It’s time to talk about April’s AP English Challenge: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin(a). Pre-reading thoughts by Jill


Anna Karenin(a) had been the summer reading book for AP English at SI since time immemorial, or at least since 1990, when June of 1993 rolled around and I finally got to read it.  AP English had been this dream of mine, this castle in the sky I had literally fantasized about since I got my summer reading list the summer of 1990 prior to entering high school.  Back then all the summer reading books for all the English classes were mailed out to all the students and you picked yours off the list.  I looked at the book for AP English and was like, OMG (okay, not OMG.  That hadn’t been invented yet.), a book by a Russian novelist.  You’ve gotta be smart to read those.  So of course reading Anna Karenin(a) had been built up in my mind as this book I would read before senior year that would prove to myself and everyone else that I was a smart person.

That summer I took an art class at another catholic high school in San Francisco in order to finish up my fine arts requirement so I would have room in my schedule to take AP Psychology senior year.  It wasn’t a great class, but the projects were things like “autobiographical photo montages” using old magazines and other fun sorts of things that I don’t believe were part of the art curriculum at SI.  I only mention this because the bulk of my memories of reading Anna Karenin(a) (and yes I actually have memories of reading this one) involve me going to and from this art class, or waiting for it to start, parked in the hallway outside the room with this book in my hand.  I don’t remember how I got to that class most of the time.  I don’t remember if my mom dropped me off in the morning or if I took the bus.  I do remember Bethany picked me up a lot and we did things like go out to lunch and then “exercise,” or I took Muni to the hospital where I volunteered a couple afternoons a week.  But definitely I always had Anna Karenin(a) with me.

It’s a long book, at 853 pages in the Penguin Classics edition, and the translation in it was first published in 1954.  Penguin recently released an updated translation, and it was an Oprah book.  Obviously I had no interest in purchasing a new copy, especially not one with a giant orange “O” on the cover, no matter how pretty it is, and how wrecked mine is.  I’m a bit concerned that it’s going to take longer than the allotted month to read this one, but it’s not like I’ve been on time with many of the AP Challenge books of late, so it’s cool.

I actually remember details of the plot of this book.  It’s amazing what one remembers about books one actually had time to savor and enjoy, rather than the pace at which we read most of the books in AP English, which was the reading equivalent of a series of one hundred meter dashes, or so it seemed at the time.  Is it any wonder that by the end of the school year I wasn’t finishing anything?  From what I remember there are two story lines: the “good one” with Anna Karenin(a) and her lover Vronsky, and the “boring one” with the farmer fellow Levin and his family.   I can’t for the life of me remember how these two tales intertwine, or if they do at all.  I do remember that Anna and Vronsky’s tale was about the moral dissipation of the urban life and the other was about the wholesomeness of the simple life of the country folk.  What it boiled down to in my sixteen year old brain was this: good story and boring one.  I remember really wanting to skip the Levin chapters after a while; they were just so dull compared to the excitement of romance and adultery.

I’m curious to see if the Levin sections are quite as slow and mundane this time around, and I’m curious to see if I’m as sympathetic to the star-crossed lovers this time.  As I’ve gotten older my sympathy for adulterers in literature has decreased.  I may not find Anna to be the tragic heroine I considered her in 1993.  And maybe I’ll find deeper meaning in the joys of simple country living.

Oh, and one more thing: you’ve probably noticed that I have been referring to this book as Anna Karenin(a), rather than the more traditional Anna Karenina.  The edition we had for AP English insisted on calling it Anna Karenin, because the translator felt that this was the appropriate English translation of the Russian name of the main character.  Russians have a very interesting way of naming themselves, which I have always loved.  For example, Anna’s full name is Anna Arkadyevna Karenina.  The middle name is a patronymic, after her father, whose given name is Arkady.  The -evna denotes that she is a woman.  And her last name, which is her husband’s last name with an -a at the end, also because she is a woman.  So her brother’s middle name is Arkadyich (the -ich means he is a man), and her husband’s last name is Karenin.  Henceforth and thusly, the best translation of the heroine’s name from the original Russian into English is Anna Karenin, because we don’t add an “-a” onto the end of women’s last names here.  I kind of like Anna Karenina better, though.  

By the way, that picture at the top is my copy of Anna Karenin being bookended by my cats, Sabrina and Maxwell.  I just noticed that the cover of the book is less prominent than I thought it was.  But the cats are better looking, so it’s probably okay that they are the focus of this picture.

This entry was posted in AP English - 18 Years Later, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Leo Tolstoy, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to It’s time to talk about April’s AP English Challenge: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin(a). Pre-reading thoughts by Jill

  1. lfpbe says:

    I can’t believe you didn’t mention Frou-Frou…

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