The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop.
When I was in high school and still a literary snob, I went through a big Russian literature phase. I read Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Nabokov like that was a perfectly normal thing for a 16-year-old to do for fun. I still remember Crime and Punishment fondly as one of my best reading experiences. It should come as no surprise that when I went to college, I went through a short, intense period of loneliness. One day during my first week, not sure what else to do with myself, I took a walk to the campus bookstore and bought a copy of Alain De Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life and sat under a tree and read it. I felt so much better afterward. (Any other INFJs in the house?) To this day, whenever I see that cover on my bookshelf, I feel content. It’s not even that good of a book, really.
I tell you of these strange passions for two reasons:
- To establish myself as right in the target demographic for The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature, seeing as I am both a fan of Russian literature and of the particular genre of light literary criticism mixed with self-help or some other popular genre. See also: Madame Bovary’s Ovaries and Kafka’s Soup.
- To present an example of how each chapter of Groskop’s book unfolds.
Groskop is British, but spent years of her life studying Russian language and literature, including a period during her youth living in Russia. In each chapter, she presents an anecdote or two from her personal experiences as an example of some peculiarity in Russian as a way to segue to a great work of Russian literature, how it exemplifies that Russian quirk, and some (usually kind of grim) lesson about life that we can take from the work and/or its author. For example, she explains the use of patronymics and diminutives in Russian as a way into discussing Tolstoy and what we can learn from the major questions Anna Karenina asks about life. In another chapter, she writes about the hazing ritual of making new Russian language students read Pushkin as an introduction to writing about the feud between Nabokov and his pal Edmund Wilson over the translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, as an introduction to the life lesson, which I have forgotten because the story about Nabokov was so funny that I laughed aloud and read it to Julio.
I think this pattern works well in most chapters. I enjoyed learning about some of the idiosyncrasies that Groskop discusses, but other times I found myself rushing through them to get to the literature (as in the Dostoyevsky chapter). In most cases, I did not find the life lesson from the novel particularly compelling (although the Anna Karenina chapter, the book’s first, was very strong), but the analysis is a fun read nonetheless. Again, it’s literary criticism lite. This is the kind of book meant for book-lovers who want to love books with another book-lover. It’s sort of educational, but really it’s a love letter to reading. This book, like those cited above, is not a great book, but it is a fun read and it offers something akin to companionship to lonely bookworms. It is a kindred spirit wrapped in library vellum.
All of those faults and qualities make this a book right for a particular reader. If you are not that reader, I’d pass on it. BUT, I argue that if you are that type of reader, now is an especially good time to read this book. The Anna Karenina Fix was published in 2018 and it sat on my For Later Shelf on the library website for two years. I have been working through my paused holds before the baby comes, and I got this book during my first curbside pickup from my local library. (If you are reading this in the post-COVID future, what do libraries look like in your time?) Even after putting it off for two years, I was not sure if I really wanted to read it, but I am glad that I did. This book was a treat for a cooped-up bookworm, and I think that the grim life lessons from Russian literature are especially poignant because we are in such strange, uncertain, often awful times. Now is a natural time to think about big questions and to read thick books. This quick, friendly read is a nice introduction to doing so.
I’ve added Doctor Zhivago, Eugene Onegin, The Master and the Margarita, and Dead Souls to my reading list.