Why did Tolstoy struggle with Anna Karenina?

The book 'Creating Anna Karenina' by Bob Blaisdell is lying on my desk with a Tolstoy bookmark

It’s a well known fact that Tolstoy struggled with his novel Anna Karenina. He even referred to it as a horrible thing, ‘vile’ and ‘disgusting’. But does that mean that he hated his own creation, as is often assumed? 

Tolstoy was working on Anna Karenina from 1873 to 1877. The novel was first published in instalments in the literary magazine The Russian Messenger from 1875 to 1877*. Most of the time during those four years Tolstoy was not writing, but procrastinating, avoiding, giving up, writing other things and often simply dealing with family affairs. 

The Seed?

On the 4th of January 1872 a young woman threw herself under a train. She was the mistress and housekeeper of one of Tolstoy’s neighbours. Tolstoy attended the autopsy and was very shaken by what he saw.

Beginning in medias res

In March 1873 Tolstoy abandoned a novel about Peter I that he had started 33 times. The more research he did, the less he liked Peter. Around that time he picked up a volume of Pushkin’s prose, read it for the umpteenth time and started to write Anna Karenina. He enthusiastically wrote to his friend Strakhov* about this incident: “I automatically and unexpectedly thought up characters and events, not knowing myself why, or what would come next, and carried on.” Interestingly enough one of the things that struck him about Pushkin’s prose was his tendency to start a story in medias res, apparently forgetting that he had done so himself with War and Peace

“It’s as if Tolstoy woke up in Pushkin-world and put on his own seven-league boots and started striding over the heads of all the other writers” writes Andrei Zorin about this moment in literary history. We can indeed picture Tolstoy doing just that. Well, the boots may have been on, but they did not move very fast!

A copy of the complete prose tales by Pushkin is lying on my desk

Not meeting deadlines

Tolstoy did not have Dostoevsky’s need to meet a deadline because of some impending disaster, and so he could afford to procrastinate, and the readers of The Russian Messenger were more than once left in suspense for months on end. Initially the publisher Katkov did not want to pay the 10.000 roubles advance payment that Tolstoy had asked for, but Tolstoy managed to successfully play him out against his competitor Nekrasov, and then he promptly agreed. He paid Tolstoy in total 20.000 roubles* for the right to be the first to publish Anna Karenina, a record at the time.

Surrounded by illness and death

Apart from procrastination, trips to Moscow and Samara, and Tolstoy not wanting to work in the summer, there were many distractions in the family circle during that time. Three of his children died in infancy and two others had fairly serious accidents. His aunts Toinette and Polina, who had looked after him after his own mother had died when he was small, died. His wife Sofia, who devotedly copied out Anna Karenina as he wrote it, was ill a lot in those years. Naturally all this had an effect on Tolstoy. Surrounded by death and illness he started to suffer from depression and it got to the point that he did not want to go hunting alone (one of his favourite pastimes) because he did not trust himself alone with a gun.

Whereas for War and Peace he had used his own ancestors and historical events as inspiration, Anna Karenina was becoming a much more personal novel. Anna’s depression and suicidal feelings were Tolstoy’s. 

Judgement

Tolstoy’s own views about unfaithful women were less harsh than you might conclude from the novel. His sister Masha had had a child out of wedlock and she was certainly not judged by Tolstoy, he was supportive and sympathetic. His favourite aunt Toinette had told him once to hate the crime and not the person, something which he believed strongly.

Did Tolstoy hate Anna?

Tolstoy definitely struggled to finish Anna Karenina, but that was mostly because of the circumstances under which he wrote it. But he had started it, so he had to finish it. Did he hate Anna and her crime? There seems to be no evidence of that in his letters and diaries. Tolstoy was relieved when the novel was all finished. And once a work was finished, Tolstoy put it out of his head.

*****

*Tolstoy never sent this letter to his friend Strakhov. Strakhov was a well known Russian literary critic. He helped Tolstoy a lot with the novel, always encouraging him to write and ready to proofread. We know much about that period from their correspondence.

*Katkov paid an advance of 10.000 roubles, plus 500 roubles per printing sheet, of which there were 40.

*Due to a political disagreement with Katkov the last chapters were not published in the magazine, and readers had to wait until the publication in book form.

I recently read Creating Anna Karenina by Bob Blaisdell, an excellent biography that focuses on the years 1873-1877 during which Tolstoy was working on Anna Karenina. For this post I also used the three other biographies in my possession (see last photo).

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021

The books that I read for this post: 'Leo Tolstoy' by Zorin; the Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy; 'Creating Anna Karenina' by Bob Blaisdell; 'Tolstoy' by A.N. Wilson; 'Tolstoy' by Rosamund Bartlett

34 thoughts on “Why did Tolstoy struggle with Anna Karenina?

  1. Thank you for this informative read with my morning coffee. Your diligent research provides a richness to my reading of Russian writers. Some tend to dismiss Tolstoy because of his assumed social privilege. Nothing you say here enforces that perception. He truly suffered, and that creates the pathos of his novels. Dostoevsky suffered as well, and we needn’t go about comparing that! 🙂

    Liked by 6 people

  2. This is a really interesting, informative, incisive, well written post, Elisabeth.

    Thanks for mentioning Bob Blaisdell’s book. I have ordered a copy. My wife is a Tolstoy fan and Anna Karenina reader. I am going to give her the Blaisdell book as a gift and read it myself.

    Your comment that Tolstoy/s aunt had told him to hate the crime and not the person resonates with me. I feel very much this way when I read about crimes. This seems consistent with what I have read by and about Tolstoy.

    This is one of your best posts.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. Elisabeth – a post that I will come back to read again and again, especially in the year 2022. I smiled when I read that Tolstoy didn’t like Peter! It seems that, as he wrote, Tolstoy became intimately involved in their lives, which comes out in the way his characters come alive to readers. By the way, you read the most interesting books!!! Many thanks.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. A fascinating piece, Elisabeth, that reminds us that there’s a lot of agony and procrastination involved in creating many of the world’s great novels. Kudos to you for your blog-post research and storytelling!

    Liked by 5 people

  5. Thank you, Roger, as always, for your kind words. It’s certainly food for thought, to hate the crime and not the person. I’m sure that you and your wife will find Bob Blaisdell’s book enjoyable.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Thank you, Liz! They all have their good points, but I found Rosamund Bartlett’s biography very enjoyable. Hope your friend will enjoy reading about Tolstoy’s life 😉☺️

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thank you, Rebecca! I suppose Tolstoy could not bring himself to write about Peter the Great, because he disagreed with his ruthless way of reforming the country. But he did try 33 times 😄
    Creating Anna Karenina was a pleasure to read!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Thank you so much, Dave. Yes, it makes us all feel a bit better to know that even the world’s greatest procrastinate 😉 His wife Sofia did not want to nag him about continuing the novel, but he read it in her eyes anyway and said that he couldn’t force himself.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Really fascinating background info on Tolstoy’s classic novel which I read only recently, sometime in 2021. I also want to catch up with War And Peace and at least one novel each of Dostoevsky and Sholokhov. I look forward to interesting tidbits on these writers too. Best wishes…

    Liked by 2 people

  10. When I first read that Tolstoy called the book disgusting, I’d imagine that’s what someone very close to something, who wants it to be perfect, and is tortured by its flaws and the demands it puts upon him to improve it in innumerable ways, would call it.
    That’s at least my experience.

    Like

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