by Elizabeth Spencer

I first read Anna Karenina the summer I turned 20, which I also happen to think of as the summer my life truly began. That coincidence may be partly why the novel has always remained important to me. Anna is a young woman who rejects traditional expectations in pursuit of a more meaningful, passionate life. I was a young woman who had rejected the traditional college experience that my parents wanted for me. After giving up on the pipe dream of moving to New York or LA, I was looking for a map to follow—in the pages of books like Anna Karenina, The Diaries of Anais Nin, and Fear of Flying. 

When Tolstoy started writing Anna around 1873, he was 45 years old, he’d been a published author for over twenty years, and he had already begun working on War and Peace as well. But he wrote to a friend that Anna “is truly a novel, the first in my life.” In the introduction to the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of the book (issued in 2000), translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky write:

When Tolstoy called Anna Karenina his first novel, he was conceiving the form in the same restricted sense that Gogol found so uncongenial. He was deliberately embracing the conventional limits of the genre … portraying a small group of main characters … set in the present and dealing with the personal side of upper-class family and social life … the most ordinary Russian aristocrats of the 1870s.

In other words, they are calling Anna a “family novel.” This genre was already out of fashion in Tolstoy’s time, and Virginia Woolf declared it dead in her 1924 essay, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” pinpointing 1910 as the year “all human relations … shifted,” leading to “a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.”

Pevear and Volokhonsky see Anna as “an intentional anachronism” and a challenge to attacks on the institution of the family from “the radical intelligentsia” of the time that ran counter to Tolstoy’s views—of marriage and childrearing as “a woman’s essential tasks,” and of family happiness as “the highest human ideal.” But I would argue instead that the enduring appeal of Anna (after all, it not only was included in my graduate professor’s “Poetics of the Novel” course, but also made into a movie starring Keira Knightley, and narrated for audiobook by Maggie Gyllenhaal) is its psychological realism—ironically the very quality that Woolf saw as central to modern fiction. For example, in her 1925 essay, “Modern Fiction,” she writes:

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives …  myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms … Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display?

Elizabeth Spencer, 2003

In my opinion, what Woolf describes as the “modern novel” captures exactly what Anna is. After all, there I was at 20, looking to this supposedly ordinary family drama for inspiration to lead the passionate and meaningful life I desired—there I was, looking for true love in all the wrong places, and romanticizing Anna’s tragic end. And then, later, at age 26, as an aspiring novelist in a graduate creative writing program, there I was again, admiring the stream of consciousness that Tolstoy writes for Anna as well as for the other characters—like Levin, with his unrequited love for Kitty and his transcendent experience of farm work. And now, here I am at 38, sitting on my porch with the novel in my hands and seeing Vronsky more clearly for what he is—not a dashing hero but a cad, an inconstant lover—in the modern parlance, a player. Here I am as a writer and mother of two, wondering how Anna could stand to give up her son (who is told that she’s dead but who still looks for her when he goes out for walks). I wish that Anna had given up her family life for some greater purpose than loving Vronsky, but it would be another hundred years or so before novels would be written about women abandoning their families for a passion attached, not to a man, but to a vocation—such as writing, painting, and so on. I’m thinking here of writers like Doris Lessing and Margaret Drabble, foremothers to all the novels published today about the ambivalence many women feel toward marriage, motherhood, and the quest for self-actualization. Anna Karenina is in conversation with all of those women.

In Spring 2020, with the world shutting down to slow the spread of COVID-19, I noticed online chatter about people reading War and Peace during lockdown. I had previously tried unsuccessfully at least twice to finish the book, and I thought maybe this would be the time I’d actually read it all the way to the end. I bought a e-book copy so that I could see my progress inch forward, one percent at a time. It took about a year, but I can now say I’ve read War and Peace—that “large loose baggy monster,” as Henry James called it—a book that could indeed have benefited from a ruthless editor, but that nevertheless endures because, like Anna, it has psychological realism and flawed but relatable characters. Who hasn’t been Pierre at one time or another, unfulfilled by the trappings of success and searching for meaning and truth instead? Or Natasha, young and full of potential, yet nearly wrecked by bad decisions about who to love? At least she, unlike Anna, survives her heartbreak.

War and Peace, like Anna, is populated by ordinary people. It is Tolstoy’s ability to make the ordinary transcendent, luminous, and heartbreaking that keeps him at the top of my list of favorite and most admired authors. I love all the details he provides about Russian society and the hot political topics of the time. He creates an immersive world for the reader to step into, one in which they can find relatable men and women who are the heroes and heroines of their own lives. Just like us, their ordinary concerns and griefs feel anything but ordinary to them while they are being experienced: financial hardship, romantic rejection, or the death of a loved one. He captures the arrogance of youth, the resignation of older age, and all the joys and sorrows in between. 

Since that first time I read Anna at 20, I have made a practice of reading at least one classic novel every summer. There is something about the contrast between the summer season—with its pop songs, bare skin, and late sunsets—and the experience of traveling to a different place and time in the pages of an old novel with musty-smelling, not freshly printed, pages. It’s like the contrast between sweet and salty: a perfect complement. 

When I said that my life took off after reading Anna, I meant that there was solo travel, romance, and a sense that who I was as a writer was finally coming into focus. These days, my daily life is oriented toward domestic tasks, but my inner life is as rich as ever. Instead of fancying myself the adventurous yet ultimately doomed heroine of my life’s story, I drop off my children with a babysitter for three hours every Sunday and sit in front of my keyboard, striving to fill my own novel-in-progress with all the human experience that Tolstoy brought to Anna Karenina and War and Peace—even though, as Virginia Woolf said, “if the Russians are mentioned one runs the risk of feeling that to write of any fiction save theirs is a waste of time.” 


Anna on edge by jenniferforjoy via Flickr