What is it about Anna Karenina that gives it special status among the great novels? How is it that a sensational romantic tragedy of tsarist high society, interspersed with digressions into 19th-century Russian agricultural policy, written in a seemingly plain, straightforward style across 900 pages, still provokes both excitement and respect from readers as diverse as JM Coetzee, Jonathan Franzen and Oprah Winfrey, and lures Tom Stoppard to write the script for the latest of a dozen film adaptations? The book floats in some charmed section of the lake of literary opinion where the ripples from modernism and the ripples from Hollywood overlap without merging.
It is more admired than learned from. Anna Karenina couldn't be less like a conventional modern novel. Instead of a barrage of metaphors describing things in terms of other things that they resemble, Lev Tolstoy seeks the precise word for the thing itself. Instead of the solipsistic modern mode of events being experienced from the point of view of a single character, Tolstoy slips in and out of the consciousness of dozens of characters, major and minor. At one point he tells us what a character's dog is thinking.
Tolstoy doesn't believe in "show, don't tell". He likes to show and tell. The teller, the narrator of the book, is a formless, omniscient voice with no elaborate Rothian construct to justify his role. No first-person or free-indirect speech here. Even while we're in a character's head, it's the narrator who recounts the character's experiences through liberal use of such unfashionable phrases as "she thought", "he felt" and "it seemed to him that".
Tolstoy creates a space for the narrator's independence – the narrator is close enough to the characters to rely on them for his existence, but free enough to pass unchallenged judgment on their actions, and to tell us things about them that they don't know about themselves. The most powerful passages are those where Tolstoy slows time down to note each thought, gesture and feeling of Anna and her lover Vronsky, with a third entity present – the narrator – not only lodged deep in the two psyches, but standing back to tell us the ways in which one is misunderstanding the other.
Each time I reread Anna Karenina, picking my way past the attics and cellars and rusting machinery of Tolstoy's obsessions and prejudices, a new layer of his craft emerges, to the point where, for all my admiration of Joyce, Beckett and Kelman, I begin to question whether the novel form isn't too artisanal a medium for the surface experimentation of the modernist project ever to transcend the flexing of space and time that apparently conventional language can achieve in the hands of a master.
I'd noticed before that Tolstoy, whose characters spend so much time in Moscow and St Petersburg, barely describes these cities. Reading Anna Karenina again, I see that it's more extreme than that; urban buildings and landscapes are practically invisible, whereas the countryside is described in exquisite detail.
To Tolstoy the city is a static, artificial place. It is as if he does not believe cities are permanent, as though he feels that if he ignores them, they'll go away. It turns out that everything Tolstoy cares about, everything he describes taking place outside the character's heads, is alive and moving, in the non-human world of dogs and horses and leaves as in the human world. No human action is too small to be recorded: Karenin's knuckle-cracking, Anna screwing up her eyes, Vronsky touching the ends of his moustache. The characters are always smiling, frowning, blushing, twitching, fidgeting, touching, kissing, bowing, sobbing, and deconstructing these signs in each other. They come to us alive with intentionality, describing themselves in movement, waltzing through the ballroom, trudging through the marsh after wildfowl, racing horses, cutting hay.
As busily as Tolstoy's creations move through space, so plausibly they move through time. How hard it is in narrative fiction, be it novel or film, to represent the chaotic reality of the passage of time, when the way a person acts or thinks one moment doesn't necessarily have a direct connection to the way that person acts or thinks 10 minutes later, or the next day, or for the rest of their life. No other novelist I can think of takes the risks Tolstoy does with the readers' understanding of what his characters are by allowing the characters to be so true to the emotions of each particular moment, even when those emotions contradict the overall portrait. The most odious characters are never beyond momentary redemption, and the most admirable characters must endure patches of vileness.
One harsh, simplistic, but not entirely inaccurate reading of Anna Karenina is as Tolstoy's justification of his life up to the moment when he wrote it, through the character of his alter ego, the chippy, idealistic landowner Levin (Levin = little Lev), whose journey to faith, family and contentment down on the farm acts as a counterpoint to Anna's path of extramarital passion and death in the Babylon of the urban beau monde. Yet Tolstoy doesn't spare Levin, the character with whom he is most in sympathy.