September 01, 2020

Creating Anna Karenina

Creating Anna Karenina
A 1919 illustration for the novel. Helen Mason Gross

This is an excerpt from the author's new book, published by Pegasus Books.

“When reading a work, especially a purely literary one,
the chief interest lies in the character of the author
as expressed in the work.”

— Leo Tolstoy[1]

When Tolstoy started Anna Karenina, he was forty-four. He guessed that he would finish the novel, conceived as only a novella, in two weeks. Anna Karenina took him more than four years. Even after sketching out the plot, it took him several months to reconceive Anna’s character. The driving motivation for him to commit to it as a serialized novel was that he was keen to buy horses; once the serialization started, however, nothing and no one, not even wild horses, could keep him on deadline. Several times he gave up or threatened to give up on the project. In about thirty of those fifty-three months, he doesn’t seem to have done a lick of work on it. He agonized over the procrastination, but his artistic engagement with Anna’s character and her inevitable suicide probably tormented him even more.

When Tolstoy was in his seventies and was asked to reduce literature to one book, he chose David Copperfield. Ever since I read Anna Karenina for the first time when I was eighteen, my choice has been Anna Karenina. I had read it at least twenty times in various translations before I decided to cut to the chase and learn Russian. After ten years I was able to read it in the original. Now, after repeated readings in Russian, it remains my book of books. My biographical study, Creating Anna Karenina, is the result of my quest to find out everything possible to know about what Tolstoy was doing during that period spanning the composition of this unprecedented novel. What sort of life was he living while writing – and while avoiding – the novel? During those four years, the challenges of the novel nagged at him through thick and thin, illness and health, death and birth, heaps of despair and moments of satisfaction. His biography is important because that novel is important.

In all the Russian and English biographies of him, the narrative of his Anna Karenina years has gone far too fast and loose. Even though many of his day-to-day movements and activities have been accounted for, I wanted to know them with the immediacy and depth that he continually gives us of his fictional people and places. But except in letters now and then, Tolstoy rarely described his own everyday life. It turns out that if we want to know what he, the artist, was thinking and feeling when he created Anna Karenina, the best source is that work itself.

Writing fiction was continually unsettling for him; the novel made him conscious of depths and fields of his thoughts and feelings. As he wrote, reread and revised, to his surprise, despite that Anna was of a type he expressly despised, an adulterer living in high society St. Petersburg, he suddenly found her a new, real, sympathetic woman. From the point of view of the character Konstantin Levin meeting Anna for the first time, Tolstoy revealed his own personal artistic revelation:

While he followed this interesting conversation, Levin was all the time admiring her – her beauty, her intelligence, her culture, and at the same time her directness and genuine depth of feeling. He listened and talked, and all the while he was thinking of her inner life, trying to divine her feelings. And though he had judged her so severely hitherto, now by some strange chain of reasoning he was justifying her and was also sorry for her, and afraid that Vronsky did not fully understand her.[2]

And then, now that this extraordinary character had his sympathy and understanding, Tolstoy was faced with his own existential crisis. If she had everything—social standing, intelligence, beauty, love of her child, a steady marriage, vitality—how could she kill herself? Why did he, who also had everything (except beauty), find himself suicidal? It was as if he had walked into her bad dream and was sharing her fate. In his identification with her, her suicide became ominous.

There are various origin stories of Anna Karenina, but the only one that pans out is the grisly real-life incident that occurred at the Tolstoys’ local train station a year before he started the novel: “The fourth of this January [1872] at 7 in the evening an unknown young woman, well dressed, arriving at the Yasenki Moscow-Kursk railway in Krapivensky county, walked up to the rails at the time of the passing of the freight train number 77, crossed herself and threw herself on the rails under the train, and was cut in half. An enquiry has been made about the incident.”[3]

Tolstoy and his wife Sofia knew the “unknown young woman” of the news article; Anna Stepanovna Pirogova was the thirty-five-year-old mistress and housekeeper of one of the Tolstoys’ closest neighbors, Alexander Nikolayevich Bibikov, a forty-nine-year-old landowner and widower.

