Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Russian

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of literature ever written. Tolstoy himself called it his ‘first true novel’. William Faulkner, when asked to name the three best novels of all time, reportedly answered: “Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina”. But still, as I approached it, I was nervous. It was first published in book form in 1878, and most editions have run to 850+ pages. This book is huge, in more ways than one.

Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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I spent a lot of time considering my approach to Anna Karenina. I specifically sought out this translation, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, as I’d heard from multiple sources that it was the most readable version. This edition doesn’t come with an introduction or anything, though, so I was forced to simply dive in with only what I’d heard about the story around the traps to guide me.

It centers on an extramarital affair, between society woman Anna and cavalry officer Alexei Vronsky. They make a half-hearted attempt to keep it a secret, but Anna impulsively confesses to her husband (also, confusingly, called Alexei). After that, they go public, in a move that scandalises their friends and family. Anna and Vronsky move to Italy, hoping to escape the fall-out, but they’re eventually pulled back to Russia (when Vronsky’s alternative career as an artist doesn’t pan out) and their lives totally unravel.

That’s the most straightforward summary of Anna Karenina I can manage, and it feels woefully inadequate. This is a complex novel, told in eight parts, with over a dozen major characters. Anna and Vronsky are the main focus, but there’s also Levin – a wealthy landowner from the sticks – who has a big ol’ boner for Anna’s brother’s sister-in-law (see? complex!). Their love story runs parallel to Anna and Vronsky’s – and, spoiler alert, has a much happier ending.

The underlying thesis of Anna Karenina (as I read it) is this: men ain’t shit. Honestly, every single one of them made me want to flip a table. That said, the ladies are hardly peaches either. The only truly sympathetic character in the whole book is Levin’s dog.

Oh, and Tolstoy did write the perspective of Anna’s nine-year-old son beautifully – such a shame that it only lasted a few chapters. I was truly baffled by Anna’s sudden willingness to abandon him to go to Italy with her lover. For the first half of Anna Karenina, she clings to her dud marriage because of the kid, because she couldn’t bear to part with him (and she knew that Alexei would get him in the divorce, with her being a disgraced scarlet woman and all). Then, without explanation, she drops the kid like a hot potato and runs off with Vronsky – but still takes her new kid with her. Savage, eh?

(I’m going to offer the obligatory spoiler warning here. For Anna Karenina. A hundred-and-fifty year old novel that has saturated popular consciousness and influenced generations of literature that has come since. If you don’t know the ending and you don’t look away now, that’s a You Problem.)

Tolstoy’s foreshadowing isn’t subtle. Trains are a motif throughout Anna Karenina, with train carriages and stations being the setting for several major plot points. There’s also a few heavy-handed hints about their danger (including a bloke being killed on the tracks early on). So, it feels kind of inevitable when, at the novel’s climax, Anna throws herself under a train. Bye bye, heroine!

But if you’re expecting a dramatic denouement, where Vronsky and Alexei come together and mourn the loss of the woman they loved or share tear-filled regrets about how they treated her or whatever, move along. Anna is barely mentioned again. Instead, Levin spends 100 pages trying to work out whether God exists before Tolstoy wraps things up.

And that’s pretty emblematic of Anna Karenina as a whole. There’s pathos galore, but before the spark can really catch, it’s snuffed out by Levin’s poli-sci philosophising. When Levin does get involved in an actual plot, it’s a direct rip-off of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. (Kitty turns him down, lives to regret it, then eventually they get together and live – mostly – happily ever after.)

I’m glad Tolstoy isn’t around to read my thoughts on Levin, though, because apparently he’s a semi-autobiographical character and basically served as a megaphone for all of Tolstoy’s own beliefs and ethics. He borrowed heavily from his own life to inform Levin’s thoughts and actions (up to and including forcing his fiance to read his diaries, so she’d know about all of his sexual exploits before they married). If that’s the case, I’m telling you that Tolstoy was definitely the kind of guy you’d cross the room to get away from at a party.

