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Write Like Tolstoy: Anna Karenina.

anna karenina May 05, 2019

In the 1870's Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828 - 1910) experienced a profound moral crisis. During the writing of Anna Karenina, he went through a personal metamorphosis from sensualist to ascetic. This had a dramatic effect on his literary output and the novels after Anna Karenina are of a different tone, and more didactic.

Writing Anna Karenina required many drafts over four years, and evolved from a rather superficial treatment of a 'fallen woman' to a more nuanced and sympathetic evocation of Anna, the literary heroine.

The novel accrued greater depth over those drafts. The constant in the concept was Anna herself, though her character changed in the early drafts. With Anna, Tolstoy was able to put his finger on his own flaw or failing; the sensualist. Writing Anna enabled him to see the flaw, name it and move past it.

There are one or two ways to write a novel.

1. A fast first draft and multiple successive drafts. (For this method ideally you need a sounding board - an agent or ambitious and serious writing friends to tell you - no, you're not there yet, go further.) Think Scott Fitzgerald, JM Coetzee and Tolstoy. This is how I work, too.

2. Slow and steady. The Graham Greene and Hemingway method of 500-650 a day every day. 

Our online novel writing courses allow for both methods. Yes, you are guided to write a first draft in ninety days, but the principle of our method is to make you work the way a working author really and truly works as the basis for success. It is commonly held that it takes ninety days to form a habit. After ninety days with us, you will be a working writer, whatever your day job or duties, so if you've found the constant and slow and steady method works for you, you'll be up and running and supported by our community all the way to completion.

There is no shame in not completing in ninety days since as I remarked in the Novel Tips blog, novels tend to take at least nine months - whether 3 drafts or one is done in that time. Working in seasons, harnessing the energy of them, is a great way to go.

Craft, Not Genius.

It is consoling to see that a writer like Tolstoy raised his game dramatically between drafts. His first draft was thin. (You're going to smile when you read how he felt in the latter stages of writing below.)

I hope you will conclude that writing is not an act of genius, as the defeatists and art snobs pretend, but a craft that requires ambition and willpower. It is work in which passion is tempered by judgement, and this is the very heart of the method we embrace within our novel writing courses, by which writers come to understand through practice (our two pedals) and support that the back and forth of those two inner forces, the dialectic which gives ups and downs is the key driver to advancement. You learn to embrace it at The Novelry.

I'm going to show you the evidence, but let me just remind you of the enormous claim to genius Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina has. Top of the list for masterpieces of literature as chosen by 125 writers, Time Magazine, Encyclopedia Britannica, and Wikipedia.

The Greatest Novel.

"The best novel ever written." —William Faulkner.

(Asked to name the top three novels of all time, he responded: “Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina.”)

"A perfect work of art." —Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
"One of the greatest love stories in world literature." —Vladimir Nabokov.

The Point of Departure.

Tolstoy's wife, Sophia Andreevna, noted in her journal on 23 February 1870 that her husband said he had ‘envisioned the type of a married woman of high society who ruins herself. He said his task was to portray this woman not as guilty but as only deserving of pity, and that once this type of woman appeared to him, all the characters and male types he had pictured earlier found their place and grouped themselves around her. “Now it’s all clear,” he told me.’"

In January 1872, a few miles from his estate, Anna Stepanovna Pirogov threw herself under a goods train after her lover abandoned her. Anna Pirogova was a distant relation of Tolstoy’s wife. She had become the housekeeper and lover of his friend and neighbour Alexander Bibikov. Bibikov had told Anna he was going to marry his son’s governess, an attractive German girl. In a rage of jealousy and anger, Anna sent him a note accusing him of being her murderer before taking her own life. Tolstoy went to the autopsy. He was distressed by seeing the mangled corpse. This was one of the first railway suicides on Russia’s expanding network, which had increased to over 10,000 miles of track by the 1870s.

