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Reading 'Anna Karenina' in the age of social media

Monday, March 13, 2017

LAWRENCE — How can a 19th-century Russian novel be made to seem relevant to a 21st-century audience of young Americans? Try relating the realist literary style of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” to the reality television life of Kim Kardashian. Or comparing the portrait of Anna that is a central plot point in the novel to a Facebook profile picture.

These are a couple of the approaches that Ani Kokobobo, assistant professor in the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures, and her co-editor, Emma Lieber, used when writing chapters in and editing “Anna Karenina for the Twenty-First Century: An Imprint of the Tolstoy Studies Journal,” published in 2016 by the North American Tolstoy Society.

In addition to articles, the journal contains reviews of every film and television adaptation of the book the editors could find, including the relatively faithful 2012 theatrical film starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law and the contemporized 2015 Australian-made TV mini-series adaptation, “The Beautiful Lie.”

“We talk about how the film relates to the novel,” Kokobobo said, speaking of the 2012 movie. “We try to relate the idea of the artificiality of the visual sphere and how that relates to social media, presenting that perfect image of yourself. Anna Karenina becomes obsessed with what she looks like. Some argue she becomes her portrait.”

Kokobobo argues that “Anna Karenina” is “not a love story – it’s so much bigger than that.”

“It’s about whether a woman can still have everything, which makes it still relevant. She wants her son, her new boyfriend and her social standing, and she cannot have all of those things at the same time.”

The comparison between Anna and the amply endowed but otherwise undistinguished reality TV star Kim Kardashian is relevant, Kokobobo said, because for Kim today, as for Anna in the time of the novel, “women are only able to express their rebellion on the body.”

And while Western women today have far greater opportunity for professional fulfillment than they did in 19th-century Russia, some things, like the social sanctity of marriage, have changed very little. Kokobobo said “The Beautiful Lie” adaptation drives this point home.

“Anna and her husband are professional tennis stars,” Kokobobo said. “She has an affair that ends up in the tabloids, thus replicating the judgment of 19th-century high society.

“The prohibitions persist in a sense, even in contemporary Western society, as expectations of achievement extend to the private sphere, where you are also expected to do a good job; responsible adults work on their marriages and do not wreck their families.

“Unlike other characters, Anna is all about her personal passions. This is still taboo, especially for women. She is deemed a failure because she has a beautiful life that she screws up in her confusion over what she wants.”

Not only is “Anna Karenina” a timeless work of literature, but Kokobobo said she continues to find new layers of meaning in Tolstoy’s text, which made the writing and editing work she did on the new edition of the journal enjoyable.

“I read it differently depending on where I am in my life,” she said.

Images: Portrait of Leo Tolstoy, by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi, reproduction via WikiCommons. At right, the cover of “Anna Karenina for the Twenty-First Century: An Imprint of the Tolstoy Studies Journal,” published in 2016 by the North American Tolstoy Society.