By Robert (Bob) Blaisdell, Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College (CUNY)


The first time I read Anna Karenina, I was eighteen and it took me a little less than three days. I mention that not as a matter of speed but of appetite.

Decades later, when I read it in Russian, I had the same appetite, but it took me a year and a half. That’s not counting the several years I spent learning enough Russian so that within a couple of passes I could take in the original language.

I kept a diary about my Russian journey through this greatest of novels. I noted what I was seeing this time around, what I remembered having been there, and among other things which of Tolstoy’s psychological or artistic choices I was loving or appreciating again seemingly for the first time. I noticed details the Russian revealed that the English may not have and I recorded the bumps I hit because my Russian wasn’t agile enough. Anna Karenina was a familiar yet newly realized place, showing me where I’d been and giving me my early joys again and showing me it was still the most important book of my life.

Of course having read it in English twenty times made it a lot easier. I knew everybody, I knew what they would say; I could adjust my Russian because I knew from context and memory that what Stiva was saying could not be what the Russian confusingly seemed to be. Knowing I had made a mistake, I could pursue the clues further in my various dictionaries. As a guard against cheating, I didn’t let myself look at any translations. Like a musician who plays by ear, I played Tolstoy by ear. I made so many mistakes I became habituated to unraveling them.

Because I teach English at a community college in Brooklyn to grown-ups who struggle with reading and writing, I continually see that I, as a reader of Russian, move at a pace that in English would be laughable, at a pace that certainly is not laughable to my students. When I compare myself to K.C., an immigrant from China, who claims she spent two hours a chapter reading Oliver Twist (whose fifty-three chapters I had assigned over four weeks), she is faster than I.

One advantage of my hard-won reading is that if I don’t read Russian with super attention, I don’t get it! I can thoughtlessly cruise in English, but not in Russian. When it flows, I’m in heaven—but it often stumbles on pebbles or wanders into corners. Gliding or stumbling, in Russian I feel myself in that eager state of wanting to take in everything. I look up anything I don’t understand. I’m on the hunt. It’s as if my own life is unrolling itself before my eyes. I’m used to Anna’s entrance coming not until eighteen chapters in, but in Russian, having been reading so hard, having encountered so much resistance, I get particularly excited as the scene approaches. It’s like the difference between arriving at one’s beloved and well-known destination on foot instead of by car.

Here’s the very moment of our first sight of Anna (in my clumsy-footed, post-reading translation) …

Vronsky walked past the conductor to the car and in front of the entrance to the compartment stopped, in order to give way to an exiting lady. With the habitual tact of a society person, at one glance at the appearance of this lady, Vronsky determined her place in the highest society. He excused himself and was going to the carriage, but felt the need to look once more at her—not because she was very beautiful, not by her refined and modest grace, which was apparent over her entire figure, but because in the expression of the sweet-looking face, when she walked past him, there was something especially affectionate and tender. When he looked around, she had already turned her head. The shining–seeming dark from full eyelashes–gray eyes in a friendly careful way stopped on his face, as if she already knew him, and she then carried herself through the exiting crowd, as if she was looking for someone. In this short look Vronsky succeeded in noticing a held-back liveliness that played on her face and flitted between her shining eyes and barely noticeable smile, which had bent her red lips. It was as if the plenty so filled her essence that against her will was expressed her radiant look and her smile. She intentionally extinguished the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will and on her barely noticeable smile.

The most thrilling moment in this thrilling paragraph came when I understood from the Russian that her smile bends her lips. Tolstoy gets us to not only see her lips but to feel from within her mouth the lips being involuntarily bent into that smile.

I was so thrilled to understand, to experience this moment again—her radiance, her attractiveness, her life, but I found myself wondering why in that last sentence she “intentionally extinguished the light in her eyes.” Then I found myself in that awkward anxious state of knowing someone’s fate before she does. Anna doesn’t know yet how fragile her life is, or that it will be tragic because she has so much life. We have the terrible knowledge that she will extinguish her own life … at the train station!

After I was so knocked out by this paragraph I wondered how could I not have been captivated by it before?