Sofia soon wrote her sister Tatyana Kuzminsky about it. Tatyana had spent many months at the Tolstoys’ Yasnaya Polyana estate: “You remember, at Bibikov’s, Anna Stepanovna? Well, that Anna Stepanovna was jealous of Bibikov for all the governesses. Finally, of the latest, she got so jealous that Alexander Nikolayevich got angry and quarreled with her, and the consequence of which was that Anna Stepanovna left him altogether and went to Tula. For three days she was lost to sight; finally in Yasenki, on the third day at 5:00 o’clock in the evening, she appeared at the station with a bag. There she gave her driver a letter to Bibikov; she asked him to get and bring her tea and gave him one ruble. Bibikov didn’t accept the letter and when the driver returned again to the station he found out that Anna Stepanovna had rushed under a car and the train crushed her to death. Of course she did this on purpose. The investigators came... and they read this letter. In the letter it was written: ‘You are my killer; you will be happy with her if murderers can be happy. If you want to see me, you can view my body on the rails at Yasenki.’ What a story! For a few days we’ve been going around like crazies, getting together and explaining it. Bibikov is quite calm, says Levochka [Sofia’s pet name for her husband], and that his nerves are strong, he’ll get by. Levochka and Uncle Kostya went to look when they did the autopsy.”

Sofia’s tone suggests that she didn’t see this event as a tragedy, and apparently neither did her husband. Tolstoy never wrote about or was quoted speaking about Pirogova’s suicide, but he certainly told Sofia about it. In addition to letters Sofia wrote to her sister, she noted in her diary: “Lev Nikolayevich saw her, with her head crushed, her body naked and mutilated, in the Yasenki barracks.” Tolstoy was sensitive and impressionable, but if a war, a guillotining, an autopsy, or a famine was happening nearby, he wanted to see it for himself. Sofia continues: “He was terribly shaken. He had known Anna Stepanovna as a tall, stout woman, Russian in face and character, a brunette with grey eyes, not beautiful but attractive.”[4]

When Anna Karenina makes her first appearance in the novel, in a scene Tolstoy wrote two years later, she dazzles us and Vronsky as she exits her train from St. Petersburg in Moscow:

Vronsky followed the guard to the carriage, and at the door of the compartment he stopped short to make room for a lady who was getting out.

With the insight of a man of the world, from one glance at this lady’s appearance Vronsky classified her as belonging to the best society. He begged pardon, and was getting into the carriage, but felt he must glance at her once more; not that she was very beautiful, not on account of the elegance and modest grace which were apparent in her whole figure, but because in the expression of her charming face, as she passed close by him, there was something peculiarly caressing and soft. As he looked round, she too turned her head. Her shining grey eyes, that looked dark from the thick lashes, rested with friendly attention on his face, as though she were recognizing him, and then promptly turned away to the passing crowd, as though seeking someone. In that brief look Vronsky had time to notice the suppressed eagerness which played over her face, and flitted between the brilliant eyes and the faint smile that curved her red lips. It was as though her nature were so brimming over with something that against her will it showed itself now in the flash of her eyes, and now in her smile. Deliberately she shrouded the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in the faintly perceptible smile.[5]

Before we even know that she is, in fact, Anna Karenina, the novel’s namesake but appearing only now in the eighteenth chapter, Tolstoy has completely attracted our attention to her. We know, but Vronsky doesn’t, that she has come to try to salvage her brother Stiva Oblonsky’s marriage.

The first of two inquests in the novel occurs minutes after her and Vronsky’s fateful introduction to each other:

A guard, either drunk or too much muffled up in the bitter frost, had not heard the train moving back, and had been crushed.

Before Vronsky and Oblonsky came back the ladies heard the facts from the butler.

Oblonsky and Vronsky had both seen the mutilated corpse. Oblonsky was evidently upset. He frowned and seemed ready to cry.

“Ah, how awful! Ah, Anna, if you had seen it! Ah, how awful!” he said.

Vronsky did not speak; his handsome face was serious, but perfectly composed.

“Oh, if you had seen it, countess [that is, Vronsky’s mother],” said Stepan Arkadyevitch. “And his wife was there. . . . It was awful to see her! . . . She flung herself on the body. They say he was the only support of an immense family. How awful!”

