Why Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina transcends the ages
Five writers give their personal takes on the appeal that makes Anna Karenina a literary masterpiece
Sunday 2 September 2012 00.05 BST
Francine Prose, author of Blue Angel and My New American Life
Anna Karenina is probably my favourite novel. More than any other book, it persuades me that there is such a thing as human nature, and that some part of that nature remains fundamentally unaffected by history and culture. I try to re-read it every few years. Each time, perhaps because I'm older and have experienced more, I find things I never noticed before. Not only is it a great source of pleasure, but I inevitably feel as if I'm getting a sort of pep talk from Tolstoy: Go deeper. Try harder. Aim higher. Pay closer attention to the world. It's orchestral, symphonic, full of distinctive melodies, parallels and variations that keep reappearing, some of which we notice, none of which we need to notice in order for them to operate on our subconscious. There are so many virtuosic set pieces (the skating party, the ball, the mushroom-picking expedition, and, my God, the race during which Vronsky breaks his horse's neck) but also small, powerful, resonant moments: I've always loved the scene in which Anna, having met the charming Vronksy, returns home to her husband and is struck by how unattractive his ears are. How could something like that not stand up to, and transcend, the so-called test of time?
William Dalrymple, author of The Last Mughal and Nine Lives
I read Anna Karenina when I was 20. I'd grown up in provincial Scotland, a long way from the centre of things. I immediately identified with the Levin character – like him, I was more confident with books than I was with parties, and constantly losing the girls I was interested in to slicker, hunkier Vronsky-like characters. Levin's concern in whether to live in the town or the country was something I could completely relate to; I was at university and enjoying all the liveliness and intellectual life that Cambridge had to offer, but I loved going back to remote Scotland. The tension in the novel between the boredom, rootedness and loveliness of the countryside and the excitement but vapidity of urban life was something that spoke to me at that age in a way that might not make much sense to kids who were brought up in a town. Weird little pockets of late-Edwardian Scotland survived into the 1970s – I even knew a few people who had been brought up by governesses – so Tolstoy's Russia was not an unfamiliar world to me. Tolstoy has that way of introducing characters who we recognise from our own experience, which is always the mark of a great novelist. I expect if I read the book again now, it would be a very different reading. That said, south Asia, where I live now, also has recognisably Tolstoyan characteristics, and the kind of feudal characters who appear in modern Pakistani literature – especially the short stories of Daniyal Mueenuddin – seem to be first cousins of those in Tolstoy.
Jilly Cooper, author of Jump!
Very few men write very well about women, but Tolstoy understood women just as well as men – that's what makes the book so interesting. Anna is a wonderful character. She comes across as so gorgeous and adorable, and her sex appeal radiates down the centuries. But she can't cope with Vronsky at all. At the end, she keeps trying to attract young men to make Vronsky jealous – Tolstoy's very good on jealousy. And the characters are just so well-rounded. Vronsky is a cad, but he's quite silly as well, which is endearing. It was written as a serial and that makes it so incredibly readable because of the cliffhangers – you desperately want to get on and start the next bit. But it was trashed to start off with as a trifling romance of high life. Isn't that awful? I bet they're kicking themselves, those critics. It must have shocked people, though – there's lots of sex. And Tolstoy obviously knew all the upper classes backwards, because he was a member of them and moved in those circles. He captures the double standards very well. That's the more terrible aspect of the story – Anna's brother shags the nanny and immediately he's forgiven by the wife and nobody minds at all, and Vronsky goes back into society and everybody goes, "Whoops, oh well, never mind!" But then poor old Anna goes to the theatre – that's the worst scene of all – and everybody turns their backs on her. It's horrible, horrible.
Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist
When I finished with college in America, I took a year off to work on my first novel and went back to Pakistan with a suitcase full of books I thought I should read. Among those books was Anna Karenina. Very often, I used to turn to classic works of literature with a certain degree of apprehension that it would bore the pants off me but would be good for me. But that wasn't the case at all with Anna Karenina. I thought the story was romantic, passionate, wonderful. And as somebody who was trying to write, it was an enormously educational book. At first glance it seemed like a very conservative interpretation of what a novel could be, but in fact Tolstoy was making some remarkably avant-garde and exciting moves as a writer – there is a wonderful chapter or two when you see the goings-on from the point of view of Levin's dog. I remember reading the crazy farming scenes, where Levin is doing repetitive work with the peasants in the field, and thinking, "What's going on here?" What struck me was that, through cadence and form and even boredom – Tolstoy deploys boredom quite strategically in these big books of his – there was a communication of a partial loss of self that can take place in the act of repetitive physical labour. It was like finding an east Asian Zen koan buried in the heart of a 19th-century Russian aristocrat's opus. Today, an editor would say take that out, but Tolstoy was fortunate in not existing in the current environment. To me, these scenes are signs of an unbridled belief in what a novel can do. There are so many facets of this huge intricate thing that can blow you away if you stop to look at them.
Julie Myerson, author of ThenIn 1979 when I was 18, I left Nottingham (having only ever been abroad once) to spend a year as an au pair in Florence. The fat black Penguin edition of Anna Karenina was the only novel I could squeeze into my very small suitcase. My memory of reading it – late at night, in a breathtakingly ornate Florentine drawing room next to Palazzo Pitti – is still intense. There was a grand piano, tall, shuttered windows on to a jasmine-scented courtyard – and I was told the Vasari Corridor was on the other side of our yellow painted wall. The novel, with its vast panorama of heady, complex and tragic adult emotions – Anna's aching passion, but also the touching arc of Levin and Kitty's love, and even Dolly's chaotic, overburdened domesticity – seemed to encompass everything that lay ahead of me in life. And that room in Florence – lonely, romantic and exhilarating all at the same time – seemed somehow irrevocably tangled up with every word Tolstoy had written.