(This is what Anna Karenina looked like when I first met her – on the cover of a Penguin Classic.)
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Next to “Once upon a time…” the opening lines of Anna Karenina are some of the most quoted of all time. To honour these beloved words, I thought we should share the opening lines of some other memorable books set in Russia.
Generations of Winter, by Vassily Aksyonov
First line: Just think – in 1925, the eighth year of the Revolution, a traffic jam in Moscow!
What’s in it for Anna fans? It’s epic. Covering an especially turbulent period of Russian history (1925-1945) this novel tells the story of the Gradov family. It weaves together their triumphs and tribulations with those of actual figures such as Joseph Stalin.
The Winter Queen, by Boris Akunin
First line: On Monday the thirteenth of May in the year 1876, between the hours of two and three in the afternoon on a day that combined the freshness of spring with the warmth of summer, numerous individuals in Moscow’s Alexander Gardens unexpectedly found themselves eyewitness to the perpetration of an outrage that flagrantly transgressed the bounds of common decency.
What’s in it for Anna fans? Suicide and Setting. It covers the same setting – late 19th century Russia. A wealthy and talented student from a good family shoots himself in Moscow’s Alexander Gardens. Young detective Erast Fandorin is not so sure that this case is as simple as it seems.
Oblomov, by Ivan Aleksandrovich Goncharov
First line: One morning in his apartment in one of those big houses on Gorokhovaya Street, which could have accommodated the whole population of a country town, Ilya Ilyich Oblomov lay in bed.
What’s in it for Anna fans? It’s about the upper classes, for one. Oblomov is a 30-something underachiever whose life changes dramatically when he falls for a cultured woman named Olga.
The People’s Act of Love, by James Meek
First line: When Kyrill Ivanovich Samarin was twelve, years before he would catch, among the scent of textbooks and cologne in a girl’s satchel, the distinct odour of dynamite, he demanded that his uncle let him change his second name.
What’s in it for Anna fans? This novel, about a Christian sect deep in Siberia in 1919 deals with themes of desire and sacrifice. Also, like Anna, it has two separate love stories. In the Guardian, Irvine Welsh raved, “You could write page after page on the possible reference points for this incredible novel; it reads like a modern Heart of Darkness, and Coppola’s Vietnam remake Apocalypse Now, fused together with the great Russian masters such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.”
The Last Station (ebook), by Jay Parini (also a film starring the incomparable Helen Mirren)
First Line: The year has turned again, bringing us to the end of the first decade of the new century. I write the strange numbers in my diary. 1910. Is it possible?
What’s in it for Anna fans? A tumultuous marriage. A tragic death. A train station. Plus it’s about the dramatic final years of Leo Tolstoy, Anna’s creator. Both happy and unhappy in his own way.
(Painting image courtesy of this site).