I just finished reading this with an online group. It's been decades since I last read it, right after graduating college. Then I loved it for the despair-filled romance between Anna and Vronsky. As I started reading it again, I worried; would Older Me still like this book? My tastes have changed, along with the amount of life experience I have, since I was in my 20s.
Well, good news for me--there's a reason this is a beloved classic. I was as captivated this time as the first time. But--captivated for entirely different reasons. While Anna and Vronsky were my obsession on first reading, this time I wasn't quite as interested. Not that I was bored, but this time I looked at their romance through the view of the times in which they lived. There was no way this was going to end well, not with the way women in particular were treated. And Vronsky may have loved her, but there were warning signs a modern woman could see a mile off saying there were going to be problems.
FYI, if for some reason you don't know the ending of this book, might want to stop reading. I usually try to avoid spoilers, but given that this was published in the late 1800s, I feel less restricted about that.
Anyway. What I had forgotten over the years--probably because I was so focused on Anna and Vronsky--was the parallel story of Levin and Kitty. Their story became the most interesting one for me, not least of which because it was so fraught with peril on its way to becoming a good marriage. Tolstoy did a masterful job of detailing and comparing the two relationships, tied by the fact that Kitty initially hoped to marry Vronsky, which humiliated Levin. He never lets Levin off easy or ties everything up in a neat bow, but by the end, Kitty and Levin have, through hard work, made their way towards a good marriage. They've also had a child (after a terrifying labor) and Tolstoy gets parenting, he really does; Levin finds, when he meets his new son, that it's not love he feels as much as fear, because now there's so much to lose. I think a whole lot of parents can identify with that. Levin's political ideals, the way he strives to run his farm both for profit but also in newer, kinder ways of dealing with peasants (whether the peasants want that or not) make him interesting and flawed and often sympathetic.
Which is not to say Anna and Vronsky don't have their moments. She's stuck in a boring marriage, and here comes Prince Charming. She gives up everything to be with him, but the sacrifice is more onerous than she fully understood. Especially in her day and time--society shunned her except for a very few brave souls, while her lover was still accepted in polite company. Her husband refused to divorce her, which meant she could not marry, and what's more, the child she has with Vronsky is considered her husband's, not hers. It's untenable. And as she begins taking opium to help her sleep, you can't help but know this won't end well.
Tolstoy is at his most masterful in the final scenes of Anna's life, which are borderline delirious. She's frazzled, losing her sanity, unable to determine whether she should stay or go. The death scene, when she throws herself under a train--well, if you either haven't read it, or read it lately, read it. Incredibly powerful and devastating.
From what little I know about Tolstoy, he sounds like he was a somewhat misogynistic, pompous, overly idealistic old goat who advocated abstinence but impregnated his wife 13 times, several of those against her will. And yet, look at his writing! Not just the scenes described above, but scenes like one where Anna receives a visitor at Vronsky's country estate, where she and Vronsky are hiding out basically. At first the poor visitor is awed by the opulence of the home, but over the course of a day or two, she realizes that Anna is in a terrible stasis and that she would not trade her life, much poorer and less glitzier, for Anna's.
It raises again the question of how much do you ignore the writer and just pay attention to the writing? I guess you can tell which side I'm on.
As for this edition, I'm no expert in translations, but this read clearly and smoothly for me. As for the cover, phhhpt. Dreadful.