Reviewing classics is always difficult. What does my opinion matter when millions of people have already branded a book a must read? I always find it amusing looking at reviews of classics such as War and Peace or Jane Eyre on amazon; invariably amongst the rapturous reviews there are a handful of indignant ones written by people who have not seen the magic they were hoping for within its pages, and are frustrated and disappointed at spending the time to read something from which they feel they have received no reward. Some of these reviews are written by people who probably missed the point a little – usually school children who’ve been forced to read a book they are too young or too uninterested to appreciate, and say things along the lines of ‘this book is SO boring and the characters are all STUPID’, with no other insight beyond this. Others, though, are well written reviews from people who, despite acknowledging the quality of the writing, or interesting characterisation, or beautiful descriptions of landscape, didn’t enjoy the book and have perfectly reasoned opinions as to why. Such as this review of Jane Eyre:
I absolutely loved Wuthering Heights, so thinking Charlotte might be like Emily, I decided to read Jane Eyre. Dear God. I’m actually proud of myself for finishing what can only be described as utterly tedious. What is the actual plot of this book? A girl ‘falls in love’ with her ‘master’ who also happens to be the first man she has ever really had a mere conversation with. He then completely lies to her regarding his marital status, and yet she goes back to him… and this is called a feminist novel? Aside from the utter boredom of the plot, the writing is extremely repetitive and chapters go by when nothing new is really introduced. I like novels where there’s no much of a plot but the writing is beautiful or feelings are really well explored etc. but the appeal of this book is just beyond my comprehension.
I think this is fair enough. I love Jane Eyre but even I can admit that it has its failings, and in places, I do skip bits. Sacrilege, I know, but there’s only so much of St John being a martyr that a girl can take. The reviewer does say that she loves Wuthering Heights, so clearly we are Bronte opposites, as I can’t stand it. I’m well read and well educated, and I like to think that I can see and appreciate good writing when it’s in front of me. In my eyes, Wuthering Heights has always come across as nothing but teenage histrionics. The characters behave nonsensically, the plot is absurd, and I can’t bear the melodrama of beating breasts and rain lashed windows. I genuinely cannot understand why it is considered a classic or why other people love it so much. I have read it about five times, desperately seeking what I am missing. Each time I have come up with nothing. Is my opinion automatically invalid because ‘everyone else’ thinks it’s marvellous? Or do I still have a right to reasonably explore the flaws in what is, in my opinion, a poorly written novel?
Where is this leading? I can hear you wondering. Well, I’m afraid it’s leading to me saying that Anna Karenina is not the book I remembered it as. I am reading a different translation this time, which may be having a subtle effect on my reading experience (for those interested, I read the Pevear and Volokhonsky last time, and I’m reading the Maude and Maude this time), and also my edition is rubbish (whoever edited it feels the need to footnote and translate simple French phrases such as ‘bonne chance’ and ‘ma chere’ but they don’t consider it necessary to translate whole reams of German and French conversation that are probably actually quite important for me to understand – very annoying!), but in general I am finding it an incredibly long winded and frenetic novel that doesn’t seem to know what exactly it’s trying to say. Tolstoy has an agenda, of course; his political and religious views saturate all of his writing, and these are by and large interesting to read; but in order to express his views, he’s having to introduce so many different characters and plot strands that the novel becomes bloated and top heavy, the moments of excellence hidden amidst pages and pages of – frankly – pointless, indulgent waffle.
I remember this about War and Peace now – whole chapters of philosophical posturing and extraneous detail that had no relevance to the central plot and added nothing to the thrust of the novel or the personalities of the characters. If this was being written now, it would be at least half the length, the unnecessary asides chiselled away with an editor’s pen to allow the beauty of Tolstoy’s descriptions of the land, wonderfully perceptive portrayals of human relationships, magnificent, sparkling dialogue between characters and the breathtaking rendering of all the glitz, glamour and ultimately hollow world of high society Russia in its heyday to take centre stage. As it is, while it is still compulsively readable, I can’t quite bring myself to praise it to the heavens in the way many others do. It’s good, yes, but so far I am yet to see greatness.
Negatives aside, what am I enjoying? Well, the first thing I noticed is how gossipy, how conversational, and how down to earth Tolstoy’s style is. This is not the dense, worthy prose of so many English novels of the period; instead there is a lightness and an ease that gives the novel a quick, pacy style that I love, reflecting the passionate, easily distracted and constantly occupied lifestyle of the characters. The characters themselves are marvellously realised; even minor bit players are fully fleshed out, brought to life merely by the way they wear their hat or move their hands when they talk. I love Tolstoy’s effortless ability to create a scene, perfectly rendering the chatter of a Petersburg drawing room, the feathers and fans and excitable cries at a busy racecourse, the peace and rusticity of life in a country farmhouse or the bleak beauty of a snow drenched landscape with an exquisite eye for just the right amount of detail to bring his world alive. I am also enjoying the wonderful atmosphere; the tension, the romance, the unhappiness, the confusion, the searching…this is a novel that is positively teeming with life.
I am absorbed in the world of Anna Karenina, I do think the characterisation is marvellous, and Tolstoy’s writing style and insight are undeniably fantastic. I just wish that these elements could be given more room to shine. The novel is weakened by the passages of self indulgence and the extraneous characters and plot lines; they suffocate and stifle the sparks of brilliance, dampening the atmosphere, slowing the pace, and making the reading experience feel, in places, like wading through quicksand. I know the sea is there, sparkling in the distance, but in between, I am bogged down in turgid passages that feel totally pointless. At the moment I am having real mixed feelings, and I am a little disappointed that my memory of Anna Karenina, which started my love affair with Russian Literature, has been somewhat tainted. I am hoping that as I progress through the novel, things will improve and I’ll fall in love all over again. I’d love to hear from those who are reading along; do you feel the same, or have you been blown away by Tolstoy’s magnificence? Can you help me find the magic that I may have overlooked?