It took me almost four weeks to finish (much longer than the first time I read it), but I also started reading it because I wasn’t in much of a reading mood, so I don’t think that’s AK’s fault. After this pass-through, I have to say…I still think it’s one of the most perfect novels ever written. This is a book that’s so effortless it’s unbelievable. For instance, take the final few chapters from Anna’s point of view, near the end of the book. Rather famously, Tolstoy goes into deep stream of consciousness in depicting her despair and switches back and forth suddenly between her observations on the people around her (observations that are colored by her despair and bitterness) and the line of reasoning that leads inexorably to her suicide.
This is a technique that is way ahead of it’s time (the only other mid-19th century novel that I can remember doing a similar thing is Les Miserables during the carriage ride where Jean Valjean’s thinks about whether or not to reveal his true identity, but in that case it’s extremely prolonged and a bit clumsy). Even more amazing, this stream-of-consciousness style is very different from the way the rest of the book is written. But you hardly notice it! You’re so deep inside the dream of the book that it’s mix of techniques has become invisible. Isaac Babel famously said “If the world could write, it would write like Tolstoy” and I absolutely agree. There’s a tremendous authoritativeness to his writing. It just feels like someone is writing down things that happened. And that is a very hard thing to do, especially when you’re also making judgments about those things (as Tolstoy is).
I also think this book is one of the most successful polemical novels I’ve ever read, in that it raises a philosophical problem, and then proposes a solution to that problem, without ever (except maybe in the second to last chapter) feeling heavy-handed. The art of the book is that the issues Tolstoy struggled with–How can I continue to live in this world when my sense of reason tells me that all is worthless and ephemeral?–are dramatized perfectly by the events of the book.
Tolstoy doesn’t need to say, “Tradition is important. Society’s judgment is important. Being part of a community is important,” because we see, from Vronsky and Anna’s example, that pursuit of one’s own pleasure–even when that pleasure is of the highest sort–is not enough to sustain a life. And when Tolstoy does make explicit philosophical arguments, it always seems completely natural. They don’t feel like interpolations by the author. They feel like the honest struggles occurring in Levin’s soul.
Of course, most modern readers probably won’t, in the end, agree with Tolstoy’s moral views, but I guarantee that for the span of time during which you read this book, you will be convinced that Tolstoy is absolutely right. That is the perfection of the book. He creates a moral universe in which his answers are the only possible answers, and then animates that moral universe with so much beauty and compassion and detail that you cannot help but believe in it.