REVIEW | Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

image via Strand

image via Strand

title: Anna Karenina [support an independent bookseller and buy at Strand]
by: Leo Tolstoy      translated by: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
genre: classic/literary fiction
pages: 838
published: 1873-1877      this translation: 2000
source: my personal library

GENERAL SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve never read Anna Karenina, and would like to discover it with no previous knowledge of the plot, I suggest you stop here.  Since it was published in the 1870s, I’m writing with the assumption that the cat’s out of the bag in terms of any plot twists, and you’ve probably read it already or are super familiar with the plot. So, if not, stop. Now. You’ve been warned.

“But that had been grief and this was joy.  But that grief and this joy were equally outside all ordinary circumstances of life, were like holes in this ordinary life, through which something higher showed.”   (p. 713)

Anna Karenina has to be one of my all time favorite novels, and tells two major interweaving dramas: the story of Anna, a married socialite and her tempestuous affair with Count Vronsky, and the story of Levin, who is desperately in love with Kitty, the sister-in-law of Anna’s brother.

Tolstoy’s work has such a universal and timeless quality to it.  There were so many sentiments he expressed via his characters that are still incredibly true today.  One silly example:

“Vronsky and Anna were also saying something in those soft voices in which people usually talk at exhibitions, partly so as not to insult the artist, partly so as not to say something foolish aloud, as it is so easy to do when talking about art.” (p. 473)

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

My FAVORITE scene has to be Levin’s second (and ultimately successful) proposal, that occurs by Kitty and Levin writing a series of letters, signifying the first letter of each word they long to say aloud to one another, in chalk on the green cloth of a card table.   So wildly romantic, the notion that they could communicate so completely without words.  Just lovely.

Brace yourself, because I’m about to make a bold statement:  if I were Tolstoy’s editor (yeah, I know, right???) and Anna Karenina were being put out today, I would cut the extensive election scene toward the last half of the book.  I understand its purpose (to underscore Kitty’s and society’s influence on Levin in his post-marriage transformation), but I feel as if that transformation was already clear and well-supported by that point in the narrative…I just wonder if a modern audience needs that part of the piece.  Did it propel the action forward? No.  Did we learn anything new about the characters? No really.  Maybe it served a strong sociocultural or political purpose at the time, but it feels a bit extraneous to this contemporary reader.

I cannot say enough good things about this translation of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Anna Karenina.  The first translation I read YEARS ago was Constance Garnett’s from 1901, and it didn’t have even a fraction of the life-force of the Pevear/Volokhonsky version.  The job of the translator is a tricky one; you want to convey the spirit and intention of the author, and balance preserving the language of the era but not at the expense of story.  Garnett’s version was so TECHNICAL and CORRECT and almost overly concerned with precision of language that the depth and life of the characters got lost quite a bit; it was like reading an overstarched shirt.  Pevear and Volokhonsky did an amazing job of bringing the heart of this novel forward.  Their translation was vibrant and lively.  On my next venture into Russian literature, I absolutely want them with me.

Rubric rating: 9.5.

Check out some more Pevear/Volokhonsky translation BRILLIANCE:


1  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

2  Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

3  The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Doetoevsky

4  The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

5  The Collected Tales by Nikolai Gogol

6  The Enchanted Wanderer by Nikolai Leskov


2 thoughts on “REVIEW | Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

  1. Pingback: Review: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis | wine and a book

  2. Pingback: 2013: My Year in Books | wine and a book

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