Anna Karenina: The Summing-Up.

I’ve finally finished Anna Karenina (see LH posts from May and June), and it’s hard to know what to say about it except “Damn, what a great novel.” So I’ll quote a comment my brother made when I wrote him about it — “Do you find Levin as insufferable as I did?” — and my response:

Yes, Levin is pretty insufferable, but that’s because he’s a self-portrait and Tolstoy was insufferable in the same ways. The way I reconcile myself to that whole story line is that the novel wouldn’t exist without it — he’d gotten bored with it and the only way he could get himself to finish it was using it as a venue for his exciting theories about the peasants’ and landowners’ relation to the land. (And, to be fair, that’s what excited Dostoevsky about the novel; he goes into it at length in his Writer’s Diary, which I’m currently reading.)

I do have one interesting fact to report about my experience of the novel; as a result of my obsessive commitment to chronological reading, I put off reading Part 8 (sometimes called the epilogue) for some weeks, because the editor of Russkii vestnik, which published the rest of the novel from Jan. 1875 through Mar. 1877, refused to print the final part, which had to wait for a separate edition at the end of June 1877 (the reactionary Katkov objected to its skeptical attitude toward the enthusiasm of the Russian public for the Serbian cause in the Balkan crisis — a striking parallel to Nabokov’s Dar [The Gift], which had a chapter missing from its periodical publication in 1938-39 because the radical editors objected to the author’s skeptical attitude toward the sainted Chernyshevsky). Accordingly, I did what the readers of the day had to do and read other stuff that was published in between. This turned out to be fortunate, because the impact of Anna’s suicide had worn off enough that I could turn to the final part almost as a separate story, something like Paul Scott’s Staying On, a sequel to his magnificent Raj Quartet (I strongly recommend both the novels and the BBC series based on them, The Jewel in the Crown). You could say I was as fickle as that jerk Oblonsky, who “had completely forgotten his own despairing sobs over his sister’s corpse” and “saw in Vronsky only a hero and an old friend,” but then I’m just a reader, not her brother. At any rate, I was able to enjoy Levin’s struggles with the Meaning of Life without feeling it as a letdown after the tremendous end of Part 7.

I’ll leave you with an interesting piece (thanks, Gary!) by Bob Blaisdell, who is “completing a biographical study of Tolstoy writing Anna Karenina”: Part I, Part II. He thinks Tolstoy “has become so disenchanted with Oblonsky, four years into composing the novel, that he unfairly and unbelievably represents Stiva’s experience of Anna’s suicide as superficial,” but I disagree: Stiva was selfish and superficial all along, and his reaction at the end is completely in character. Blaisdell has been seduced, like all who met Stiva, by his ever-smiling charm, but as Hamlet tells us, one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.


  1. Levin is, of course, Leo Tolstoy himself (invented the surname from his own Russian name – Lev).

    Oblonsky is derived from real aristocratic family – the princes Obolensky, famous and rich, descendants of Rurik, founder of Russia.

    Vronsky sounds like was taken from name of real counts Vorontsov, but apparently he is based on one of the Rayevsky, another famous Russian aristocratic family of Polish origin which produced several young generals, including the hero of the war of 1812 against Napoleon general Nikolay Rayevsky. The Vronsky of the novel is based on colonel Nikolay Nikolaevich Rayevsky (son of the general), dazzling Guards officer, hero of the Turkestan frontier wars, sort of a distinguished statesman despite young age, made quick and glorious career which he left to fight as a volunteer for freedom of Serbia. He was killed in action fighting Turks in the battle of Androvac in 1876.

  2. Was non-Jewish Levin common in Tolstoy’s time? I don’t imagine he’d have wanted his alter ego to be thought of as Jewish.

  3. PlasticPaddy says

    Long answer here. Commenter says that Russian/Ukrainian name existed and it was then populated by assimilation or creation of Jewish family names. This is also interesting…

  4. SFReader says

    Oh, so Levin is supposed to be pronounced as Lyovin?

