Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (Book Review)

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I had only ever read short stories by Tolstoy up until this point. With him being often mentioned alongside Dostoevsky, I felt this was unjust and so gave Anna Karenina a try:

In 1874, in the Imperial Russia, the aristocratic Anna Karenina travels from Saint Petersburg to Moscow to save the marriage of her brother Prince Oblonsky, who had had a love affair with his housemaid. Anna Karenina has a cold marriage with her husband, Count Alexei Karenin, and they have a son. Anna meets the cavalry officer Count Vronsky at the train station and they feel attracted by each other. Soon she learns that Vronsky will propose to Kitty, who is the younger sister of her sister-in-law Dolly. Anna satisfactorily resolves the infidelity case of her brother and Kitty invites her to stay for the ball. However, Anna Karenina and Vronsky dance in the ball, calling the attention of the conservative society. Soon they have a love affair that will lead Anna Karenina to a tragic fate.

The plot itself was, at first, fairly unappealing to me – I had never really read what is essentially a romance novel before. The story follows various characters through their relationships and careers as they develop and deepen throughout the novel.

Tolstoy held the family unit in high regard and place of peace (certainly so in his major work: War & Peace) and so it is interesting to consider a novel surrounding the failure of the unit from within. When a proud, almost womanising, Vronsky comes on the scene and severs Karenin and Anna apart, we see the results of this failure.

At times the novel seems like a display of different variations of the family unit (perhaps reflected in the famous first line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.“). We see each couple in the novel facing different problems and approaching them with quite different motives.

I admit though that I struggled at times to find much sympathy for Anna: she had cheated on her husband (granted he was a little cold to her), become pregnant as a result, and allowed her pride to push her into a relationship with Vronsky, even whilst still legally married to Karenin. In doing this she also abandoned her son, who continued to live with Karenin. Sure you see her love for her son in a very moving scene on her return to Petersburg, but the fact remains she leaves him.

Levin was perhaps my favourite character, and certainly the most accepting of reality, being close to the peasantry and the land. His moral crisis plays out interestingly too, and his struggle with the change in his life situations seems to real that Tolstoy certainly seems to be drawing from experience.

Ultimately the ending is very tragic, with despair succeeding and paranoid hopelessness prevailing. Perhaps this was the message Tolstoy wanted to show when society turns in on itself and selfishness is sought first in relationships. Afterall, unlike Levin and Kitty, Vronsky and Anna still seem adamant in their independence.

Overall the book is certainly worth reading, with some very touching scenes and interesting writing style. It is, though, a romance, and there isn’t a lot of action involved, so it may not be for everyone!

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The Man Who Laughs – Victor Hugo (Book Review)

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This was a tough find, and stayed on my shelf for quite some time beforehand due to my editions tiny font; but it’s finally read:

Raised by Ursus, philosopher and entertainer, Gwynplaine is the Laughing Man. Found at age 10 when abandoned in southern England, caryying a blind child in his arms, Gwynplaine’s face is disfigured into a constant laugh.

As Gwynplaine’s fame grows among the commoners of London, he is found by the police and his true identity revealed to him – peer of England.

Ultimately the novel is a love story between Gwynplaine, the man whose face has been intentionally mutilated into a laugh, and Dea, the beautiful blind girl he rescued whilst she was still a baby.

Replete with Hugo’s typical use of language, the novel is a pleasure to read, though I did it find moments where essentially the same paragraph was repeated multiple times, as though Hugo couldn’t quite decide who to describe the scene.

The novel is set in 17th century England and draws a strong distinction between those in the aristocracy, and the commoners of the land. Gwynplaine transcends both in some ways, raised a commoner, and ascending to aristocracy in an instant.

This creates problems for him however, as aware of the struggle for the common man, he finds it difficult to settle in to this new life of luxury which is thrown upon him.

This is a tragic story of conflicts between social classes and love, and the values which battle when success is suddenly presented to someone. The manipulation of the common people for the comfort of the aristocracy is apparent though when Gwynplaine joins them in the high seats, but tough for him to stomach.

Hugo’s views on social reform are very clear throughout. Like his books, The Last Day of a Condemned Man, execution is shot in such a gruesome light that at times it felt as though the corpses of the convicts where feet away from the reader. The need for equality across social classes perpetuated throughout, and the values of each struck constantly in every chapter.

Overall though this wasn’t an easy read, and I found myself finishing it just because I had started by the time the last 100 pages were in sight. Recommended for fans of Hugo, but not as first – unrepresentative, perhaps, of his other work…

1984 – George Orwell (Book Review)

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After much delay I finally got around to reading the famous “1984” – perhaps it following so closely after Shades of Grey is somewhat telling, but nonetheless it had been on my reading list far too long:

Nineteen Eighty-Four revealed George Orwell as one of the twentieth century’s greatest mythmakers. While the totalitarian system that provoked him into writing it has since passed into oblivion, his harrowing cautionary tale of a man trapped in a political nightmare has had the opposite fate: its relevance and power to disturb our complacency seem to grow decade by decade. In Winston Smith’s desperate struggle to free himself from an all-encompassing, malevolent state, Orwell zeroed in on tendencies apparent in every modern society, and made vivid the universal predicament of the individual.