But I had. We all have. It just happens so perfectly quickly when we’re reading it in our native language. I can’t deny, however, since I did have to crawl over it, that it was a new pleasure, a thrill to take in the reading in slow-motion, to experience, at life-speed, not reading-speed, the bending of her lips by the smile.

Hundreds of pages later, I experienced the same vanity that Tolstoy’s alter-ego hero Levin does upon meeting Anna for the first and only time—that he knew her better than anyone else. There are two marvelous sentences that strike me as absolutely revelatory of the author’s relationship to his heroine:

He listened, spoke and at the same time thought about her, about her inner life, trying to guess her feelings. And before so severely had he judged her, he now, by some strange path of thoughts, justified her and instead pitied her and feared that Vronsky did not fully understand her.

Levin and Tolstoy are right—Vronsky doesn’t know her as well as Levin does. Vronsky will live with her and sleep with her, but we outsiders, including each one of us who reads the novel, will know her better than her lover seems to. Her character has been and is Tolstoy’s continually readjusted artistic assessment of her. We think about her and her inner life, and we try to guess her feelings.

That, anyway, is one of the things I noticed in my Anna Karenina diary.

* * *


December 10
Part I, Chapter 1

I haven’t started. I printed out the first two chapters yesterday from a Russian web site. I debated whether to use my fat copy with 8-point type—it’s tiny but clear—or to print it out chapter by chapter. I decided on printing it out because that would let me write on it more easily. It would seem more conducive to taking notes and underlining and writing directly on the page.

I don’t know why I’m hesitating getting started. I know the first chapter very well. When my student Natalya was about to recite the first sentence in my office the other day, I interrupted to recite it myself: “Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на другу, каждая несчастливая семья несчастлива по-своему.”

She said, raising her eyebrows and nodding, “Very impress! Not even all Russians knows this.” Did she know I didn’t have it completely correct?

All right, I’m ready.


It took maybe two hours.

I looked up everything I noticed I didn’t know but I still have several questions. I marked the printed sheet in red with arrows and lines and asterisks.

It was exciting from the first moments—from looking up отмщение (revenge), the second word in the epigraph! The epigraph’s “аз,” however, is not clear. So I’ve circled it. What next? Do I compare it to an English version? I’m not interested in translating—really. I found myself only rarely saying something aloud in English. I’m trying to keep the Russian Russian and not turn it into English. That’s what I tell my students to do, and that’s what I need to do. Enjoy the Russian as Russian. I’ve read enough translations. But is it possible to keep the Russian from meaning something to me in English? It’s not possible to forget English—after all, I’m looking up the words in a Russian-English dictionary.

Anyway, I feel exhilarated. I began to worry, though, about what happens as I move into chapters I don’t know so well. On the other hand, as I was reading, there were fewer and fewer pauses to look up words. I think being at the ready and being full up with the vocabulary and seeing deeper into the words—having more vocabulary in mind—I’ll move faster. One chapter a day is my goal.

Oh, so here’s the sentence of the day. I never dwelled on it before. It’s a sentence that Tolstoy must have written from the depths of his own experience:

И его воображению представились опять все подробности ссоры с женою, вся безвыходность его положения и мучительнее всего собственная вина его.

First a literal, word-by-word translation, without changing the word order:

And his imagination impressed again all details of argument with wife, all exitlessness of his situation and most tormentingly of all own guilt his.

What caught me and made me notice it was having to sort out where the subject was. “All details of argument with wife” is the subject, “impressed” the verb and “his imagination” the object. So it’s the argument impressing itself on him, not his “recalling” it or bringing it to mind. That’s true to the experience. That’s what Tolstoy felt. He knew what it was to wake up having forgotten that he had argued with his wife the night before. He knew what it was to have it come back to mind!

So: “All the details of the argument with his wife again presented themselves to his imagination, all the exitlessness [I know that’s not the good or customary word, but I still like it for putting the image right] of his situation and, most tormentingly of all, the fault was his own.”


