Saturday, 8 November 2014

Reasons to Read Anna Karenina, Part 1: The Authenticity of Levin

I shared some thoughts on the introduction to Rosamund Bartlett's translation of Anna Karenina at the start of October, happy to have found a new edition of Tolstoy's classic novel. War and Peace has always seemed to win more of my attention, but I think that's largely due to the diversity of translations available and the rereads I've enjoyed. As a result, I'm so glad there's a new, exciting and high-quality translation of Anna Karenina available as an alternative to the standard Pevear & Volokhonsky found in most bookshops.

I began the book impressed by the introduction, and I'm enjoying it more and more as it progresses. Although it was quite difficult to get used to, I'm appreciating Bartlett's dedication to the original Russian. It's not always pretty and it's often repetitive, but it's accurate, and Bartlett somehow manages to convey a wonderful sense of beauty at the same time. I'll write more about this as I get on with my reading.

Now that I'm in the midst of the novel, I'd like to share a series of posts - focused on the Bartlett translation - encouraging you to give it a go too. This week, let's celebrate one of the most-loved characters of the novel: Konstantin Levin.

Domnhall Gleeson as Konstantin Levin in Joe Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina

What's so special about Levin?

1. He's innately good, as opposed to so many others in the novel

Levin strives to achieve worthy goals and be a good person, and on the whole he succeeds. He's an idealised figure for Tolstoy, as he becomes for many readers of Anna Karenina, and he's a wonderful character to watch develop.

Hypocrisy in whatever guise can deceive the cleverest and most perceptive person, but the dullest of children will recognise it, however artfully it may be concealed, and be repelled. Whatever Levin's faults, there was not a shred of hypocrisy in him, and so the children displayed to him the same friendliness they found reflected in their mother's face.

2. Yet he's not at all perfect

Levin's story of transformation is a central part of the plot, and we see him progress from an anxious, awkward and confused young man to a happy and settled husband and father. The first part of this story is perhaps the most interesting, and we realise that Levin, just like all of us, has flaws. As one example, we can consider his inner dilemma about how to deal with his troubled brother:

A battle was going on in his heart between the desire to forget now about his unfortunate brother and the recognition that this would be wrong.

3. He feels anxious and self-conscious, although we realise he has no reason to

Levin, like Pierre in War and Peace alongside Tolstoy himself, experiences nerves like the rest of us. In the early stages of the novel, we see him trying to cultivate calm in front of the beautiful and kindhearted Kitty Scherbatsky:

He walked along the path towards the skating-rink, saying to himself: ‘You mustn’t be nervous, you must calm down. What’s the matter with you? Be quiet, stupid!’ he told his heart. But the more he tried to calm down, the more breathless he became.

However, it's not just love that evokes anxiety and self-consciousness in the character:

‘Yes, there is something loathsome and repellent about me,’ thought Levin as he left the Shcherbatskys and set off on foot to see his brother. ‘And I don’t fit in with other people. Pride, they say. No, I don’t have any pride. If I did, I wouldn’t have put myself in such a position.’

4. Tolstoy shows us how he struggles in society

Levin is most at home in the countryside, mindfully turning the hay or roaming his estate with his hunting dog. City life, however, brings out a frantic and unsettled side to Levin:

Whenever he arrived in Moscow, Levin was always agitated, frantic, slightly awkward, and annoyed by this awkwardness and, more often than not, came with some completely new and unexpected way of looking at things.

5. He sees the good in others

Levin isn't just good in himself, he also has a positive outlook that allows him to appreciate the good in others. When Stiva laments that Levin has "everything ahead of [him]" while he feels hopeless, Levin responds, "Surely you don’t have everything behind you?" Levin is a good friend and quick to find a positive instead of a point to criticise: something I know I should remember.

This even extends to Vronsky, Levin's rival standing in the way of his affection for Kitty:

There are people who, when meeting their victorious rival in whatever arena it might be, are immediately ready to turn their back on all that is good about him and see only bad things; and then there are people who, on the contrary, take pains to locate in this victorious rival the qualities with which he defeated them, and who, with an aching heart, look only for good things about him. Levin belonged to the latter category.

Can you relate to Levin and feel inspired by his transformation, as I do? Alternatively, does his character frustrate you slightly?

To all fellow fans of Anna Karenina, what do you love most about the novel: character, theme, or otherwise?

Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe or take a look at an example copy here.


Brian Joseph said...

I have not yet read Anna Karenina but I want to do so sooner rather then later. Picking the right translator is important to me. I think that you have convinced me to choose Bartlett.

I have not really looked to see which translations are the most popular in bookstores here in the United States. It is interesting that you have observed the Pevear & Volokhonsky to be the most popular. Though some people love them, they are a little controversial.

Wuthering Expectations said...

Brian, the P&V translation was an official Oprah book. So, yeah, most popular!

What do I love most: the style, the exquisite little details in scene after scene, the structure, Anna's wrists, the horse-racing scene, Levin's brothers, Vronsky's toothache. I guess I have picked "otherwise."

Heidi'sbooks said...

I like Levin too. He's such a contrast to Anna. I read the P & V version and enjoyed it, but I don't know any other translation. I'll be interested to read what you have to say about it.

LitWitMisFit said...

So many people view Anna Karenina as a romance...UGH! Konstantin Levin is the reason why I LOVE this novel. (And want to learn more about Tolstoy). Levin is ordinary, his virtues in life are simple, he is not perfect....but yet, he is a model human being.

Alexandra said...

I'm very curious to check out this Rosamund Bartlett translation because i've read most of the russian greats translations done by P&V. Levin has always been my favorite- his ability to soothe his own anxiety and depression by returning to the simple roots of man by working with nature is something i always think of.

Michal said...

Keep posting these gems Lucy and I swear one day I'll read something Tolstoy's ;)

BTW, the editor in me spotted that tou duplicated number #2 on the list.

Camilla P said...

I couldn't agree more: Levin was my favourite character throughout the novel, and I still remember him fondly. His struggle feels real and honest.

Sadly, I can't talk about the English translation, since I read the Italian one. But we have that kind of discussion, too; I enjoyed mine, for example, but I have to admit it is a little bit old and could use some kind of renovation.