Tolstoy had been struggling with a novel on Peter the Great and lost enthusiasm for it. Reading a Pushkin short story gave him a moment of sudden clarity as to how to begin a novel. An opening sentence ‘The guests arrived at the dacha’  caught Tolstoy’s eye. He was riveted by how Pushkin got straight down to the action, without even bothering to set the scene first or describe the characters. After thirty-three false starts with Peter the Great, this was a revelation, and it gave him renewed appetite to make a new start, but on a new subject, closer to home.

Of course, its autobiographical nature was nattily concealed by use of the other gender. Flaubert said Madame Bovary was him. It amuses me that reviewers and readers, prone to claiming the main character is a manifestation of the author as if this makes it all so easy, are duped when one writes as the other gender! As my writers know, when we start working on the creation of the hero character, I recommend a change of gender to shake things up, the other recommendation I make is that you start with the moral flaw of the main character. Often, you'll use one of your own you wish to slyly treat! 

I'm on the fourth draft of my current novel. I have an abundance of flaws to choose from but am a bit slow in owning up to which I'm really working with. It takes me a few drafts to look it in the eye. In my early drafts, I'm looking for the 'ideal' at the heart of the novel, the antidote if you like to my flaw, the flaw I share with my main character. I consider this 'ideal' in my mind's eye something like a woodland violet. I spied it eight months after starting work. Don't expect to see that shy little thing right away but keep seeking it.

One gets closer to cracking the 'ideal' in tectonic shifts and we think each major shift brings us to the precipice of being done with the work but it’s often just a movement. Perhaps this will sound a little too spiritual for your liking, but I find it's when we give up on worldly ambitions as the main driver for our writing and commit to writing it anyway that we get this little reward. That's why at the outset of the course I ask my writers to make an initial sacrifice and remind them of that during the writing. It helps.

To get to this place I have to accept I don’t have the answers but I will ask the questions. All understanding begins with admission you have something to learn. So you stand before the schoolroom of your novel with head bowed - you're in detention on draft four and you're ready to pay attention to the lesson.

If you think you have the answers, the work is far more dull. Tolstoy's later works lack the sense of humour and sagesse of folly we love in Anna Karenina.

Every Novel Is New. True for Tolstoy Too.

Tolstoy was so enthusiastic about his new approach inspired by Pushkin combined with the meaningful subject matter, he thought he'd nail the book in fifteen days! Tolstoy began with his vigorous first chapter - a scene at the opera for his high society novel - and sketched out eleven further chapters.

The Drafts.

But the novel took him four more years of work. 'Much that had come together so suddenly through the agency of ‘the divine Pushkin’ was altered or rejected and much more was added that had not occurred to him in that first moment of inspiration. In the first versions, Anna (variously called Tatiana, Anastasia, and Nana) is a rather fat and vulgar married woman, who shocks the guests at a party by her shameless conduct with a handsome young officer. She laughs and talks loudly, moves gracelessly, gestures improperly, is all but ugly–‘a low forehead, small eyes, thick lips and a nose of a disgraceful shape …’ Her husband (...) is intelligent, gentle, humble, a true Christian, who will eventually surrender his wife to his rival, Gagin, the future Vronsky. In these sketches Tolstoy emphasized the rival’s handsomeness, youth and charm; at one point he even made him something of a poet. The focus of these primitive versions was entirely on the triangle of wife, husband and lover, the structure of the classic novel of adultery." Richard Pevear.

He started a new draft of the beginning of his novel. After the opera, the guests drove over to young Princess Vrasskaya’s house. Having arrived home from the theatre, Princess Mika, as she was called in society, had so far only managed to take off her fur coat in the brightly lit hall in front of the mirror, which was festooned with flowers; with her small gloved hand she was still unhooking the lace which had caught on a hook of her fur coat…  This time he called his heroine Anastasia (‘ Nana’) Arkadyevna Karenina, and replaced her yellow lace gown with the black velvet she will wear to the ball in the final version. Her husband is now firmly called Alexey Alexandrovich, but her lover’s name has switched from Balashov to Gagin.

"Tolstoy ended up discarding this draft, but he would save up the detail of the caught lace for Anna to unhook in the final version of the novel, when she is leaving Princess Betsy’s soirée after her fateful encounter with Vronsky." Rosamund Bartlett.

