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The Roots of the Story
Excerpts from Tolstoy, by Henri Troyat

Henri Troyat is a French novelist and biographer of Russian origin, whose real name is Lev Tarassov. Born in 1911, he is the author of numerous historical novels and biographies of famous Russians, including Tolstoy (1965, translated 1967), generally considered a brilliant portrait that reads like an epic novel by Tolstoy himself.

... Suddenly [Tolstoy] had an illumination. He remembered an occurrence that had deeply affected him the previous year. [1872] A neighbor and friend of his, Bibikov, the snipe hunter, lived with a woman named Anna Stepanovna Pirogova, a tall, full-blown woman with a broad face and an easy-going nature, who had become his mistress. But he had been neglecting her of late for his children's German governess. He had even made up his mind to marry the blond Fraulein. Learning of his treachery, Anna Stepanovna's jealousy burst all bounds; she ran away, carrying a bundle of clothes, and wandered about the countryside for three days, crazed with grief. Then she threw herself under a freight train at the Yasenki station. Before she died, she sent a note to Bibikov: "You are my murderer. Be happy, if an assassin can be happy. If you like, you can see my corpse on the rails at Yasenki." That was January 4, 1872. The following day Tolstoy had gone to the station, as a spectator, while the autopsy was being performed in the presence of a police inspector. Standing in a corner of the shed, he had observed every detail of the woman's body lying on the table, bloody and mutilated, with its skull crushed. How shameless, he thought, and yet how chaste. A dreadful lesson was brought home to him by that white, naked flesh, those dead breasts, those inert thighs that had felt and given pleasure. He tried to imagine the existence of this poor woman who had given all for love, only to meet with such a trite, ugly death.

Her image haunted him for a long time, but not specifically as material for a book. But in 1870, he had had an idea for a novel about an upper-class woman guilty of adultery. Sonya had even made a note in her diary, on February 23, 1870: "He told me that the whole problem, for him, was to make the woman pitiable but not contemptible, and that when this creature came into his mind as a type, all the masculine characters he had previously invented immediately grouped themselves around her." Yet when Anna Stepanovna's suicide occurred two years later, he did not immediately link the incident to the story of the unfaithful wife. For over a year the two subjects -- infidelity and violent death -- had co-existed in his mind without connecting. Then, by some mysterious process, each began to round out the other. The real-life woman gave her tragic ending and her name to the fictional one. At the very moment Tolstoy was brooding over Peter the Great, Tsarevich Alexis and the boyars, men and women in modern dress were flitting through his historical visions: the figures who became Anna Karenina, Vronsky, Levin, Kitty, Oblonsky....

Although he refused to follow literary fads, Tolstoy could not remain oblivious to the vogue for the psychological novel abroad. World opinion was all agog with the problems of marriage and women's rights. In France, Alexandre Dumas fils, who had become famous in 1852 with the resounding success of La Dame aux Camelias, had just published a study of conjugal infidelity: L'Homme-Femme. On March 1, 1873 Tolstoy wrote to Tanya Kuzminskaya: "Have you read L'Homme-Femme? I was staggered by it. One would not expect a Frenchman to have such a lofty concept of marriage and relations between men and women in general."

A few days later, on March 18, he went into his son Sergey's room and noticed a book lying on a table, which the boy had started to read: Pushkin's Byelkin Tales. He leafed through it and was as charmed as ever by that lively prose. The story call Loose Leaves began with the sentence, "The guests were arriving at the country house...." For Tolstoy this leap into the heart of the matter was the summit of artistry. He thought of it in relation to his own characters, and his desire to write returned at last, after months of indecision -- irresistible, dizzying, painful as thirst. He rushed into his study, seized a pen and wrote down the first words of an opening chapter, "After the opera, the guests reassembled at the home of the young Countess Vraski."

