1. Anna Karenina, 2. Lolita, 3. Portnoy's Complaint, 4. Cousin Bette, 5. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.
Numbers two through five will likely change or change in order, but Tolstoy’s novel of adultery in 19th century Russia has been at the top since I first read it twenty-five years ago. I’m not alone in this. Both Nabokov and Dosteoevsky called the book “flawless,” with the former calling it “one of the greatest love stories in world literature.” In 2007, J. Peder Zane published a book, The Top Ten, the results of asking 125 writers to choose their favorite top 10 books. The overall number one book was Anna Karenina. (An accompanying website allowed everyone to offer their own top ten. The list I posted in 2007 is at the end of this column. Like I said, my list changes.)
Anna Karenina begins with one of the most famous opening lines of all world literature: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Here are a few reasons why it is the best novel I’ve ever read.
It’s the story of the eponymous Anna, and her affair with Count Vronsky. What begins as an innocent flirtation becomes a passionate and destructive love affair that threatens to destroy both lovers. Vronsky, a dashing horseman and soldier, becomes Anna’s refuge from her spent marriage to a pompous court functionary. A 19th-century convention that seems mostly removed from current life (unless you’re talking about high-profile politicians) — her discovery will lead to near-total ostracism, social and otherwise. Her relentless regrets and self-doubt will eventually bring her to a sad and terrible end.
In parallel is the story of Levin and Kitty, whose marriage of mutual respect and commitment unfolds in a rural setting, in contrast to the metropolitan milieu — St. Petersburg and Moscow — where the tragedy of Anna takes place.
Anna is a profound character study and a masterful depiction of human vulnerability. She is flawed but entirely lovable and as real and believable as anyone you’ve ever met in the flesh. Here’s her introduction:
Vronsky . . . . stopped to allow a lady to leave. With the habitual flair of a worldly man, Vronsky determined from one glance at this lady’s appearance that she belonged to high society. He excused himself and was about to enter the carriage, but felt a need to glace at her once more — not because she was very beautiful, not because of the elegance and modest grace that could be seen in her whole figure, but because there was something especially gentle and tender in the expression of her sweet-looking face as she stepped past him. As he looked back, she also turned her head. Her shining grey eyes, which seemed dark because of their thick lashes, rested amiably and attentively on his face, as if she recognized him, and at once wandered over the approaching crowd as though looking for someone. In that brief glance Vronsky had time to notice the restrained animation that played over her face and fluttered between her shining eyes and the barely noticeable smile that curved her red lips. It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile. She deliberately extinguished the light in her eyes, but it shown against her will in a barely noticeable smile.
Vronsky is immediately smitten, as are we. What man wouldn’t respond to a woman so described, and what woman wouldn’t want to be described in similar terms? Later, Anna will complain bitterly that falling in love with Vronsky was not her fault, that it was beyond her control, all of which is prefigured in this early paragraph by the repeated contrast between her “will” and the “barely noticeable smile” (he says it twice), her passion, that she cannot sufficiently control.
John Updike said, “In fiction, imaginary people become realer to us than any named celebrity glimpsed in a series of rumored events, whose causes and subtler ramifications must remain in the dark . . . . Anna Karenina emerges fully into the light of understanding, which brings with it identification, sympathy and pity.”
In part, Tolstoy accomplishes this by never judging her, despite her follies. His compassion for the trap in which she finds herself makes the novel as heartbreaking as it is revealing about human frailty.
(A note about translations. The first time I read Anna Karenina I picked up and dropped three different translations, including the one by Constance Garnett. I never found one that didn’t have all sorts of strange verbal constructs and odd word choices that I found suspect and distracting. My second reading was of the (justly) acclaimed translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which is available in a handsome Penguin paperback that is a pleasure to hold.)
Other recommended works: War and Peace, Master and Man, The Cossack, The Sebastopol Sketches, The Death of Ivan Illych, and The Kreutzer Sonata.
My top ten works of literature:
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
The Magus by John Fowles
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Cousin Bette by Honore De Balzac
Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann