Sunday, March 30, 2008

"And I must finish the novel that has become such a nuisance to me."

Between a weekend of proofreading and making giant pots of chili to feed to guests in honor of the incipient baseball season, I find myself again without time to write. So, as I've had Anna Karenina on my mind this past week, today I'll give you only a couple of bits from letters Tolstoy sent to his longtime friend Nikolay Strakhov during the four-year period in which Tolstoy was struggling with Anna Karenina, which are featured in one of the chapters of Viktor Shklovsky's Energy of Delusion (1981). This first letter, from March 25, 1873, gives a glimpse into the novel's moment of conception; it also offers an optimism about the ease of its inevitable composition that quickly dissipates:
I'm going to tell you about myself, but please, keep it a secret, because it may be that nothing will come of what I'm going to tell you . . . After work, I happened to pick up . . . a book by Pushkin and as always (for the seventh time, I think), reread it all, unable to tear myself away from it, as though reading it for the first time. And what's more, it seems as if it resolved all my doubts . . . And there is a line, "The guests were getting ready to leave for the country house." Involuntarily and quite unintentionally, without knowing why and how, I began thinking up people and events, went on doing so, then, of course, changed the, and suddenly everything tied in so beautifully and unexpectedly, that the result was a novel, which is almost finished in draft form. A very lively, passionate and complete novel with which I am pleased; it will be ready, if God grants me good health, in two weeks. . . . Please do not scold me for such an incoherent letter--I have been working happily all morning. I'm excited that it's finished, and now, in the evening, I have an hangover.
Perhaps Tolstoy decided the letter really was too incoherent, for he never sent it. Regardless, that short paragraph gives us so much of the man--especially his unstoppable imagination, determined to imbue with full life even the slightest thought about the things and people of the world, and his confident enthusiasm when things are going well.

As with anything to which Tolstoy turned his attention, however, Anna Karenina, as its complexity and difficulty became apparent, began to seem an insurmountable challenge, driving him nearly to despair; by November 9th, 1875, he was writing to Strakhov:
My God, if only someone could finish Anna Karenina for me! It's unbearable.
His mood continued to swing, however, with each day's writing, and within two months he was writing to a pair of friends, A. M. and T. A. Kuzminsky,
Farewell, good-by. Sonya will describe everything, and I have written it all in Anna Karenina, and nothing is left
--while telling Strakhov days later,
Anna Karenina is making progress.
I'll leave you with an image that I found particularly striking, Tolstoy's account, in a letter to Strakhov of February 13, 1874, of his working method:
You are right to assume that I'm very busy and have been working a lot. I'm glad that I didn't start publishing anything, as I wrote in one of the previous letters. I don't know how else to draw a circle but to close it first and then begin correcting the original flaws. And now I have just come to the closure, and the corrections are endless.
And now to the kitchen. Baseball season beckons.

{Photo of me making baseball chili by rocketlass.}


  1. It was the muse of JC Powys which led me to your proverbial door: I do like chili but not baseball.

    Anyway. I have spent the last 20 minutes appreciating both your taste in literature as well as the visible verve you have for commenting upon such. cheers

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Jon. I'm glad you found stuff here that you've enjoyed.

    The chili was good, and so was the baseball. Now all we need is spring . . .

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