The other night I read Anna Karenina as if a fever had taken over my body and my mind, in one breathless gulp because I could not bear to put it down. It seemed as though I had temporarily gone mad, with that same madness that led the beautiful Anna to abandon her husband and son, that led her to that fateful moment where, unable to bear her life, the torments of her mind, her very existence, to throw herself before a train. If I were to be truthful, I read very quickly, skimming across passages that I felt were dull, slowing down when I came across the parts that transfixed me. (When you read Turgenev, wrote Vladimir Nabokov, you know you are reading Turgenev. When you read Tolstoy, you read just because you cannot stop, and it is true, because once you begin, it is impossible to stop). It was a strange sensation, as though my own time had slowed to match the pace of the intertwined lives that galloped across the pages, and it was with a shock that I came to the end.
[Tolstoy] discovered, wrote Nabokov, a method of picturing life which most pleasingly and exactly corresponds to our idea of time...what seduces [the reader] in Tolstoy is the absolute reality of his novels, the sensation of meeting old friends and seeing familiar places...what really seduces the average reader is the gift Tolstoy had of endowing his fiction with such time-values as correspond exactly to our sense of time...actually [he] was rather careless when dealing with the objective idea of time...readers have found children who grow too fast or not fast enough...In Anna Karenin, as we shall see, there are terrific skiddings on the frozen road of time...Readers call Tolstoy a giant not because other writers are dwarfs but because he remains always of exactly our own stature, exactly keeping pace with us instead of passing by in the distance.
I felt a shiver up when I read Nabokov's words, because it put into words what went through my mind as I sank into the confusion of the Obolensky house in the opening pages and stayed with me all the way to the end when Levin at last understands that his life has some meaning. Tolstoy has this ability to use language - whether it be French, Russian, German - to convey with perfect clarity the emotions of his characters, as when Karenin writes a letter to his unfaithful wife, using French instead of Russian, and with the "plural pronoun 'you,' which does not have that character of coldness which it has in Russian." Indeed, the French vous is formal yet tender, without the coldness of the Russian vas (вас), as Pushkin demonstrates with his poem which begins Я вас любил, or I loved you once (although the English does not quite convey the cold finality of the Russian). You feel as though their feelings are your own.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Russian Literature. Harcourt Books, 1981. pp 141-142.
Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Penguin Books, 2000. pp 283.