  5. That’s a much-disputed question. My brother asked me about it, and I responded:

    Good question about the name Levin; apparently the usual Russian pronunciation is with -e-, but in Moscow the name Lev was pronounced Lyof — that’s how Tolstoy’s family said it — and he himself said Lyovin for the character’s surname. I alternate, myself, just for variety’s sake.

  6. Nabokov L, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, has the following note (p. 216):

    No. 30 Lyovin

    Tolstoy wrote “Levin,” deriving the surname of this character (a Russian nobleman and the representative of a young Tolstoy in the imaginary world of the novel) from his own first name “Lev” (Russian for “Leo”). […] Tolstoy pronounced his first name (spelled “Lev” in Russian) as “Lyov” instead of the usual “Lyev.” I write “Lyovin” instead of “Levin,” not so much to avoid any confusion (the possibility of which Tolstoy apparently did not realize) with a widespread Jewish surname of a different derivation, as to stress the emotional and personal quality of Tolstoy’s choice.

    And Russian Wikipedia (Комментарии 1) says:

    Существуют разногласия в том, как правильно произносить фамилию персонажа. Достоверно известно, что Л. Н. Толстой, образовавший фамилию «Лёвин» от собственного имени Лёв[1] (старая русская форма церковнославянского имени Лев[2][3]) или уменьшительного Лёва[3][4], произносил её только как Лёвин[5][6][7][8][9][10][11][12][4][13]. Произношение через ё [о] — Лёв, Лёвин — отражено в тексте глав XI и XII третьей части второго тома «Анны Карениной», опубликованных в «Русской христоматии [sic] с русско-чешско-сербским словоуказателем» под редакцией известных российских филологов-славистов П. А. Лаврова и В. Н. Щепкина (1894)[14], письмах А. А. Фета[8] и И. С. Аксакова[7], ряде прижизненных и посмертных переводов произведений Толстого (Lyof, Lyoff). Тем не менее, за время, прошедшее после появления романа, возникла устойчивая традиция написания и произношения фамилии Лёвин через е [э] — по мнению лингвистов А. В. Суперанской, И. Г. Добродомова и В. А. Успенского, литературоведа Н. Н. Гусева и др., обусловленная необязательностью употребления буквы ё[15], влиянием современного произношения имени Лев[3], а также сходством фамилии Лёвин с распространённой фамилией еврейского (реже — русского и украинского) происхождения Левин[3][4][16]. Утверждение И. В. Толстого (1930—1997) о том, что огласовку Левин, якобы оправданную переходом подударного [э] в [о] только перед твёрдыми согласными, отстаивал сам автор «Анны Карениной»[17], противоречит как языковым фактам (в частности, [о] перед мягким согласным в формах притяжательного падежа перечисленных И. В. Толстым имён — Лёвин, Матрёнин, Сёмин), так и известным свидетельствам современников Л. Н. Толстого (С. А. Толстой, Т. Л. Сухотиной-Толстой, К. Н. Леонтьева и др.) о произношении им фамилии персонажа именно через ё, а не через е[5][6][13].

  7. Which boils down to “Tolstoy said Lyovin.”

  8. But the “facts” of “EthnoFun” cited here
    Long answer here. Commenter says that Russian/Ukrainian name existed

    are so often erroneous, I don’t know if the rest of his claims can be trusted. Popular Jewish-Russian personal name Lev is almost always a Russification of Leyb (both mean “Lion”), not of non-existent given name Levi.

