Last night my men’s group book group met to talk about Anna Karenina (Anna Karenin, as she’s called in the second hand copy I bought on Monday), and an excellent evening it was. We had Russian-themed food, largely bought from the venerable Cyril’s delicatessen, and unlike other books this one had us talking from the moment we arrived until suddenly, after a couple of hours, we moved on to fierce debate about what to read next.
Having been distracted by Other Things, I’d only managed to read a little more than 100 pages. But that didn’t stop me from joining in. In fact, as people talked about their favourite bits, I was able to remind them that almost all of those bits were foreshadowed in the early chapters. Another guy, who’d grown a Leninesque beard for the occasion, had read about half as much as I had (pushing out hairs on the chin clearly saps the reading power). Undeterred, he became a technical consultant for the evening, reading passages of exegesis or commentary from the essays up the back of the uni library copy someone had brought: why an adulterous woman in Russia at that time would lose her children, Tolstoy’s quasi-pointilliste method (not at all the mimesis it first seems – and we did have to chat a little about that word mimesis), the way Levin and Anna were two quite different ways of seeking, um, transcendence …
Sadly, if the way Anna dies hadn’t been the one thing I knew for sure about the book, it would certainly have been spoiled for me. No one bothered, in the manner of Mark Kermode discussing the latest Harry Potter, to refer to ‘the unhappy event’. I guess Anna’s suicide isn’t the big surprise that Dumbledore’s death is.
What a wonderful book! As someone said, it’s a page-turner, yet it had us talking about spirituality, sexism, the industrial revolution, deep moral dilemmas, the uses of fiction, Tolstoy’s journey, the fascinating architecture of the book, excellent university moments from bygone days (two people remembered with awe Peter Shrubb‘s lecture on the first paragraph of Emma), the perils of translation (three translations in the room, three versions of the famous opening sentence) and much more. ‘I don’t read classics,’ one man said, ‘I don’t want to read stuff that someone thinks is good for me – but this was terrific.’ Now I’ve got a week to finish it.