It is likely that you have heard of this book: in a dystopian reality, there are now 3 major world powers – one of these being Oceania, ruled by The Party and their political head: Big Brother.

Within this state, people believe what they are told and think only what the party allow, or else face punishment from the Thought Police. Winston secretly has anti-Party thoughts, however, and with the similar thinking Julia, begins seeking revolution.

The story is sometimes a difficult one, and I read one person describe it as “an essay”, which I get – many chapters feel like the characters are decoration to something Orwell really wants you to understand. That being said, there certainly is a plot, the conclusion of which will have you squirming.

What is interesting about this book, and is surely intentional, is that it reflects much of society as it began changing and certainly some ideologies held highly now. Not least among this we would recognise as the post-modern thought that somehow we should no longer fight for the reconciliation of subjective thought and external truth, but that we decide what truth is – if we all agree that 2+2=5, then it must. This is something Winston argues against vehemently, and I with him – we don’t determine our external reality, simply because we don’t like it.

As news is fabricated and reports constructed in order for the thoughtless mass to believe anything, the struggle in the society where “Big Brother is watching” is surely a terrifying one. The ending left me feeling a little defeated, and it certainly had an impact.

If this is a classic you have been delaying reading, it may be worth your time. Be prepared though as it isn’t particularly light reading!

The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov (Book Review)

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A few people have claimed this book as their favourite from the 20th century, such as Daniel Radcliffe and Steven Fry, which is quite the claim considering the books I have read from then. I thought it worth a go, being a Russian author and all…

In the 1930’s, Satan, under the guise of a magician, walks the streets of Moscow with his three pals: Azzezelo, Koroviev, and Behemoth – the talking cat. Observing the Russian people, and causing a lot of trouble for the aristocracy, the Devil and his friends settle into Flat 50.

Meanwhile, an author of a book about the life of Pontius Pilate, calling himself the Master, is in a mental asylum, longing for his married mistress, Margarita; who herself longs to leave her husband she regards as boring, for the author of what she considers a masterpiece.

And throughout this is the story of Pontius Pilate on the days surrounding the crucifixion, his dealings with Jesus (Yeshua), Judas, Matthew, and his mysterious head bodyguard. All the while detesting the city of Jerusalem, and seeking the sleep which evades him.

At first I was hesitant to read the book, having heard that a fictitious version of Jesus appeared in it who, for the most part, acts a bit bewildered as to the claims against him – frankly, he’s portrayed as a simpleton – albeit still the Christ. This, with me being a Christian and the book being potentially offensive to the faith, made me cautious. There are few reasons why this may not be so though, which I address first for the sake of others in my position:

Firstly, the stories told are from the point of view of the Master, and Satan himself (who even in the novel is hardly a reliable source of truth), and are therefore fictitious even in the fiction.

Secondly, Jesus is still revealed as telling the Truth, as he is shown eternal throughout.

And thirdly, the book has strong themes of repentance throughout, which I may touch on later.

That aside: the book was fairly good. I wouldn’t go as far as saying one of my favourites, but nonetheless recommendable. The characters are certainly unique (if not bizarre), and there were some genuinely funny moments throughout.

The descriptive prose is well done, and much of it graphic to the point of breaking through even my 21st century sensitised reactions – the descriptions of Pilates torment due to lack of sleep made me incredibly thankful that I could sleep without trouble.

The stories are much more like fairy-tales than ordinary classical fiction, and are therefore somewhat bordering magical realism(?).

Now to be annoying; the drawbacks: firstly I felt that morality was often too simplified in the novel. Though there were some moments that felt real (which I won’t share due to spoilers) often the portrayal of good and evil were far too separated, unlike the usual mix in each man.

Secondly, the portrayal of the devil was quite cartoon-y, and the ‘antics’ him and his friends got up to seemed somewhat childish. Unless this novel is viewed as a somewhat jovial book – which it certainly has elements of – this could seem quite tedious. It was also hinted at that he is somewhat in charge of the souls of the damned, which is a particular misconception that I can’t help but allow to irk me.

Thirdly, the purpose of the book, should it have been a satire of communism in Russian, was somewhat hard to grasp and hold onto, though that may be perhaps due to ignorance on my part: was the devil, who caused so much trouble for the Russian citizens, a characterised Stalin? I’m not sure.

Overall, however, it wasn’t a bad read, and I’m open for someone to point out something I missed. I’m of the school of hermeneutics that assumes that the authors intent is the true meaning, so sources from Bulgakov that I’m unaware of, perhaps…

It does leave me thinking what I would publicly put forward as my favourite book of the 20th century, however. I’d be interested to hear some people’s thoughts.