Anna Karenina is probably the most popular 19th-century Russian novel in the U.S. today and certainly the only one tapped for both Oprah’s book club and a forthcoming steampunk-influenced mashup. But there is no obvious reason why it should have more appeal than others by Leo Tolstoy and his compatriots. Anna Karenina lacks the scale of War and Peace. It tells a tragic story when many readers crave happy endings, and it reminds us that love doesn’t conquer all, a theme that clashes with a cultural fantasy.
Why is Anna Karenina nonetheless so alluring? Elif Batuman suggests an answer in her quirky and amusing essay collection, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 286 pp., $15, paperback). Batuman writes of finding a 1970s edition of the novel during a summer visit to her grandmother’s apartment in Turkey:
“Nobody in Anna Karenina was oppressed, as I was, by the tyranny of leisure. The leisure activities in Tolstoy’s novel – ice skating, balls, horse races – were beautiful, dignified, and meaningful in terms of plot …
“Anna Karenina was a perfect book, with an otherwordly perfection: unthinkable, monolithic, occupying a super-charged gray zone between nature and culture. How had any human being ever managed to write something simultaneously so big and so small – so serious and so light – so strange and so natural? The heroine didn’t turn up until chapter 18, and the book went on for 19 more chapters after her death, and Anna’s lover and her husband had the same name (Alexei). Anna’s maid and daughter were both called Anna, and Anna’s son and Levin’s half brother were both called Sergei. The repetition of names struck me as remarkable, surprising, and true to life.”