I'd read Anna Karenina once before, maybe 25 years ago, and felt then what I felt on this reading: very absorbed by Anna herself, whose story always pulled me in even though I knew what happens at the end; and generally repelled by the other main character, Levin, who is Tolstoy's representation of himself without the talent (as his wife put it). I must say that of the two of them it is Levin who I want to shake; he is immensely privileged, finds a woman who loves him, and yet is perpetually dissatisfied with his lot. Anna, on the other hand, makes some quite brave decisions (even if she arguably gets a lot of them wrong) and her tragedy is not that her adultery is karmically punished (as I have heard some people assert) but that the society in which she lives denies her the legal and emotional fulfilment she deserves. Vronsky and Karenin are both bad choices for her, and the consequences are terrible; but did she really have many other attractive options? As Joshua Rothman observes in a long article in the New Yorker, she is one of the best characters in fiction, totally understandable and sympathetic.
I did find that I disliked Levin a bit less this time round. I still find him one of the least likeable characters in literature, but perhaps he does undergo a moral lesson in the course of the book, learning to be satisfied with being like other people; he ends in the bosom of his happy family, just like all the others mentioned in the book's first sentence. Yet it's a bit unsatisfactory for me. Essentially Levin learns to respond to the challenges he sets himself by just not setting them any more, rather than by calibrating either his goals or his methods to fit the world as it is rather than the world as it should be. I can't see it as a completely happy ending.
One Levin section that I had completely forgotten, but which held me captivated, is the run of half a dozen chapters at the end of Part 6 where he and Vronsky are separately dragged into the Kashin provincial elections, in which Levin's brother is organising the campaign for a progressive candidate (progressive is of course a relative term here). Levin doesn't have a clue what is going on, and Tolstoy does a brilliant job of showing us the detail of the political process through the eyes of someone who doesn't actually understand it. It's a bit of a sidestep from the main plot - how shocking to find that happening in a Tolstoy novel! - but this psephologist appreciated it.
Well, that was worth doing. I wonder what we will try next?