Creating Anna Karenina
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Stepan (“Stiva”) Arkadevich Oblonsky is as sensitive here as his author; Tolstoy often responded with tears when overwhelmed by emotions. Stiva’s sensitivities, however, don’t last, as Tolstoy’s evidently did. By the end of the chapter, Stiva has shaken off the horror as easily as water off a duck’s back; he’s got his own problems, after all, for which Anna has come to his rescue. But Anna, the elegant, composed, ever-conscious, strikingly beautiful heroine, is unnerved. Though she didn’t witness the guard’s death, she can imagine it:

Madame Karenina seated herself in the carriage, and Stepan Arkadyevitch saw with surprise that her lips were quivering, and she was with difficulty restraining her tears.

“What is it, Anna?” he asked, when they had driven a few hundred yards.

“It’s an omen of evil,” she said.

“What nonsense!” said Stepan Arkadyevitch. “You’ve come, that’s the chief thing. You can’t conceive how I’m resting my hopes on you.”

Anna’s brother has the tact to change the subject. But she feels (and those of us who have read the novel know) that it is indeed an evil omen. Even if the incident recedes from Anna’s consciousness, Tolstoy has wound up a clock whose ticking we can almost always sense.

The other inquest is accounted for in the epilogue, Part 8, when Vronsky and Stiva, united again at a train station, recall the aftermath of her death:

For an instant Stepan Arkadyevitch’s face looked sad, but a minute later, when, stroking his mustaches and swinging as he walked [...] he had completely forgotten his own despairing sobs over his sister’s corpse [...]

Stiva has his faults. But at worst, he resembles Alexander Bibikov, the Tolstoys’ lighthearted neighbor. “There’s nothing new with us,” Sofia wrote her sister Tatyana, less than four months after Anna Stepanovna Pirogova’s suicide, “besides that Bibikov married that same German over whom Anna Stepanovna killed herself.”[6]

Vronsky, for his part, experiences a double-dose of suffering. Vronsky has a bad toothache (as had Tolstoy at various times during the writing of the novel). Tolstoy delivers us into Vronsky’s two contrasting overwhelming pains:

He could hardly speak for the throbbing ache in his strong teeth, that were like rows of ivory in his mouth. He was silent, and his eyes rested on the wheels of the tender, slowly and smoothly rolling along the rails.

And all at once a different pain, not an ache, but an inner trouble, that set his whole being in anguish, made him for an instant forget his toothache. As he glanced at the tender and the rails, under the influence of the conversation with a friend he had not met since his misfortune, he suddenly recalled her – that is, what was left of her when he had run like one distraught into the cloak room of the railway station – on  the table, shamelessly sprawling out among strangers, the bloodstained body so lately full of life; the head unhurt dropping back with its weight of hair, and the curling tresses about the temples, and the exquisite face, with red, half-opened mouth, the strange, fixed expression, piteous on the lips and awful in the still open eyes, that seemed to utter that fearful phrase – that he would be sorry for it – that she had said when they were quarreling.

And he tried to think of her as she was when he met her the first time, at a railway station too, mysterious, exquisite, loving, seeking and giving happiness, and not cruelly revengeful as he remembered her on that last moment. He tried to recall his best moments with her, but those moments were poisoned forever. He could only think of her as triumphant, successful in her menace of a wholly useless remorse never to be effaced. He lost all consciousness of toothache, and his face worked with sobs.[7]

As soon as Tolstoy began the first draft in March of 1873, a draft radically different in scope, focus and tone from what the novel became, he knew the protagonist was going to kill herself. Tolstoy may have never mentioned Anna Pirogova’s suicide to anyone besides Sofia in its immediate aftermath, but writing Anna Karenina uncovered to him and to us its resonances. To his own continual irritation and frustration, harried by his own impulses to kill himself, he was going to spend four years describing the circumstances that led to her suicide. Anna’s death in Part 7 (followed by the epilogue known as Part 8), though rewritten many times by Tolstoy, right up to the galleys of the book edition, is not the climax but the origin of the book.

1. R. F. Christian, ed. and trans., Tolstoy’s Diaries.

2. Anna Karenina, translated by Constance Garnett.

3.  N. N. Gusev. Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoi: Materialy k Biografii s 1870 po 1881 god.

4.  Reminiscences of Lev Tolstoi by His Contemporaries. Translated by Margaret Wettlin.

5. Anna Karenina, translated by Constance Garnett.

6. Donskov, L. N. Tolstoy – N. N. Strakhov.

7. Anna Karenina, translated by Constance Garnett.


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