I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but as far as I’m concerned, Anna Karenina is just… fine? It wasn’t the dreadful slog I was worried it might be, but it wasn’t brilliant, incredible, amazing, show stopping, spectacular, never the same either. If you’re thinking about reading it, go ahead – there’s nothing to be afraid of (unless listening to rich guys bang on about how to Fix The Economy makes you want to bonk yourself over the head, in which case you might want to remove all bonking implements from your vicinity before commencing).

Tl;dr? In Anna Karenina, a bunch of rich Russians fuck around and find out. It’s okay.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Anna Karenina:

  • “The storyline about Kitty and Levin has absolutely no connection whatsoever to the storyline about Anna and Vronsky, and no business being in the same book.” – JJ McBear
  • “So much drivel. So much detailed nuance on every though that has ever been thunk. It was like having to many voice in my head saying to much about nothing. Tolstoy may wanna get himself to a psychotherapist.” – Katie Krackers
  • “I don’t know what the point of the subplot with Kitty and Levin is, except to make the book a few hundred pages longer and a lot more boring.” – grammagoulis

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

There’s nothing better than reading winners back-to-back! Last week, I fell in love with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, and this week I had the pleasure of getting swept away by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I didn’t have high hopes: I mean, Russian literature is supposed to be super long and heavy and hard to read… plus, my copy was, well, a little worse for wear (another “pre-loved” edition lifted from my husband’s collection).

The introduction didn’t help matters, either. It was a little hard to follow, not having read Crime and Punishment (or, indeed, any of Dostoyevsky’s other works) before. Some parts were pretty salient, though:

“Few works of fiction have attracted so many widely diverging interpretations as Crime and Punishment. It has been seen as a detective novel, an attack on radical youth, a study in ‘alienation’ and criminal psychopathology, a work of prophecy (the attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander II by the nihilist student Dmitry Karakozov took place while the book was at the printer’s, and some even saw the Tsar’s murder in 1881 as a fulfilment of Dostoyevsky’s warning), an indictment of urban social conditions in nineteenth-century Russia, a religious epic and a proto-Nietzchean analysis of the ‘will to power’. It is, of course, all of these things – but it is more.”

Introduction (Crime And Punishment)

The fact is Crime and Punishment has been super-popular ever since the first installments were published in The Russian Messenger in 1866. No one seems to doubt its significance – but academics argue themselves hoarse about what Dostoyevsky was actually getting at. It’s a reasonable basis for my concerns, but I shouldn’t have been worried – I was hooked from the very first page. It just goes to show, not only should you not judge a book by its cover (especially when that cover is falling apart), but you also shouldn’t pay much mind to its reputation. The book you worry is going to be really dense and boring to read actually turns out to be… well, fan-fucking-tastic!

Let’s start with the premise, because it is wild: Crime and Punishment follows the story of ex-student Rodin Raskolnikov, living on a shoestring in St Petersburg. He formulates a plan to stop his sister marrying a rich man (whom she does not love) in order to support the family – he sees that as a kind of prostitution, so how to prevent such a crime? Well, kill a crotchety old pawn-broker and steal her cash, obviously!


Yes, it’s a super-flawed plan, and that makes for fantastic reading. Dostoyevsky employed a really revolutionary narrative technique (for the time), writing from a third-person perspective but focusing almost exclusively on the internal monologue of the protagonist. Raskolnikov is a bundle of nerves and anxiety, which makes him – and I know I shouldn’t say this, given that he is a literal axe murderer, but I don’t care – totally relatable! Crime and Punishment follows his moral dilemmas leading up to the murder(s), and his complete psychological denouement afterwards. It’s compelling stuff! Most of it is told through Raskolnikov talking to himself, but it still seems fast-paced and action-packed. That takes real talent, eh?