    A reference to “white-passing” of the Jewish people, adding Russian suffixes to their surnames, is another piece of anachronistic nonsense. It was a (relatively rare) phenomenon of Soviet times, but not in the times of the Pale when the subjects of Russian Empire were categorized by their confession, not by the sound of the surnames

    But most importantly, given name Lev couldn’t yield surname Levin in gramatically correct Russian, being a masculine name ending in a consonant. It can only acquire suffix -ov (and the resulting surname L’vov is widespread). Levin could only arise from a vowel-final word, and it is, of course, Lyova:

    Лев -> Львов but Лёва -> Лёвин

    And needless to say, to make the claim that Lyovin was a Ukrainian or Russian surname, which “lost dots over ё after the Revolution”, the commenter didn’t bring any historic evidence either. But there are interesting datasets from linguistic standpoint. Like in the German and Austrian POW cards from WWI, surname Levin is universally spelled with “e with o superscript”!
    One example here and you can find dozens more by “returning to search results”, longhand and typed.

    But checking Russian-origin documents in the same database, you can see that the Christian Levins were spelled without exception with e rather than ё. Both when typewritten and in longhand. Not a single instance of ё. So I believe that the “dots over ё” weren’t in use before the Revolution either, but, judging by the way the German documents documented it, it was pronounced Lyovin, just as the common grammatic sense dictated it.

    Using “io” to spell “ё” was another relatively common way, but forms like Liovin are virtually nonexistent.

  9. Лев -> Львов but Лёва -> Лёвин

    Yes, exactly, so why wouldn’t it be Лёвин? There are lots of surnames based on diminutives. And ё was never written systematically, so the fact that Levins were spelled with e rather than ё isn’t worth much as evidence.

  10. In any case, it seems clear that Tolstoy said Lyovin, which is what’s relevant here.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    I am inexpressibly pleased to discover that everyone I know pronounces “Levin” wrong, and from this day forward plan to call him “Lyovin” whenever I can shoehorn him into the conversation, which will be often. It will nicely complement my existing annoying habit of stressing “Nabokov” on the correct syllable.

  12. SFReader says

    It gets even better, because if this theory is true, then RUSSIANS pronounce it wrong (save for a few language nerds like us).

  13. Heh. But of course not pronouncing it like Tolstoy is not equivalent to pronouncing it wrong.

  14. Now wondering how to prove that “today’s Russians are all wrong”. Lots of Levins insist on the genealogy sites that their ancestors were Lyovins, but of course all the documents which crop up, like this 1860s affidavit or this 1830s magazine avoid using “dots over e” anywhere. You’d need a verse with the surname rhymed, or a transliteration in a foreign document … or perhaps we can ask a pro? Anatole Lyovin, a retired Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa 🙂

  15. It was suggested to put late Brezhnev into the Mausoleum and add two dots above e.

  16. Dmitry: isn’t Rabin such a russified name?

  17. AJP Crown says

    It will nicely complement my existing annoying habit of stressing “Nabokov” on the correct syllable.

    I do that too. How about Vladimir? You ought to go the whole nine yards but it seems a bit showy-offy. Oh dear this is terribly old but anyhow I quote from here

    …New Statesman competition in which a winning entry concerned the pronunciation of Nabokov. Entries had to be in the form of double dactyls, eight lines, each stanza having three lines with the rhythm ‘tum-ti-ti ‘tum-ti-ti and one with the rhythm ‘tum-ti-ti ‘tum. The first line is nonsense, one line of the poem must consist of a single word, and the eighth line must rhyme with the fourth. The winning entry ran as follows:

    Higgledy piggledy
    Vladimir Nabokov —
    Wait! Hasn’t somebody
    made a mistake?

    Out of such errors, Vla-
    dimir Nabokov would
    paragraphs make.

    Apparently Nabokov liked to point out that his first name rhymes with Redeemer. In Russian his name is pronounced [vɫʌˈdʲimʲɪr nʌˈbokəf].

    The man who won the NS Competition almost every single week during the 1970s & 1980s, whose name has now disappeared from my memory, IS ON FACEBOOK. I was his friend until I relinquished my membership.

  18. AJP Crown says

    (Basil Ransome-Davies.)

  19. Dmitry Pruss says

    isn’t Rabin such a russified name?

    Not sure if I got the question. You mean, re-suffixed from Rabinovich before the Soviet era? It’s attested in so many different places by the end of XIX c. that it just can’t be an invention of one or two creative “white-passers”. And and besides, Rabin scores just about as high on a Russian’s “jewdar” as Rabinovich anyway.

