Books: A book that changed me

Clare Francis on Tolstoy's 'Anna Karenina'
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When did you first read it? Why did it strike you so much?

Having been fed a childhood diet of reliable English classics from the school curriculum, I didn't find my way to Anna Karenina until I was sixteen. I had been deterred by the then-popular myth that Russian literature was too "difficult" for young people (an idea fostered by simple chauvinism, I suspect).

As a result, I picked up Anna Karenina with some caution, and was thus doubly bowled over by it. At an age when I craved emotional truth and authenticity in fiction, here it was in abundance, throwing light on the shadowy workings of adult double standards, a world in which, as I was just beginning to appreciate, a collusive silence still condoned many a carnal sin.

Though I was a Sixties child, from an assertive and independent generation, this didn't prevent me from identifying passionately with Anna's predicament; rather the opposite, since Anna was also trying to make her own rules, albeit from an isolated and hopeless position. I recognised the impossibility of her dreams and the inevitability of her tragedy, and my adolescent heart bled for her as it had never done for Tess D'Urberville or Cathy Earnshaw.

Have you re-read it?

I've read Anna Karenina four times. The very first time, I was swept along by the power of the narrative and the sense of impending catastrophe. Returning to the story a few years later I realised that, in some complex way, Anna was a willing victim, almost masochistic in her fatalism, defiantly powerless to escape ruin and despair. The third time, I read the book for the development of character, the economy of style. At the last reading a few years ago I must have been in a more pessimistic frame of mind, because I decided that the real tragedy of the story lay not in Anna's lonely death but in the futility of romantic love as a basis for fidelity.

Do you recommend it?

I wouldn't dream of recommending it to anyone over 25. If they haven't discovered it for themselves by that age, then they probably never will. And if they have, then there's not a lot more to be said.

Clare Francis's latest novel is 'A Dark Devotion', published by Macmillan at pounds 16.99.