“Talking nonsense is the sole privilege mankind possesses over other organisms.”

p. 242

Apparently, Dostoyevsky wrote his original drafts with a focus on “the present question of drunkness… all its ramifications, especially the picture of a family and the bringing up of children in these circumstances”, and the original title was The Drunkards (well, he is Russian). But as he started to develop the character of Raskolnikov, and fleshed out the nature of his crime, the story took a turn. Dostoyevsky’s masterful narrative technique only emerged in the final draft, where he switched to third-person narration, and basically re-wrote the whole thing. I can only imagine what a slow and laborious process that must have been in the days before word processors… but all his hard work damn sure paid off.

Crime and Punishment is written in six parts, and it’s around Part Three that Dostoyevsky starts getting philosophical, sharing with us (through his characters) his thoughts on… well, crime and punishment, funnily enough. He picks apart all of the disastrous consequences of Raskolnikov’s “moral” murder. You could spend a lifetime analysing the philosophical questions raised by Crime and Punishment, but I think I’ll leave that up to the professors – KUWTP is hardly the place to dissect Dostoyevsky’s position on nihilism 😉


Even without the philosophical analysis, it’s impossible to write a simple plot summary that is both succinct and complete, because the novel is so deeply complex. But don’t let that fool you! That does not make it heavy, boring, or hard-to-follow (I’m now kicking myself for letting all those pre-conceived ideas put me off reading it for so long). The only valid forewarning I feel I need to give you is that this book is really 600 pages of “crime”, and only an epilogue or so of “punishment”. Whatever the title might have you believe, Dostoyevsky didn’t so much write about formal punishment of crime (in terms of the justice system and so forth), but rather the internal “punishment” stemming from Raskolnikov’s own conscience.

But enough heavy stuff! What I really want to impress upon you is how much fun this book is! It’s not at all what you’d expect.

“The companion who was the object of these reproaches was sitting on a chair and had the look of a man who badly wanted to sneeze, but could not for the life of him do so.”

p. 601

Crime and Punishment is officially a Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. If you’re looking to delve deeper into Russian literature as some kind of project, you might want to start with Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat (as Dostoyevsky said himself, “We all came out from Gogol’s Overcoat”), but if you’re simply curious and not put off by its bad reputation, pick it up today! As beat-up as this copy looks, I strongly recommend trying to get your hands on this edition, the David McDuff translation published by Penguin Classics. There have been at least a dozen other translations but I can’t vouch for any of those, because the art of translation can make or break your enjoyment of a book. On top of that, the footnotes in this edition are great – helpful without going over the top. All in all, I’m so glad I bit the bullet and gave Crime and Punishment a go – and I’m sure you will be too!

Note: I’m so confident that you’ll love Crime And Punishment that I included it in my shortlist of Classic Books Worth Reading.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Crime and Punishment:

  • “If this book doesn’t drive you to drink nothing will. I haven’t encountered this many melodramatic people in my entire life. Really, truly, one after another is dropping dead of guilt or shooting himself or going insane, or hating and loathing his friends and family and sweethearts, or,
    When all is copacetic, just drinking himself stupid. Let me do you a favour and save you a few hours: Man kills 2 women and then proceeds to feel guilty for 600 pages. If I could have killed him myself I would have!” – Geezer & Wife
  • “Can’t eat a classic” – Keith B Cruise
  • “This book was P to the double O P don’t waste your hard earned money on this piece of total and complete crap.” – Cecily
  • “This book manifest a many-eyed demon in your soul, who will proceed to tear the blindfold off your inner child’s face, exposing him to the blinding light of truth as he falls headlong into the abyss while madly clawing at the smoking pits that were one his pure, innocent eyes.” – Amazon Customer
  • I was determined to finish it because it is a classic. My question for the author would be “Were you determined to bore us to tears by constantly using 500 words when 100 would have sufficed?” Get thee to a gulag!” – Amazon Customer