As early as 1870 Tolstoy had the idea of writing about ‘a married woman of high society who lapses morally’ and three years later, moved by the suicide of a neighbouring landowner’s mistress who had thrown herself under a train, the author of War and Peace embarked on what would be his second great masterpiece.
Anna’s story is simple and timeless – bored by her calculating husband and eager to live life, rather than read about it in books, she falls in love. In Moscow and Petersburg, such scandals are the stuff of gossip, not tragedy, but Anna refuses to play society’s game: hers is a high passion, and though she tries to insist that her lover, Count Vronsky, share it, he begins to dread the very word ‘love’ and to hanker after simpler pleasures. Against this ruinous affair are set the stories of other loves, other marriages, including the cautious progress to happiness of Kitty and Levin (perhaps a wistful self-portrait of the Tolstoys’ early married life). For today’s reader, Tolstoy’s narrative genius shines through in the portrait he paints of Russia in the latter part of the 19th century – drawing rooms, racetracks, officers’ clubs, forests and dachas – depicted in all their seductive yet hypocritical glory as the setting for Anna’s doomed passion. The result, as Vladimir Nabokov said, is ‘one of the greatest love stories in world literature’. From its position as first in a list of 125 leading authors’ favourite books, it can equally be called one of the greatest novels of all time.