The story of Levin and Kitty was absent from early drafts; there were no Shcherbatskys, the Oblonsky family barely appeared, and Levin was a minor character.

"In the early versions, Tolstoy clearly sympathized with the saintly husband and despised the adulterous wife. As he worked on the novel, however, he gradually enlarged the figure of Anna morally and diminished the figure of the husband; the sinner grew in beauty and spontaneity, while the saint turned more and more hypocritical. The young officer also lost his youthful bloom and poetic sensibility, to become, in Nabokov’s description, ‘a blunt fellow with a mediocre mind’. But the most radical changes were the introduction of the Shcherbatskys – Kitty and her sister Dolly, married to Anna’s brother, Stiva Oblonsky – and the promotion of Levin to the role of co-protagonist. These additions enriched the thematic possibilities of the novel enormously, allowing for the contrasts of city and country life and all the variations on love and family happiness played out among Stiva and Dolly, Anna and Karenin, Kitty and Vronsky, Anna and Vronsky, Kitty and Levin. The seven main characters create a dynamic imbalance, with one character always on the outside, moving between couples, uniting or dividing them, and shifting the scene of the action as they move–from Petersburg to Moscow, from Russia to Germany, from the capitals to the provinces. At some point each of the seven plays this role of shuttle. The novel they weave together goes far beyond the tale of adultery that Tolstoy began writing in the spring of 1873." Richard Pevear.

On 11 May 1873 Tolstoy wrote to tell his friend, the philosopher, Nikolay Strakhov that he had spent over a month working on a novel that had nothing to do with Peter the Great. He emphasised that he was writing a proper novel, the first in his life. He had been writing the word roman (‘a novel’) at the top of the page on each new draft of his opening chapter. At this early stage, he was still very excited by his new project, which he told Strakhov completely ‘enthralled’ him.

Third Draft.

The turning point in the creation of the novel happened in the third draft when Levin was introduced. At that point it became the story of two married couples. In fact, Tolstoy's title for the work at that point was" Two Marriages ."

We see the introduction of Levin and the rural lifestyle as a counterbalance to the high society affair. Levin is a self-portrait. He has the same ideas and opinions, the same passion for hunting, the same almost physical love of the Russian peasant, and many of the events and experiences of Lev Tolstoy are assigned to Levin.

For Tolstoy, this brought his work to a higher level of importance and meaning, and about this time he stopped writing his journal since he felt he could explore his thoughts and feelings and experience directly within the novel. 

You will be familiar with Hemingway's iceberg theory which we explore in the course for the creation of character and I advise my writers that in the final work, some deft brushwork will do to show us aspects of our characters, focussing on the unusual or distinct to highlight with 'light' and 'shade' their individuality. In the earlier drafts Anna was more fully explained. Tolstoy described her past, how she came to marry, at the age of eighteen, a man who was twelve years her senior... He stated explicitly that ‘the devil had taken possession of her soul’, that she had known these ‘diabolical impulses’ before, and so on. Only a few traces of this detail remain in the final portrait of Anna.

As Tolstoy rewrote, he removed most of the details of her past, her motives, and replaced them with hints and suggestions. For me, this indicates his elevation of her from pitiful and pathetic fallen creature to heroine, since we see this elusive writing with hero characters typically. (See my 'Rumours of a Hero' blog.)

In the fourth draft of 1873 Tolstoy made a new stab at an opening. This draft begins with the familiar scene of a husband waking up after a row the night before with his wife, who has discovered his infidelity. Anna comes to Moscow as peacemaker, and she meets Gagin (later Vronsky) at the ball.

"But still Tolstoy was not satisfied: there was no tension in the relationship between the Levin and Vronsky prototypes, as they were friends. He decided to change their names to Ordyntsev and Udashev, and now made them rivals for Kitty’s hand rather than friends. It was time to try another beginning. Tolstoy took out a fresh sheet of paper and started a fifth opening draft." Rosamund Bartlett.

He reworked the crucial opening scenes four times to get them exactly right, and these were the first chapters he gave Sonya to make fair copies of.  They went to be bound. Everything else stayed in draft form.

