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Innocent victim or self-destructive narcissist? Keira Knightley as Anna in Joe Wright's 2012 film adaptation (image: Focus/Universal)

The appetite of English-speakers for Anna Karenina is, it seems, insatiable. There have been 12 translations since the American Nathan Haskell Dole's of 1886, four in this millennium, and two this year. In Foyles one can choose between seven different editions, including translations from 1901 (Constance Garnett's), 1918 (Louise and Aylmer Maude's), 2000 (Richard Pevear and Larissa Vokokhonsky's), 2008 (Jenny Hughes and Kyrill Zinovieff's), and 2014 (Rosamund Bartlett's). Selling one of the above to me, the cashier enthused: "It's such a great love story, isn't it?"

"No," I thought but didn't say, "I don't think that it's that at all."

Yet the perception that the novel is romantic is as common as the perception that Shakespeare's sonnets are. Let no one send a close-reading lover a Shakespeare sonnet (they are all too tricksy) — and let no one send any lover at all Anna Karenina.

Its adulterous heroine, after all, ends up as blood on the tracks — and it is by no means clear that a hypocritically disapproving society alone is to blame for this. It has long been debated what judgment the novel makes of Anna. Some readers have found Anna to deserve her fate, others have found her not to, and some of each kind have found the novel to agree with them. Early European critics including Arnold and de Vogüé approved of what they thought was the novel's condemnation of Anna, whereas early Russian critics such as Shestov, Strakhov, and Svyatopolk-Mirsky interpreted the novel the same way, but criticised it for this. Certain modern critics, such as Mandelker, have found the novel not to condemn Anna at all. Steiner and Bloom thought that its condemnation was contradicted by Tolstoy's love for Anna, while D.H. Lawrence thought that its condemnation was subverted by the novel's own artistry.

On this question I stand with the early Russian critics. The Petersburg aristocracy's toleration of ubiquitous casual affairs, and condemnation of Anna for the relative urgency and honesty of her own, are presented as loathsome. Yet the novel nonetheless suggests that Anna would have done better by herself, man and God had she conducted her affair in the manner of a Betsy Tverskaya — discreetly, fleetingly and with minimum disruption to her family. Thomas Mann was right to find "a certain contradiction inherent in the author's originally moral theme, in the charge he raises against society; for one wonders what weapon of punishment God might use if society behaved other than it does". And the punishment is extreme, anticipating as it does Pozdnyshev's murder of his wife for adultery in The Kreutzer Sonata, on which Tolstoy had started work before completing Anna Karenina.

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