The next day, March 19, Sonya wrote in her diary, "Yesterday evening Lyova suddenly announced, 'I have written a sheet and a half and I think it's coming all rights.' Assuming he had been trying once more to write something on the period of Peter the Great, I did not pay much attention; but then I learned that he has begun a novel on the private lives of contemporary people." That day she let her joy overflow in a letter to her sister: "Yesterday Leo suddenly started to write a novel on contemporary life. The subject is the unfaithful wife and all the ensuing tragedy. I am very happy."

[Tolstoy's] attitude toward Anna Karenina changed in the course of the book, almost as though the creator had gradually been seduced by his creature. Behind the love story of Anna and Vronsky lay the love story of Tolstoy and Anna. At first, Tolstoy did not like his heroine: he condemned her in the name of morality. He saw her as an incarnation of lechery and, oddly enough, did not even make her beautiful. His first notes on the woman who has become the quintessence of charm and elegance for generations of readers describe her in the following terms: "She is unattractive, with a narrow, low forehead, short, turned-up nose -- rather large. If it were any bigger, she would be deformed.... But, in spite of her homely face, there was something in the kindly smile of her red lips that made her likable." So much for appearance. Her personality is that of a man-killer. One whole chapter in one of the early drafts of the book, devoted to a description of Anna, is entitled "The Devil." She is the agent of evil in the world. Both husband and lover are her victims. Hence Karenin, the government official, is initially portrayed as a warm, sensitive soul, cultivated and kind. His main fault is sentimentality. When he suspects his wife of infidelity, he tells his sister, "I feel like sobbing, I want sympathy, I want to be told what to do!" And the first model of Vronsky is "firm, kind-hearted and sincere." In a word, two choice characters, in contrast to whom the diabolical Anna stands out blacker than ever.

However, Tolstoy unconsciously begins to be intrigued by his sinner. She moves him, disturbs him, disarms him. He is on the verge of declaring his love. Suddenly he can no longer deprive her of beauty. Plastic surgery is called for: the operation is a resounding success. The troll with the turned-up nose emerges a sylphide: "Vronsky was drawn, not by her beauty, although she was a very beautiful woman, nor by the unobtrusive elegance she radiated, but by the expression of utter sweetness in her charming face.... For an instant her gray keen eyes, which seemed darker than they were because of her thick eyelashes, paused to give him a friendly glance, as though she recognized him. Then she began looking for someone in the crowd.... Her eyes and her smile revealed vast stores of repressed vitality." Further on, the author tells us of "her brisk step, which gave a curious air of lightness to her full body." Little Kitty was enamored of her, "as inexperienced girls often become enamored of older married women." "There was nothing in Anna that betrayed the society matron or the mother of an eight-year-old-boy; from the relaxed ease of her movements, her fresh complexion, the spontaneous shifts of her expressions and smile, one would not have believed her to be more than a girl of twenty, were it not for the serious, even melancholy light in her lovely eyes. This feature was what struck and attracted Kitty."

After dealing with a historical conflict between peoples in War and Peace Tolstoy narrowed his field of vision in Anna Karenina, to concentrate on a few persons and forage into their darkest recesses. What the picture loses in scope, it gains in depth. The epic is no longer played out in the open air, but within, in the dark shadows of the conscience. The battles are those of emotions, and they rage with the same incoherence and fury as the others.

Just as the outcome of military encounters is not determined by the strategists, so the fate of the individual most often escapes his own will. Actions are determined by circumstance, by the circles in which people move, the friends around them, a thousand imponderables collected together under the name of fatality. The fatality that presides over Anna Karenina is not, as in War and Peace, the god of war, bloated by politics and reeking of carrion and gunpowder, the breathless god of passion. There are a hundred times more corpses in War and Peace than in Anna Karenina, yet the first seems a broad, optimistic, sun-filled work, while Anna Karenina is enveloped in gray, troubled clouds.

Anna Karenina: Troyat's Story Synopsis

Essays + Interviews:
The Roots of the Story | The Making of Anna Karenina
Tolstoy's War with Love | The Woman Question

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