The joy of reading Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy

I have a new routine. Since finishing my duties at the university where I work, I have been dividing my time between applying for full-time academic posts and working on a manuscript for Ibidem’s Samuel Beckett in Company series.

I rise early and prepare myself a light breakfast with a cup of green tea. I check the news headlines with a sense of stoic resignation. And then I spend some time reading and writing. After finishing Stephen King‘s The Stand a week or two ago I moved on to William Peter Blatty‘s notorious novel, The Exorcist, and then found myself completing Georges Bernanos‘ excellent Diary of a Country Priest.

Yesterday morning, I restlessly searched among my books for another novel to read. Something that might pique my interest. As someone with a tendency to collect books, there is never a shortage of titles to choose from. Among the contenders were Émile Zola‘s Germinal, and both of Gustave Flaubert‘s novels, Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education. But I stopped on Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina. I am an avid reader of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but have never read Anna Karenina before. Somewhat ridiculously, I own two translations of the novel: the recent Pevear and Volokhonsky edition that drew critical attention and acclaim, and a 1912 translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude. According to my Everyman’s Library edition, the latter were a Quaker couple that befriended Tolstoy while living in Russia, and helped him organise the Doukhobor migration to Canada in 1893. I also find in their short biography that they “share[d] many of Tolstoy’s views on spiritual life, moral obligation, and passive resistance to violence”. I picked up the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation and began reading.

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I am rediscovering the joy of reading. Anna Karenina is not only beautifully written, but riveting from the first page. I often forget that the serial format of the nineteenth-century novel lends itself to regular sparks of excitement, intrigue, and suspense (not unlike a twenty-first century television miniseries, which tend to be structured according to similar devices). As a result, I’m finding it very difficult to put down.

Tolstoy has a wonderful knack for dialogue, and is an incredibly perceptive observer of human psychology and behaviour. The novel comprises several stories that weave in and out of each other, and there is never a dull moment. So far, sitting down each day with Anna Karenina has been an absolute pleasure, and I look forward to seeing where it goes next. A part of me cannot believe that I didn’t pick it up sooner.

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  1. That’s a nice drawing of Tolstoy reading! I’m a big Tolstoy lover, I read most of his work in Dutch, but for the sake of my blog I have downloaded an English version of War and Peace, the Maudes’ translation, and I think it’s very good, not least because of the great notes, but also because they knew Tolstoy and understood him. The last time I read Anna Karenina a couple of years ago, it struck me how accurate his psychological insight is, it’s like he’s looking inside your head. The structure of the novel, with its’ cliffhangers, as you say, make it a real masterpiece that’s a joy to read. I hope I’ll never get tired of Tolstoy..

    • Rhys Tranter

      Hi Elisabeth!

      I couldn’t agree more re: Tolstoy’s ability to represent his characters’ psychological motivations. I’m still thoroughly enjoying it! (Just passed the halfway point…)

      Best, Rhys

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  4. I’m not a fan of P/V translations, but I read and loved the Maudes’ version of AK a few years back. I may possibly attempt War and Peace this summer…

    • I read (and enjoyed) War and Peace in the Anthony Briggs translation a few years back, but I am now seriously considering getting my hands on the Maude Everyman edition and reading it again. (Incidentally, those Everyman’s Library editions are fantastic value for money!)

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