with Anna.
The same night, Karenin (Anna's husband) finally suspects that something's up and tries to talk to Anna about the nature of her relationship with Vronsky. She dodges all his questions. After this night, Anna and Karenin's marriage has irrevocably altered. Anna sees Vronsky everywhere, and the two of them begin an affair. Anna is filled with guilt.
Meanwhile, back in the country, Levin is still languishing over Kitty. Oblonsky (brother to Anna and brother-in-law of Kitty) goes to visit Levin. And in Petersburg, everyone who knows of it has turned against the affair between Anna and Vronsky. Vronsky's mother condemns the affair because she thinks her son's infatuation with Anna is interfering with his military career.
Before a horse race in which Vronsky is competing, he goes to visit Anna, who tells him that she's pregnant. During the race, which is attended by both Anna and Karenin, Vronsky makes an error which trips up his horse, breaking its back. Anna freaks out at Vronsky's accident, and Karenin leads her away. Anna's intense reaction to Vronsky's accident irritates Karenin's suspicions, and during their carriage ride home, Anna blurts out everything. Karenin asks Anna to maintain appearances while he figures out how he wants to respond.
At the German spa, Kitty meets Levin's consumptive brother Nicholas (a.k.a. Nicolai) and befriends a generous young woman named Varenka. Kitty tries to emulate Varenka's example of living for others by caring for a number of different invalids. This plan backfires on Kitty when an impoverished painter falls in love with her. The arrival of Kitty's father helps Kitty see her new activities in a more realistic light. Having gotten over Vronsky, Kitty returns to Moscow, and Varenka promises to visit after Kitty gets married.
Levin's half-brother, Koznyshev, goes to visit Levin for the summer. Koznyshev is a well-known writer and intellectual who criticizes Levin for leaving his administrative duties at the local council. Frustrated with the bureaucracy of the local council, Levin instead pushes for agricultural innovations on his own estate.
Dolly and her children (remember the Oblonskys from the first chapter? Dolly is Anna's sister-in-law and Kitty's older sister) are also in the country, on an estate close to Levin's. The two visit each other, and Dolly makes it clear to Levin that he should propose again to Kitty. Although Kitty visits Dolly in the country, Levin completely avoids the sisters. Instead, he throws himself into farm work.
Back in Petersburg, Karenin wants to keep up appearances and he also doesn't want to make life easier for Anna and Vronsky, so he refuses Anna's request for a divorce. He writes to her, asking her to repent and return to Petersburg (they've been living separately). Meanwhile, Anna is confused. She hasn't told Vronsky that she has confessed everything to her husband. She decides to take her son and flee to Moscow. Karenin's letter arrives and Anna realizes that she doesn't have the strength to abandon her position. She feels desperate to see Vronsky and manages to engineer a meeting. The meeting is fruitless; both of them misunderstand each other. Anna leaves for Petersburg, where her husband tells her she can't receive Vronsky at home, nor give society or the servants cause to gossip about her.
Locked in her empty sham of a marriage to Karenin, Anna heads off to the family's country estate, where she and Vronsky continue their affair. Everything becomes even more complicated and awkward when Anna reveals to Karenin that she's pregnant. And it really hits the fan when Karenin catches Vronsky in the front hallway of their country home. The next morning, Karenin ransacks Anna's desk, finds Vronsky's letters to her, and then consults a lawyer about getting a divorce.
Karenin prepares for a business trip out to several remote provinces of Russia, but he stops in Moscow first, where the Oblonskys insist that he come to their dinner party. It's a fabulous night, although it turns sour for Karenin at the end. Dolly begs him not to divorce Anna: it would make her a social outcast. But this just makes Karenin more determined to end his marriage. While Karenin is busy being bitter, Levin and Kitty are extremely affectionate with one another. After dinner, Levin proposes to Kitty. She finally says yes.
Before Karenin leaves Moscow, he receives a note from Anna saying that she's dying and requesting him to come to her bedside. When he arrives, Anna's baby girl has already been born, but Anna is deathly ill. At her delirious insistence, Karenin forgives both Anna and Vronsky and tells Anna that he'll give her a divorce after all. Vronsky and Anna decide not to take the divorce, but they do drop everything and head to Europe together, leaving Karenin alone.
Kitty and Levin get married, despite last-minute doubts. After three months with Kitty, Levin realizes that marriage is not what he expected, but he and Kitty are in love and slowly learning how to function as a couple. The two of them go to take care of Nicholas (Levin's brother) on his deathbed. Towards the end of their stay, Kitty learns she is pregnant.
Back in Petersburg, Karenin turns out to be pretty bad at coping on his own. Luckily for him, a woman named Countess Lydia is in love with Karenin, and she's more than willing to help him out. Lydia tells Seryozha (Anna's eight-year-old son) that his mother is dead, but Seryozha doesn't believe it.
When Anna writes asking to see her son, Countess Lydia convinces Karenin that this is a bad idea. Anna shows up on Seryozha's birthday anyway and has a joyful reunion with her boy. But this creates tension between Anna and Vronsky: Anna refuses to talk to Vronsky about missing her son, but at the same time she blames Vronsky for letting her suffer alone. In fact, she's getting increasingly resentful of the fact that Vronsky can still move around in society, while their affair has made Anna an outcast. She gets so upset by her outsider status that she and Vronsky immediately head back to the country
Speaking of the countryside, Levin's house in the country has been invaded by guests: Dolly (his sister-in-law) and her children, Varenka (remember that lady Kitty admired so much at the German spa?), Kitty's mother, and Koznyshev (Levin's intellectual brother) are all staying with Levin and Kitty.
When Oblonsky comes for a visit, he brings a man named Veslovsky, who brings news of Anna and Vronsky. Apparently, the couple is living about fifty miles from Levin. Dolly intends to visit Anna. Veslovsky's stay with the Levins does not last long, however, as he flirts with Kitty. In a jealous rage, Levin kicks the guy out of his house.
When Dolly goes to visit Anna, she feels uncomfortable throughout her stay. Everything at the house is new, foreign, and expensive. Vronsky asks Dolly to talk to Anna about obtaining a divorce from Karenin in order to formalize their position as a couple, and give their children some legitimacy. All in all, Dolly is relieved when she gets to go home to her own family.
The more Anna clings to Vronsky, the more he feels like he needs some space. He's very involved in public affairs and has an important role in the elections for Kashin Province. Levin, who's pretty fed up with bureaucracy (after all, he left his own administrative council) attends the same elections, in which the young liberals win.
Towards the end of the election process, Anna pens a letter to Vronsky asking him to come home. He does so immediately. She's convinced that Vronsky's growing tired of her, and finally writes to Karenin to request a divorce. Anna and Vronsky then move to Moscow to settle down as a married couple (except that they're still not actually married. Karenin's slow with the divorce).
The Levins have also moved to Moscow, and their stay drags on as Kitty's pregnancy continues. Levin is not sure how to handle the big city, and he gets sucked into gambling, drinking, and buying expensive things. After a night partying with his buddies, Oblonsky persuades Levin to meet Anna. He promptly falls for her, which does not make his wife, Kitty, happy. The next day, Kitty delivers a healthy baby boy whom they name Dmitri (nicknamed Mitya).
Anna wonders why her charms are failing to work on Vronsky, if it's so easy to seduce upright guys like Levin. She is frustrated because she feels like she has given up everything for Vronsky—her son with Karenin, her position in society—and now he doesn't love her any more.
Oblonsky travels to Petersburg, first, because he wants a job, and second, to speak with Karenin about Anna's divorce. While there, he sees Anna's son, Seryozha. Seryozha has grown into a handsome boy, and has repressed all memories of his mother. Karenin needs to take pity on his estranged wife, Oblonsky argues, because Anna is being destroyed by the long wait for a divorce. Despite Anna's own pitiable emotional state and his own promises, Karenin decides against the divorce.
Anna and Vronsky's relationship is caught in a downward spiral, and Anna becomes increasingly clingy, neurotic, and certain that Vronsky is deliberately delaying his return to the countryside to avoid her. Her desperation ends with her suicide. Having gone to the train station to meet Vronsky, Anna instead throws herself under a train.
The novel resumes almost two months later when Koznyshev visits Levin in the country. He rides the same train as Vronsky, who is going to fight in the Serbian Wars supporting the Slavic cause against the Ottoman Empire. It is obvious that Vronsky views going to war as a quick and easy way to die. He's depressed, and it seems that Anna got her last wish—both to rekindle his love for her and cause him suffering.
Meanwhile, out in the country, Levin continues to struggle with philosophical questions until a local peasant tells him that the purpose of life is "to live not for one's own needs but for God" (8.12.4). As Levin struggles with this message, he has an epiphany that resolves his philosophical battles and affirms his faith in God. This leads him finally to embrace his love for his son and the importance of his domestic life. And that’s the end of Anna Karenina.