December 11

I didn’t finish Chapter 2. I got about halfway through. There were a couple of really difficult paragraphs—difficult for sorting through, difficult for having to look up vocabulary. What’s important is almost always clear. The attention and energy are always felt. So I’ll try to finish tomorrow and see if I have time to write up my notes.


December 14

Okay, three days later and I finished Chapter 2.
Here’s my method. I read—trying not to jump ahead. I used to jump around looking for any phrase or word I could decipher. Now I’m trying to stay on the unwinding sentence. That’s why the opening sentence of Chapter 2 is so exciting and shocking:

“Stepan Arkadich was man upright …”

Stiva? “Upright? Truthful?” Ridiculous!

We have just seen him remembering how he lied to and cheated on his wife! But as the sentence unwinds we see the phrase “in relation to himself” or “as far as he himself was concerned.” That is, we see already a great truth, a revelation, dramatized so soon. In what other novel do we know and love a character so quickly? Pride and Prejudice has the other greatest opening chapter in novel history. We are amused by Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, but we sure don’t love them. Instead, perhaps, we’re excited by the thought we’re with a novelist who can present a complicated situation so quickly and amusingly. We do feel the novelist, we’re aware of Jane Austen in that first chapter, whereas in Anna Karenina we’re aware of Stiva, not Tolstoy, except in the confounding epigraph.


There are many difficulties. Let me start, though, with three sentences that seem particularly wonderful and clear:

Он раскаивался только в том, что не умел лучше скрыть от жены.

He repented only in that not able to better hide from wife.

“Repent!” That word, which Stiva takes very seriously, keeps running through his head. He repents in this way—not in the way Dolly wants him to or in the way that we pretend to feel. The “hide” doesn’t seem to take an object or have to have one—is it because it’s understood or because it’s built into the verb? In English you hide something, but in Russian do we not have to?

И как хорошо все это было до этого, как мы хорошо жили!

And how good it all was before this, when we lived well!

Stiva’s thinking and expression is usually clear and simple—when things are confusing for him he groans with pain. Levin, as we’ll see, is used to complicated thoughts and confusion. Stiva sees things neatly and clearly—honestly. He is Tolstoy’s “simple and clear” man. What he perceives, he communicates—at least to himself. He is always perceptive, the way Tolstoy is, but he isn’t accustomed to feeling confused, and he hates it. Tolstoy and Levin, on the other hand, are accustomed to confusion and can keep it at the front of their thinking. But back to “And how good it all was …” I thought I had the sentence—that I understood it completely and deeply. But my own translation throws me off. Should it be “… when we were living well”? The хорошо coming twice is great—and it’s too bad our English “good” converts to “well” as an adverb. How did that happen anyway? Was “well” a completely different word, and then it took the place of “good” as the adverb? And now “good” has its revenge by reasserting itself. (As some of my native-speaking students say, “He writed it good!”)

Потом добрая и несколько жалкая улыбка показалась на его красивом лице.

Then a kind and faintly pitiful smile appeared on his handsome face.

These early chapters show Stiva messing up his and Dolly’s lives; it’s a situation he could well help get a friend out of but can’t get himself out of. And this smile and several other warm and appreciative and details of his self-awareness, his knowing what he did, his blaming himself and not blaming himself, in spite all of that, he seems sympathetic. Is it because if we understand someone, we sympathize with them? Is that it? No. Everyone understands Dolly and sympathizes with her. But everyone more sympathizes with this man. Tolstoy does not condemn this man—yet. He will, and as he condemns he loses his own touch with him. He enjoyed Stiva (he enjoys him right now), but later he doesn’t, and Stiva will seem weak then. But Tolstoy isn’t smarter later, he’ll just have lost his sympathy—as one can run out of sympathy for a friend. But the illumination is lost. We can’t see Stiva’s soul later, when Tolstoy suggests it’s that Stiva lacks one. But here it is, here’s Stiva’s soul.