    This is the geography of “Rabin” per Beider: Dvinsk, Shavli, Ponevezh, Vilkomir, Troki, Zhitomir, Kamenets-Pod., Yampol’, Vinnitsa, Balta, Soroki uezds.

    PS: My Prusses actually shed their Russian suffix in the 1830s or 1840s. Used to be Prusovs earlier on…

  20. Huh. Do you know why they made such a counterintuitive decision?

  21. I meant, does Rabin come from Rabbi, with a Russian suffix.

    Now that I think of it, the unsuffixed surname Rabi is very rare, unlike Levi. Physicist Isidore Rabi is the only one I know of. He was from Galicia.

  22. Rodger C says

    Rabbi acquitted a suffix in Western languages too early for it to be a Russianism, cf, references to “learned rabbins.” Isn’t it a matter of Occitan influence?

  23. does Rabin come from Rabbi, with a Russian suffix

    Not really, it’s a Polish word and it means “Rabbi” in Polish (and Ukrainian; Russian is a very similar раввин, but I don’t know why these Slavic languages have an -n ending)

    Vasmer quotes some sources about this “n” but seems to be in doubt after all (the fav hypothesis is that it represents belonging to a group or class of people, but another view posits that it has Italian origin, from It. Rabbino)

    рави́н “еврейский проповедник и законоучитель”, ст.-слав. равви ῥαββί. Ввиду наличия -в- через греч. ῥαββί от др.-еврейск. rabbî “мой учитель” (Литтман 45; Клюге-Гётце 464). Напротив, с Запада происходит укр. ра́бин, блр. ра́бiн – через польск. rabin (Брюкнер 451). Относительно -н (возм., ит. происхождения) см. Литтман, там же. Здесь, вероятно, сингулятивное слав. -inъ.

  24. counterintuitive decision

    Dropping the -ov, you mean? Ugh, the real issue is with applying *our* intuition to their time and place. We are informed by two developments – the secular nature of the American nation, and the largely mono-ethnic nature of today’s Russia. The first tells us that one’s name substantially reflects one’s identity, and thus a conforming name helps to fit in & succeed. The second tells us that that in Russia, names ending with Russian possessive suffixes -ov / -in are the best for success.

    But in Russia of the mid-XIX c., the names meant nothing in comparison with social class and religion (and to what extent the plain Russian surnames informed anything, they might have left a first impression of their bearer being an illiterate, fatalistic serf). The nobility was to a great degree foreign transplants and minorities – Polish, Ukrainian, Georgian, Armenian, Tatar. The professional classes were drawn from the more literate Ukrainians (in the XVIII c.) and Poles (in XIX c.).and from the foreigners as well. The clergy shunned the plain-vanilla names of their peasant fathers, and adopted foreign-sounding names in the seminaries. It all changed in the last 30 to 80 years – the nobility and the clergy ran away or were shot, the Poles and the Ukrainians, the Georgians and the Jews largely became foreigners, while millions of dispossessed Russian peasants poured into the cities.

    As to the mid-XIX c. Jews, they were banned from government service, from leaving their homelands, etc., and were drafted to the military service at a many-fold rate at pre-teen age – not because of popular prejudice but according to the government regulations. Not because of the names, but because of their religion. In fact, in the ancestral region of my Prusses is an area where great many Jews bear the same surnames as their Belorussian and Russian neighbors. Prusses and Prusovs are on both sides, and so the surnames like Kozhevnikov and Kuznetsov, Shubin and Neplokhov, etc. But of course even more Jews took up names with Polish suffixes -ski / ovicz, because the Poles were still the ruling class and the Polish-style names carried a certain cachet.

