54 great opening lines: 33

All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.

Anna Karenin, Leo Tolstoy (Trans. by Rosemary Edmonds, who prefers this title over Anna Karenina)


This novel brings two things to mind:

1.  An author I work for dictates while I type.  She dictates for several minutes, then thinks for several more.  During one of these silences I once pulled Anna Karenin from her shelves and began reading.  After six months, I’d read about half the novel during our dictation sessions.  She rewarded me with my own copy so I could finish it.

2.  The opening line is famous, but Tolstoy didn’t write these words;  the translator did.  You might recognise or have heard the line as it is above, translated by Rosemary Edmonds, or another of the many slight variations on this opening proverb, like a recent one by Pevear and Volokhonsky:
‘All happy families are alike: each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’

Or a golden oldie by Constance Garnett:
‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. ‘

If you ever quote one of them, you’re giving credit to a translator.  And that makes me feel like my hours translating literature are worthwhile.

5 Replies to “54 great opening lines: 33”

  1. Thank you very much. It’s a great book but a long one. There’s a new movie of it coming out – I’m hoping it’s better than the preview I saw recently.

  2. I looked at your list a few days ago. I’ve read one and a half of those books… But it’s a good place to go if I’m looking for ideas.

  3. Ha. I love to hear about the books other people love. I’m a painfully slow reader and have a list of about 40 or 50 books that I’m waiting to read – but I add to it all the time. If you end up going with a book from off my list, I’d love to hear what you think of it.

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