Anna Karenina: Leo Tolstoy

Rereading Anna Karenina in a new translation from Rosamund Bartlett was a marvelous experience. I had thought that I’d remembered the novel well, but for this read, so many fresh elements of the plot and the exquisite intricacies of the characters surged to the surface. In the introduction, Bartlett mentions an interesting point when she discusses how our feelings towards some of the central characters shift:

Rather than take responsibility for her own actions, Anna alights on omens–the accident at the railway station, her recurrent dreams–and prefers to blame fate. Just as there are times when Karenin is not an unsympathetic character (as when he is filled with compassion after the birth of Anna’s daughter, for whom he feels a tender affection), there are times when the reader’s identification with Anna is challenged by her wilful and egotistical behaviour. If Tolstoy’s characters change during the course of the novel, it was because his attitude towards them changed as his own thinking developed. It is, therefore, not wholly surprising that Anna Karenina can be seen ‘as an array of readings that contradict and diverge from each other, and that cluster around an opposition between personal truths and universal truths’ as Vladimir Alexandrov has shown in his examination of the novel’s many possible meanings.

I’m not going to talk about the plot; if you don’t know it, read the book, but instead I’m going to concentrate on a couple of scenes as, for this read, the thing that hit me the most, is what an amazingly cinematic novel Anna Karenina really is.

anna kTime and time again, Tolstoy creates the most breathtaking scenes. Whether it’s domestic discord, episodes of gastronomic excess, the first stirrings of sexual attraction, the frantic tension of a horse race, or the excitement of a ball, Tolstoy’s words paint, with bold strokes, the incredible world of human emotions exposed through the social interactions between a dazzling array of wonderful characters.

Early in the novel, Anna’s married brother, bon vivant Stepan Arkadych Oblonsky dines at a Moscow restaurant with his friend Levin. Meanwhile Oblonsky’s home is in an uproar over the discovery of Oblonsky’s affair with his children’s’ governess. How perfect that the novel began by showing how an extra-marital affair destroys the harmony of the Oblonsky home and the subsequent desperate necessity to restore order. It’s also through Oblonsky’s affair we see how extra marital relationships can be tolerated if they are discreet. Just as Oblonsky cannot pass over a plate of rich food, he could not pass over the pretty little governess, and while he realizes that this was bad form, and he feels a tinge of regret, he also thinks that his wife, whose looks are fading, should understand.

So here we have a man of robust appetites; we know he couldn’t control his sexual appetite under his own roof, and then we see his appetite for food in a scene with the aesthete, Levin. Oblonsky owes money to his two favourite restaurants, the Angleterre and the Hermitage, but choses the former as that’s where he owes the most. An interesting choice as it tells us a lot about Oblonsky who considers it “bad form to avoid that hotel.” So with his hat on a “jaunty angle” he enters the dining room “giving out orders to the obsequious Tatars carrying napkins who were dressed in tails.”  Oblonsky is the sort of man who lives lightly and is popular with his peers and underlings; he’s a man whose privilege and position suit him.

Poor, lovesick Levin, who’s in Moscow to propose to Kitty is about to discover that there’s a formidable rival, Vronsky, on the scene. Levin would prefer to eat “cabbage soup and buckwheat kasha,” but Oblonsky, whose appetite isn’t dampened by moral matters, orders up enough gourmet food to feed an army:

“I’ll say! Whatever you say, it is one of life’s pleasures.” said Stepan Arkadych. “So, my good fellow, we’ll have two dozen oysters, or maybe that’s not enough–let’s say three-dozen, some vegetable soup…”

“Printenière,” prompted the Tatar. But Stepan Arkadych clearly did not want to give him the pleasure of naming the dishes in French.

“Vegetable soup, you know? Then turbot with a thick sauce, then … roast beef: but make sure it is good. And capons, I think, and some fruit salad too.”

Remembering Stepan Arkadych’s practice of not naming dishes according to the French menu, the Tatar did not repeat what he said, but gave himself the pleasure of repeating the whole order from the menu: “Soupe printanière, turbot sauce Beaumarchais, Poularde á l’estragon, macèdoine de fruits…’ and then, as if on springs, he managed in the blink of an eye to put down one bound menu, pick up another, the wine menu, and present to Stepan Arkadych.

“And what shall we have to drink?”

“I’ll have whatever you want, but not too much, maybe some champagne,” said Levin.

“What do you mean? To begin with? Actually maybe you’re right. Do you like the one with the white seal?”

“Cachet blanc,” prompted the Tatar.
“Well, give us some of that with the oysters, and then we’ll see.”

“Certainly, sir. What table wine would you like?”

“Let’s have some Nuits. No, a classic Chablis would be even better.”

“Certainly, sir. Would you like your cheese?”

“Oh yes, Parmesan. Or is there another that you like?”

“No, I don’t mind what we have,” said Levin, unable to repress a smile.