    In general, the Jews at the time were no more attached to their government-enforced surnames than we are attached to our SSNs. The surnames were given to facilitate taxation, draft, and law enforcement, and who ever likes that? The government repeatedly demanded that a stop be put to all name changes by the Jews. Judging by the repetitive edicts, they weren’t a total success at first. If need be, a friendly scribe could have made a helpful clerical error for you, and voila! Given the nature of the case endings in the official documents, the easiest “clerical errors” to make included adding or removing possessive suffixes.

    My Prusses, then Prusovs, had to escape their hometown of Druya because of being caught on the wrong side of a sectarian conflict within the Jewish community. Somehow all of their sons were getting drafted, and it was a sign to leave. To minimize the risk that the former hometown authorities will trace them and demand back taxes and more sons for draft, they changed the surname.

  25. Very interesting, thanks!

  26. David Marjanović says

    It’s not hard to find Rabbiner and Oberrabbiner in German. Likely from Italian or so, perhaps intended to make the word pluralizable.

  27. To clarify my first comment and maybe add something to the discussion, I always thought, or maybe just assumed, that the ending of “rabbi” had been assimilated to the more familiar (at one time) Occitan/Catalan ending -i, plural -ins, from -inus.

  28. PlasticPaddy says

    It might be possible to assume a single origin, I. e., hebrew rbn (= teacher) > OFr rabain (oldest attested written form from 14th century) with copy to rest.

  29. John Cowan says

    See these brief remarks (due entirely to Ivan Derzhanski, as I scurvily omitted to say at the time) about the Duke-of-York behavior of the Russian and Bulgarian words for ‘lion’.

  30. John Cowan says

    The OED3 s.v. rabbin, for what it’s worth, can’t decide between the Occitan/Catalan theory and the Aramaic theory. The plural of rabbi in Aramaic was rabbīn, which probably didn’t sound plural to Romance-speakers. Etymonline also mentions both theories: Wikt is silent, just pointing to rabbi.

  31. hebrew rbn (= teacher)
    Rabbeinu is a honorific rather than a job description, “Our teacher” (“n” for “our”). Most contemporary rabbis can be called Rabbeinu when one wants to flatter them, but historically, it was reserved to the wisest sages

  32. There’s also Rabban in Aramaic, used in both Jewish and Eastern Churches as a title…

  33. To Dmitry Pruss: my retired University of Hawaii colleague Anatoly Lyovin once told me that his name used to be spelled and pronounced Левин, but the family added the dieresis and changed the pronunciation during the war, just to be on the safe side. I haven’t seen him in years, but the last time I did he was Father Anatoly, with the beard and the pectoral cross.

  34. Father Anatoly, with the beard and the pectoral cross.

    Yes, he’s Facebook friends with our local Orthodox-priest-and-University-professor who is my old pal from my days in geocaching (I suspect that he’s got hooked on this geeky pastime when I used the coordinates of a sign of his church as a clue to a geocaching puzzle, and clueless hobbyists started knocking on his door for help!)

    Anatole follows his gramps footsteps as an Orthodox clergyman. But I don’t know if the dieresis story is literally true because they weren’t in Russia during the war, but rather in the Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia ( their family story is retold in a book, “Valentina: An Odyssey from Pre-Revolutionary Russia Through War-Torn Europe to a Pacific Paradise” )

    Not being identified as Jewish was quite important then, of course, but did the Yugoslavs use ё ?

  35. David Marjanović says

    No. Perhaps the family went by Љовин.

  36. Љовин does appear in Anna Karenina context too. But a search also spots some other Levins who apparently were turned into Lyovins – possibly to avoid suspicions about their Jewish roots. Like historian Левин Иосиф Давыдович (1901—1984) is cited as Lyovin in a Serbian publication.

  37. I’m reading Roman Senchin’s introduction to this edition of Tendryakov, and I just got to this: “…многие страницы Анны Карениной, в которых действует Константин Лёвин…” (with explicit ё).

  38. Trond Engen says

    Set off to the pace of the train
    the best fall in love with the vain
    [Society rages
    for 800 pages]
    and finally dies from the stain.

  39. Trond Engen says

    Argh, falls in love.

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