On 9 November the Tolstoys suffered their first bereavement with the sudden death of their youngest son, the previously healthy eighteen-month-old Pyotr (Petya).

Tolstoy had been working on and off on his novel for nine months. At the end of 1873 and he decided he would go ahead and print t the first part of his novel in book form, without prior publication in a journal. In January 1874 Tolstoy went to Moscow to draw up an agreement for publishing Anna Karenina with Mikhail Katkov’s printing house.

During this time, Tolstoy was also immersed in his educational crusade, and his enthusiasm for his novel waned again. Indeed, on 10 May 1874 he informed his friend Strakhov that he no longer liked it.

His aunt Tatyana Alexandrovna – Toinette, his surrogate mother – died on 20 June. ‘I’ve lived with her my whole life. And I feel awful without her,’ he wrote.

Strakhov tried to rekindle his interest in Anna Karenina in July 1874 when he came to stay, but Tolstoy had lost momentum and referred to his novel as ‘vile’ and ‘disgusting’. When he got back the proofs of the thirty chapters that had already been typeset he decided to write the whole beginning again. He broadened its scope and introduced topics that interested him, such as ploughing techniques, but writing Anna Karenina was now irksome.

He didn't manage to complete the novel in 1874, in 1875, or 1876. The last sentence was not written until 1877.

In all, Tolstoy produced ten versions of the first part of Anna Karenina.


Subscribers to the Russian Messenger started reading Anna Karenina at the beginning of 1875, when the first chapters of the novel appeared in the January issue before the novel was complete. The first instalment ended with Anna leaving the ball early, having danced the mazurka with Vronsky, bringing Kitty’s dreams crashing to the ground. In the second instalment of Anna Karenina, in the February issue of the Russian Messenger, readers sympathised with the grieving Kitty and Levin, both spurned. There were further instalments of Anna Karenina in March and April 1875, but readers had to wait eight months for the next chapters to be published as Tolstoy had not finished them.

He took a couple of months away from writing and forced himself to return to ‘boring, banal’ Anna Karenina in the autumn of 1875.

He wrote to Strakhof: "I must confess that I was delighted by the success of the last piece of 'Anna Karenina.' I had by no means expected it, and to tell you the truth, I am surprised that people are so pleased with such ordinary and EMPTY stuff... It is two months since I have defiled my hands with ink or my heart with thoughts. But now I am setting to work again on my TEDIOUS, VULGAR 'ANNA KARENINA,' with only one wish, to clear it out of the way as soon as possible and give myself leisure for other occupations, but not schoolmastering, which I am fond of, but wish to give up; it takes up too much time."

Despite feeling as fed up with Anna Karenina as with a ‘bitter radish’, he pressed on. 

At the end of October Sonya fell ill with peritonitis and went into labour. Varvara, born three months premature, died a few hours after she was born.

‘Fear, horror, death, children cavorting, eating, fuss, doctors, falsity, death, horror’ was how Tolstoy defined the situation at Yasnaya Polyana in a letter to friend, Afanasy Fet.

Another third of the novel was printed in the first four issues of the Russian Messenger in 1876. The April issue contained a substantial section of Part Five, ending with a chapter recounting the last days of Levin’s brother Nikolay. Tolstoy drew on his own personal experience to write it.

The April 1877 issue of the Russian Messenger contained the last chapters of Part Seven, which end with Anna’s death, and they were greeted with wide acclaim.

In 1878, when the novel was nearing its end, he wrote again to Strakhof: "I am frightened by the feeling that I am getting into my summer mood again. I LOATHE what I have written. The proof-sheets for the April number now lie on my table, and I am afraid that I have not the heart to correct them. EVERYTHING in them is BEASTLY, and the whole thing ought to be rewritten,—all that has been printed, too,—scrapped and melted down, thrown away, renounced. I ought to say, 'I am sorry; I will not do it any more,' and try to write something fresh instead of all this incoherent, neither-fish-nor-flesh-nor-fowlish stuff."

I sympathise with the Count in his affection for teaching...

Happy writing.


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