“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.
And a page later:
…and more and more often now came those moments of insensibility when it was possible not to think about what one was doing. The scythe cut of itself. Those were happy moments.
And two paragraphs later:
The longer Levin went on mowing, the oftener he experienced those moments of oblivion when it was not that his arms swung his scythe, but that the scythe itself made his whole body, full of life and conscious of itself, move after it, and as though by magic the work did itself, of its own accord and without a thought being given to it, with the utmost precision and regularity. Those were the most blessed moments.
The work became hard only when one had to put a stop to this unconscious motion and think…
Of course, there are many tasks of which the same might be said, but now that I’ve written a novel and am working on a second, when I came to these passages, I had the distinct impression that Tolstoy was writing about writing, not about mowing. We writers long for the “good days,” the days when we don’t overthink our characters or our technique and we get into a rhythm of writing that becomes a form of oblivion. I love nothing more than looking up after my to writing session and finding that the clock reads . And by the same token, there’s nothing I hate more than overthinking a section of my novel and looking back over it to see that the row is mown badly, as it were.
Yesterday I happened to read an interview with GregorySpatz, a novelist I met at
Squaw Valley, that expresses
the same sentiment: “Remember that writing is very important,” Spatz says, “but
it’s equally important that you not approach it in desperation or with too much
anxiety. That comes across in the work and can wreck it.” In other words, disciplined
writing is good, but not if it obstructs the natural flow and staves off those
precious moments of oblivion.
Another glimpse of Tolstoy the writer comes in part 5 of Anna Karenina in which a painter reveals his masterpiece to Anna, Vronsky, and a friend of theirs, all of whom have come to the artist’s studio. The artist’s attitude towards his art is so relatable to any who have produced creative work that again the veil between author and character seems awfully thin:
About his picture, …he felt deep inside him that no one had ever painted a picture like it. He did not think that this picture was better than all the Raphaels, but he knew that what he wanted and what he did express in that picture no one had ever expressed before. He was quite sure of that, he had known it a long time, ever since he had begun to paint it; but the opinions of others, whoever they might be, were of great importance to him all the same and they agitated him profoundly. Every remark, even the most trivial, showing that his critics saw even a small part of what he himself saw affected him deeply. He always attributed to his critics a more profound understanding than he had himself and always expected them to see in his work something he had failed to see. And he often imagined that he found it in their criticisms.
Compare this to Tolstoy’s own remark of
February 13, 1874, again while in the process of
writing AK, “It has never happened to me before that I should have written
so much without telling anyone anything about it and I want terribly to read
some of it to someone.” Formalists,
forgive me, but I can’t help hearing in this passage the kind of eagerness any writer
feels before handing something over to a workshop or agent or editor, as
Tolstoy himself was on the brink of doing.
And here’s one more passage of interest from that same scene with the artist, whose painting, by the way, is of Pilate and Christ:
During the few seconds his visitors were silently looking at the picture, [the artist], too, looked at it, looked at it with the indifferent eye of a stranger….He forgot all he had thought of his picture during the three years he had worked on it; he forgot all its fine qualities he had been so certain about—he saw it with the fresh, indifferent eyes of the strangers and saw nothing good in it….All of it now seen with the eyes of those strangers seemed to him like so many commonplaces repeated over and over again….He saw a well-painted (and not even so well-painted, for he discovered a multitude of faults now) repetition of those innumerable Christs of Titian, Raphael, Rubens, with the same soldiers and the same Pilates. It was all trivial, poor, stale, and indeed, badly painted—pretentious and weak.
But a moment later, when one of the visitors pays the artist a compliment:
In an instant his whole picture came to life before his eyes with the unutterable complexity of all living things.
Ah, the waffling, the uncertainty, the conviction of one’s genius followed quickly by the certainty of one’s ordinariness. I do think Tolstoy exaggerates this artist figure as he does several other side characters in ways that make their quirks ease the book’s overall seriousness. But still, I tend to agree with novelist Susan Shreve, who says that we are always writing about ourselves—perhaps not directly, and perhaps in ways that we won’t perceive until years down the road, but we are always, inescapably, our own subjects.