December 17
I: 3

We’re still with Stiva all the way through, with momentary awarenesses of the servant Matvei, and Stiva’s kids Tanya and Grisha. He is overwhelmed, but he remains aware of them as people—and though Tolstoy is beginning his mega-novel, he makes us aware of those three others’ consciousnesses. That is just to say what is almost always true about Tolstoy, that everybody has his own existence. No one exists just to function in the plot or as a contrast or counterpoint. If this novel did not exist, we believe they would still exist!


Окончив газету, вторую чашку кофе и калач с маслом, он встал, стряхнул крошки калача с жилета и, расправив широкую грудь, радостно улыбнулся, не оттого, чтоб у него на душе было что-нибудь особенно приятное, — радостную улыбку вызвало хорошее пищеварение.
Но эта радостная улыбка сейчас же напомнила ему все, и он задумался.

Finishing off newspaper, second cup of coffee and rolls with jam, he got up, shook crumbs of rolls off vest and, straightening wide chest, happily smiled, not from that in his soul was something especially pleasant—so very good meal caused that happy smile.

But this happy smile immediately reminded him of everything, and he began to think.

There is enough life here to make me happy—so much life in Stiva that we can be happy with him and realize that the pleasure and happiness is real, for the time being, but, fast as a thought, that pleasure is over. The pleasure was no deception. It was real. In spite of everything Stiva enjoys his breakfast.

Think of the great morning routines in literature. I think of Arthur Morel, Paul’s father in Sons and Lovers. I made up a writing assignment for students based on Stiva’s waking up and enjoying his dream, and then another assignment about describing someone you can’t stand having breakfast. I couldn’t hate George W. Bush while imagining him having a nice breakfast. Why is that? The solitariness? That we identify with such a homey and daily pleasure? Whereas, dinners and lunches are full of social significations. We can hate someone for eating at a restaurant or a particular kind of restaurant or hate the hypocrisy of forced conversation at a family meal. But breakfast is different—breakfast, even for Ivan Yakovelvich in “The Nose”–is sacred. Ivan didn’t get to finish his roll after finding the nose, as his wife wouldn’t let him. He had already had, however, the pleasure of smelling the coffee and fresh bread and then he made the unfortunate but understandable decision to ask for the bread instead of the coffee. Poor Ivan! Lucky Stiva!

Breakfast over, the weight of the world–our sins, our obligations—reasserts itself. But the pleasure of breakfast is real and holy.

Stiva’s son and daughter are playing and arguing, and he opens the door to them. He adores his daughter and she him. His son—Stiva can’t help it—is an afterthought. He would like to love son and daughter equally—but doesn’t. He smiles in greeting to his son—but the greeting is so different from the way the father greeted the daughter.

Он сознавал, что меньше любил мальчика, и всегда старался быть ровен; но мальчик чувствовал это и не ответил улыбкой на холодную улыбку отца.

He realized that he less loved boy, and always tried to be fair; but boy felt this and not answered with smile to cold smile of father.

First reading it the “He” that begins the sentence is ambiguous. I wondered: Stiva or the boy? It’s as if their shared immediate consciousness communicated itself between them. (The ambiguity works all the way until “boy,” obviously.) Tolstoy gives us the boy’s point of view in the second half of the sentence, but we already know! They both feel it.

And then the poignant moment where the daughter is embarrassed by her father’s forced lie, by his pretending to ask a simply curious question about her mother, “What, is she happy?”

Девочка знала, что между отцом и матерью была ссора, и что мать не могла быть весела, и что отец должен знать это, и что он притворяется, спрашивая об этом так легко. И она покраснела за отца. Он тотчас же понял это и также покраснел.

Daughter knew that between father and mother was fight, and that mother not able to be happy, and that father ought to know that, and that he was pretending, asking about this so lightly. And she blushed for her father. He immediately understood this and also blushed.

Here, Stiva’s consciousness is deeper, more universal, more sympathetic than Levin’s will show itself to be. These flashes of understanding—these are Anna’s and Stiva’s … and Tolstoy’s. The instant communication and understanding of feeling. It’s a pleasure to be made conscious of them. It’s always so simply presented. I am moved by this moment as I review it. Why?


