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Some books weigh heavily on readers and writers. They are typically the books that are pillars of ‘the culture’. They are part of those lists, such as, The 1000 books you must read before you die etc; or comprise the hundred books you can paraphrase to impress people at dinner parties. The people at the parties I go to are not in the least bit interested in classic literature, nor anyone giving them a précis of “Paradise Lost”.

There are those other lists that newspapers offer occasionally of the 10 most popular books as voted by the public. The books on that list are – surprise, surprise – that book about the ring; the boy sorcerer and his chums; and then one or two books recalled with fond memories from school days.

Anyway, the books on those lists are big. One of the biggest all-time books is Anna Karenina. The Tolstoy novel has length, characters, incidents, and politics: all the major themes; it is huge in every possible way. Tolstoy was justly proud of its architecture; but that does not mean it is a perfect piece of writing. There are no good metaphors; the similes are awkward and simple; the overriding sense is of a great mechanical structure but lacking poetry. To be fair to Tolstoy I do not read Russian and translation may have dealt him a bad turn. Although, perhaps not entirely.

One of the most fascinating disputes between writers was that between Tolstoy and Shakespeare who the Russian hated vehemently. Tolstoy thought the whole world had been deceived by the sly English playwright and it irked him to rage that no one but he could see through the fraud; the moral laxity, the perverseness of Shakespeare’s language.

This curious quarrel was examined by George Orwell in a brilliant essay called “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool” and, amongst many things, he decided that Tolstoy doesn’t understand Shakespeare’s love of language for its own sake, his musical sense of tone and rhythm and play. Tolstoy is about improvement in a binary moral world. To him Shakespeare represents all that is inchoate and undisciplined. Most of all Tolstoy does not have what might be called a poetic feeling for words. Tolstoy’s words are bricks and mortar and building edifices. And that largely explains why Anna Karenina, despite its many virtues is inert in the metaphorical qualities. One feels fortified having read it but not filled with pleasure. That view aside, it holds its place on those book lists in any case.

Guy Cranswick
2 March 2012