And the Tatar hurried off with his coat-tails billowing out over his wide haunches, only to sprint back five minutes later with a plate of shucked oysters in their pearly shells, and a bottle between his fingers.

Stepan Arkadych crumpled up his starched napkin, tucked it into his waistcoat, rested his arms comfortably, and made a start on the oysters.

“They’re not bad, he said, prising the slippery oysters from their pearly shells with a small silver fork, and swallowing one after the other. “Not bad,” he repeated, looking up with moist and shining eyes, first at Levin and then at the Tatar. Levin ate the oysters too, although the white bread and cheese was more to his liking. But he was in awe of Oblonsky. Even the Tatar, after uncorking the bottle and pouring the sparking wine into shallow, slender glasses, was looking at Stepan Arkadych with a distinct smile of pleasure as he straightened his white tie.

And here’s the same quote in a translation from Joel Carmichael:

“I should hope so! No matter what you say that’s one of life’s pleasures,” Oblonsky said. “Well then, my good fellow, let us have two–no, that’s too little–three dozen oysters, vegetable soup—“

“Printanier,” murmured the Tatar, but it was plain that Oblonsky had no desire to give him the pleasure of naming the dishes in French.

“–vegetable, you know, then the turbot with a thick sauce, then roast beef, but make sure it’s all right, and then capon, eh?” Oh yes, and stewed fruit, too.”

The Tatar, taking note of Oblonsky’s way of not referring to the dishes according to the French menu, did not repeat what he said, but gave himself the satisfaction of repeating the whole order according to the menu: “potage printanier, turbot sauce Beaumarchais, poularde  á l’estragon, macédonie de fruits…” then instantly, as though on springs, he put aside one menu in a cardboard cover and took up another, the wine list, which he held out to Oblonsky.

“What should we have to drink?”
“Whatever you please, but not too much–champagne!” said Levin.

“What, to begin with? But of course, please, let’s. D’you like the white seal?”

“Cachet blanc,” the Tatar chimed in.

“Well, let’s have that with the oysters, then we’ll see.”

“Yes, Sir. And the table wine, sir, what would you like?”

“Let’s have the Nuits. No, the classic Chablis–that would be better.”

“Yes sir. And your own special cheese, sir?”

“Why yes–the parmesan. Or would you like something else?”
“No, it doesn’t matter at all,” said Levin, who couldn’t help smiling.

The Tatar darted off, his coattails flying; five minutes later he flew back with a dish of opened oysters in their pearly shells and a bottle between his fingers.

Oblonsky crumpled his starched napkin, put it inside his waistcoat, and settling his arms comfortably on the table set about the oysters.

“Not bad at all,” he said, tweaking the quivering oysters out of their pearly shells with a silver fork and gulping them down one after another. “Not bad at all,” he repeated, raising his moist, glistening eyes first toward Levin, then toward the Tatar.

Levin ate the oysters, though he liked white bread and cheese more. But he was admiring Oblonsky. Even the Tatar, as he adjusted his white tie after drawing he cork and pouring the sparkling wine into the thin, wide glasses, looked at Oblonsky with a smile of obvious pleasure.

I read a few comments about yet another translation of Anna Karenina being on the market, but personally, I think it’s wonderful that publishers are still printing new translations. But apart from that I much preferred the Rosamund Bartlett translation to the one I had on my shelf. In the quote, the personality of the Tatar seeps through. Another scene to follow…

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Tolstoy, Leo

27 responses to “Anna Karenina: Leo Tolstoy

  1. I’m planning to reread this book later in the year so I will be on the look out for those scenes to see how the translator of my copy handles them.

  2. I’m saving this review to read over the holidays and will drop back to comment. In the meantime, wishing you a Merry Christmas, Guy. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you a little through books this year. Long may it continue. All the best, Jacqui.

  3. I just need to read the book.

    On the issue of translations, I agree that having many translations out for these works is a good thing. Though there are several reasons for this. One is the fact I think that reading different translations of a novel may allow us to get closer to the original text.

    Happy Holidays to you and your family Guy!

    • I take it as a positive thing that publishers are putting out money on new translations. It’s got to be a bit of a risky thing with free kindle versions out there. I wonder how much the university text book trade pushes this.

  4. I love comparing translations … fascinating to see how different they can be. I read Anna Karenina a few years ago in the Wordsworth Classics version – translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude, but it’s apparently not particularly well regarded. Not sure why I chose it now – perhaps it was the nearest available! On another matter, I’ve often wondered why the book is called Anna Karenina and not Levin for example – as his real heart seems to be in Levin and farming reform rather than in Anna and Vronsky.

  5. I loved War and Peace but I remember thinking Anna Karenina was as obnoxious as Scarlett O-Hara. But I was only a teenager, perhaps I’d have a different opinion now. (although I disliked Wuthering Heights on the second and third read as much as when I read it as a teenager)

    I like the comparison of translation and the first one sounds more lively. Does it sound like this for a native English speaker too? I can tell you that a macédoine de fruits is indeed a fruit salad and not stewed fruits. (The fruits are not cooked in a macédoine de fruits, as far as I know)

    PS: “he also thinks that his wife, whose looks are fading, should understand.” The nerve of men! Do they actually think their looks don’t fade?