December 19
I: 4

I pored over this chapter at least a couple of times during my Russian-learning career, so this was revisiting a familiar scene. I read the whole chapter, and although one-chapter-a-day had been my goal for this project, this was the first time I managed it. It’s a long chapter—almost three big tight pages, 1,440 words. I knew this chapter so well—but it took me three hours! Here I am the next morning, realizing that one-page an hour is not going to be easy to achieve with chapters I don’t know so well.

The hardest sentence is probably the first, with a description of Dolly’s hair and face.

In the first paragraph, there’s a verb, предпринять, which simply means “undertake,” but it’s clearly got military connotations. She needs to undertake the leaving of the home and to punish Stiva.

Already, though, I’ve forgotten two key verbs in the sentence: осрамить—to shame–and отомстить—to revenge. What do I do about the forgetting? I take notes on some of the words and phrases as I read, and I underline the words that I’ve looked up. At first, in the previous chapters, I was writing in the definition for some of those looked-up words, but then when reviewing my remarks and the passages I found I was relying on the English, so in this chapter I for the most part did not write the English definition. This seemed better—and it’s faster—but it shows me that I forget.

There’s a noun, потеряность, that comes from “to lose,” that means perplexity or, too interpretively it seems to me, embarrassment. Dolly wants to show a severe and decided expression, but instead expresses perplexity (better than embarrassment here) and suffering.


There’s another overly interpretive definition, this of покорный судьбе: “resigned to one’s fate.” Better, more literal, is down-headed (or submissive) to judgment. But this is Stiva’s interpretation of Dolly’s voice! Stiva has to play at such a feeling, he has to try to show such a feeling—but Dolly, angry as she is, is lost, and he sees her tortured, suffering face, and her voice gives her away that she is beaten down by this situation. He reacts with real feeling himself—his breath seizes, something sticks in his throat, and his eyes shine with tears.

But Stiva is so moved that he makes one of his mistakes. He is, after all, honest about his wayward feelings. When he thinks about his waywardness, he doesn’t lie in his recollections—he feels bad about it now, but he remembers the pleasure he had, the pleasures he took! “Minutes … minutes of being carried away,” he says. “Of being carried away” is one word: увлеченья. All the submeanings of and idioms involving that word have to do with losing one’s head to passion. The root? Влечь: “to draw, attract.”

So he sets her off. Any other explanation would have been better—anything but the undisguisable truth—that he was carried away with attraction!

A word I always have trouble with, and this may well be where Russians have a fundamental difference in understanding of the world from English-speakers is зло.

The first meaning is “evil.” But does this make sense? “He looked at her, and evil expressed on her face …” “Harm” is the second meaning.

It can mean: annoyance, vexation, anger, spite. All the words with “zlo” at their root suggest evil or maliciousness—or our basic “mal” prefix. It’s used a lot and I never feel quite right with it.
In English, a person expressing or feeling evil is bad. We judge the person by saying he feels evil or is looking evil. We suggest that with malicious as well. But that is not what Dolly is feeling, and Stiva is not judging her for it. It’s an anger that frightens and surprises him.

Immediately, he makes another mistake! (This is where all his sins come down on him—and we completely sympathize with him.) “He did not understand that his pity for her angered her.”

Tolstoy shows us then Dolly’s recognition of his feelings with Stiva’s simultaneous misreading of hers:

Она видела в нем к себе сожаленье, но не любовь. “Нет, она ненавидит меня. Она не простит”, — подумал он.

She saw in him pity for her, but not love. “No, she hates me. She does not forgive,” thought he.

She has not yet forgiven him, but it is not as hopeless as he thinks. And she does not hate him. She is inscrutable to him—her anger, her suffering, her struggle to admit her mixed feelings about him and the marriage. He reads only “She hates me”! He doesn’t understand that his lack of love for her—his marriage—is not her marriage.

And Tolstoy does not blame him for this! It is Stiva’s limitation, his weakness, but it is not his failure as a human being. Tolstoy has not yet dismissed him from serious and interested consideration.


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