[my first copy of the book with my favourite cover, a detail of The Major's Wooing (1848) by Fedotov]
I first read Anna Karenina in the back of a Securicor van. The kind that has a driver and second-man in helmets, and an unseen 'backman' inside with a radio and the money, and goes around picking up and dropping off at banks and offices and high street businesses. I was a backman for the summer after I left school and, once I'd got the hang of the phonetic alpahabet and found the emergency siren on-off button, it was actually incredibly boring. Occasionally, if we stopped at a working men's club, the frontmen would put a meat pie in with the boxes of money, and I was once let out of the van to see the biggest vault and largest pile of banknotes in Manchester, but otherwise as long as I knew where we were and what the next stop was, I could doze or read as much as I liked. I chose to read, because the drivers had a nasty habit of waking you up with the siren.
So I read Anna Karenina (the copy above). I'd just done A level Russian and was about to go to university to study Russian. I read it with pure pleasure, and I was swept away. It instantly became my favourite book and, more seriously, informed my personal morality forever. I loved and disliked Anna in equal measure and saw the abandonment of her child as her primary sin. I disliked Karenin but admired his goodness. I saw Vronsky as nothing but trouble, and I wanted to live happily like Kitty and Levin but without the backbreaking scything. I found it hard to condemn anyone outright, and was as conflicted as Tolstoy about the rights and wrongs of the main characters' actions, but deep down I decided the passion was too destructive to be worth it.
Three years later, I read the same copy of the book, by now covered Blue Peter-style in sticky back plastic, in India. This was after three years' immersion in the Russian classics, Russian history and language, Russian/Soviet politics, and being part of a small, oddball department full of enthusiastic lecturers and students. I couldn't take much with me, and I chose Anna Karenina to go in the backpack. I read it on the trains between Delhi and Agra and the beaches of the south, and it gave me just as much pleasure as before and I found a much greater depth this time (though it was very odd to be reading of snowy Moscow in searingly hot temple towns).
So Anna Karenina carries a lot of weight with me. I still think it's one of the best books ever written. I've seen several of the film and TV adaptations but find that the usual treatment reduces the massive scope of the novel into just yet another story of doomed love. I wasn't sure how I'd find the new film, whether Keira Knightley would be able to carry off the title role, and I'd seen some of the mixed reviews.
But I thought it was brilliant. It is clever, creative, visually wonderful and, what no-one has said so far, incredibly Russian. No-one has pointed out the fact that Tom Stoppard is Czech by birth and has translated the work of many Central European playwrights and must, therefore, be well placed to capture the great vitality and energy of Tsarist Russian society. So the film feels and sounds and looks authentic. It also has a great dramatic quality; at times I felt as though I was in a theatre watching a play, something that usually irritates in a film but is impressive here. The lighting is always beautiful, and the costumes, jewellery, and hair are exquisite. Even the ball works (without fail, it's the scene I like least in any period drama, esp. anything from Jane Austen) because Joe Wright doesn't do the usual thing but turns it into something you might see done by Bolshoi Ballet dancers. The only dud note is the casting of Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky, mainly because he is simply too young. Vronsky needs to be older, more dangerous, more worth throwing your life away for. But Keira K was a revelation; she's becoming a seriously good actress now that she's older, and can be controlled and majestic, or energetic, girlish and charming as the scene requires.
It's quite something for me to disagree with newspaper reviewers by rating a film more highly than they have (if anything, when I don't agree it's usually because I think less of a film), but this Anna Karenina does justice to the spirit of Tolstoy's book and, at the same time, it creates a stunning film-play from the text. I would happily watch it again, just as I would happily read it again.