  6. I’m still stuck in the middle of my first reading. I liked reading about the importance of the scenes. Chosing the right translation is certainly crucial. I do remember that what I read was cinematic.
    Do you have a favourite film version?

  7. Sorry for coming to this so late.

    I have boughtthe Rosamund Bartlett translation, having much enjoyed her translation of a selection of Chekhov’s stories, but i haven’t read this one yet. The first translation I read of Anna Karenina was the old Penguin Classics version by Rosemary Edmonds; and I later read the old translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude (which, incidentally, has teh reputation of not always being entirely accurate). Both were very fluent and readable. Then came the very popular version by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkonsky, where the prose was much knottier: the translators explain that they have attempted to retain all the various seeming awkward phasings of Tolstoy’s original rather than try to smooth it over. That seemed fair enough, although at times it did perhaps seem a bit too literal. Then, a couple of years ago, I read the version by Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes, and this one I enjoyed most of all.

    I guess that with translations it’s often a case of swings and roundabouts: no single translation can hope to capture everything, and it’s best trying out a variety (especially when it comes to your favourite works). And having several translations to hand does mean that you can compare different versions at key passages. Although I have not yet read the new bartlett translation, I have certainly compared it with the others at various key passages, and it seems splendid.

    (I cannot, of course, judge on how close any translation is to the letter or the spirit of the original: as a non-Russian-speaker, I have no option but to trtust the translator.)

    As you have probably guessed by now, i absolutely love this novel. There is so much to be said about it, it’s hard to know where to start. that entire opening section, introducing all the major characters and the milieux, setting out the relations between them, and planting seeds for future development, is simply magnificent: it takes the breath away. That scene you describe of Levina nd Oblonsky in the restaurant makes me want to stop whatever I am reading now and try out the new version.

    What I like about the depiction of Oblonsky, by the way, is that he is not two-faced: he is perfectly honest with himself – he *knows* that he is a shallow character, incapable of feeling anything too deeply. He is perfectly honest with himself, for example, in admitting that he no longer finds his wife attractive: he sees no point in even attempting subterfuge. He is no doubt morally reprehensible, but somehow, everyone likes him: he is what we would nowadays call a “people person” – he knows instinctively how to get on with everyone, even with the prickly Levin. And while he brings unhappiness to a great many people (especially his wife, who seems to me to be, in her own way, as tragic a figure as Anna), he, being shallow, is perfectly happy. he is perhaps the only character in the entire novel who is!

    these characters aren’t just names in a novel – they seem to me characters I have known personally!

    • You left this long comment some time ago and I somehow missed it. I haven’t read the Pevear so it’s good to know that you did, so I’ll be interested to see if you prefer the Bartlett. Yes you must indeed love this novel. I’m guessing it must be an all-time favourite. Why would you say it has such appeal (not that I’d argue)?

      I agree with you about Oblonsky. He does seem to be the happiest person in the book. he lives lightly but self-indulgently never passing up a meal or a woman if they appeal. A true Bon-vivant.

      Thanks for the comment and again, I’m sorry I originally missed it.

  8. Bugger, I have the Maude translation, and reading this it seems that’s the wrong one. Would you recommend this over the Pevear then Guy?

    • I know the Maude has its fans, but I’m not one of them. I’m a huge fan of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations but I have not read their Anna K (note the above comment though). The Bartlett translation was so lively, so cinematic, I loved it. If you are in the position of deciding (which it sounds as if you are) you could compare the Bartlett and the Pevear and decide…

  9. I don’t recall what translation I read the first time, but I just finished the P&V – my go to for Russian novels – and was enthralled with the book. Much more than on my first reading. I have trouble seeing Anna as selfish or egotistical: she seems to me almost damaged, neurotic, and largely a victim of the oppressive and limited environment allowed her in that society. A Russian, aristocratic Madame Bovary in some ways, but a far weaker and more vulnerable character.

    In the end of War and Peace, Tolstoy did not observe what he would later write about “all happy families being alike,” and he bored me to tears with his portrait of connubial bliss between Natasha and Pierre. In Anna K., I found it hard going to slog through Levin’s (Tolstoy’s) spiritual crisis and redemption. Nice bit ending with trains and superficial chit chat with Oblonsky, as the story begain, and I know the novel is actually the twin tales of the two families, but I have to say I found Levin a tedious bore. Guess I wouldn’t have lasted long as a supplicant in Leo’s “peasant” circle.

    One scene that stood out for me was when Dolly is riding alone in her carriage and musing on the wretched lot of married women; envying and admiring Anna for striking out on her own. Today it sounds so true: I wonder how it sounded then or was intended? A sour, negative, wrong-headed riff by an otherwise decent character..?

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