Friday, October 5, 2012

Tolstoy's Words on Writing: Reflections on Anna Karenina, part 3

“Our work is a terrible thing,” Tolstoy wrote to a poet friend of his.  He was talking about writing, and he made this comment while working on Anna Karenina.  After three years of carrying the idea for AK in his head, he started writing, only to start and stop many times in the next four years.  He threw away at least ten versions of the novel, and he went through periods of “tinkering at my novel to no purpose.”  Anna’s earlier incarnations were called Tatyana, Nana, and Anastasia; one version, called Two Marriages, had Vronsky marrying Anna after a divorce from Karenin; other versions made Anna out to be coarse and coquettish while Vronsky was a true poet and Karenin was far nicer than in the final version.  So David Margashack’s introduction to the Signet Classics edition of AK recounts Tolstoy’s process.
Mowing, a metaphor for writing...Well, not exactly
this kind of mowing, but my husband is not in the habit
of mowing with a scythe.

But we don’t need to rely on an introduction to tell us something of Tolstoy’s frustrations as a writer; they are recounted in the novel itself, although this reading is the first time I’ve realized it.  I try, as any good formalist literature student would, not to read too much of a writer’s biography into the work itself.  Still, as I read part III of AK, I was struck by the descriptions of Levin’s experience in mowing the hayfield with the peasants he employs on his farm:

They mowed one row after another.  They moved along long rows and short rows, rows with good grass and with bad grass.  Levin lost all consciousness of time and had no idea whatever whether it was late or early.  His work was undergoing a change which gave him intense pleasure.  There were moments in the middle of his work when he forgot what he was doing, he felt quite at ease, and it was at those moments that his row was almost as even and good as [an experienced peasant’s].  But as soon as he began thinking of what he was doing and trying to do better, he became at once conscious of how hard his task was, and his row turned out badly.