LIKE MOST GREAT NOVELS, Anna Karenina was in part the result of a happy accident. Having published War and Peace in 1869 to tremendous success, Tolstoy decided to write an even grander historical novel about Peter the Great, the most outsized figure in Russian history up to that point. He spent two years researching the book, only to find himself disliking his protagonist more and more.

One day, avoiding work on Peter the Great, he picked up a book of stories by Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s national poet, and for the first time he felt like writing again. Sitting down and putting pen to paper after so long, he produced a page of fiction on a Pushkinian theme: a nasty, trivial St. Petersburg society adulteress who ends up killing herself. Exactly the kind of person Tolstoy loathed.

Evidently the suicide of an adulteress was already on Tolstoy’s mind (novels never come from a single source). The mistress of a rural neighbor had recently thrown herself under a train to spite her lover, and the count, like his stand-in Levin in Anna Karenina, had gone to view the body. “Tolstoy was sensitive and impressionable,” Bob Blaisdell writes in Creating Anna Karenina, his captivating new book on the novelist’s creative process. “But if a war, a guillotining, an autopsy or a famine was happening nearby, he wanted to see it for himself.”

Tolstoy had never intended to write a contemporary society novel about adultery with a female protagonist, but it was going, where the Peter the Great project was not. Thus, Anna Karenina was born.

Obsession is always interesting, and Blaisdell, a professor of English at CUNY’s Kingsborough Community College, admits to being possessed by Anna Karenina, having read it 20 times in various translations before learning Russian so that he might read it in the original. In Creating Anna Karenina, his project is twofold. First, he offers a biography of Tolstoy during his writing of the work that many regard as the ultimate 19th-century novel, if not the greatest novel in the Western canon. Blaisdell’s fascination with the creator of the work resonates with Tolstoy’s own approach to literature. “It seemed to me […] that Leo Nikolaevich was not very fond of talking about literature, but was vitally interested in the personality of an author,” wrote Maxim Gorky. “The questions: ‘Do you know him? What is he like? Where was he born?’ I often heard in his mouth. And nearly all his opinions would through some curious light upon a man.”

In short, who is the person who did this remarkable thing? Can we find the sources of the work in the life, if we look close enough? Perhaps if we walk where the master walked, we can unlock the secret of his genius. This is the first part of the project. The second is a much more mysterious one — how did Anna Karenina evolve from a trivial high-society adulteress, whom Tolstoy despised, into one of the deepest, most sensitive tragic heroines in all of literature? What happened inside Tolstoy to condition this metamorphosis?

When I was a college student, the reigning movement in literary studies was the so-called New Criticism, which discouraged the student from reading secondary sources about the work in question, and especially about its author, in favor of a direct encounter with the text. The attitude was that whatever the writer had wanted to say, he or she had said it in the poem or the novel, and if you were careful enough in your reading, you would unlock everything you needed. The author per se is beside the point. And there may be some truth in that. Anyone who has ever loved a work of art and sought to meet its creator, only to encounter a rude, mumbling, dandruffy person of dubious taste and character, has wondered, How could I love their work when they’re so awful? Still, is it always a fool’s mission to look for the secret to literary genius in biography?

After reading Blaisdell’s book, I would say yes and no. Knowing the human matrix out of which the work arose, turns out, is a lot like shining a lamp on a relief carving — it makes the image more dimensional, deepening its shadows and raising the highlights.

To recreate the texture of Tolstoy’s daily life and affairs throughout the four years of writing Anna Karenina, Blaisdell uses a number of approaches. He visits the far-flung estates where Tolstoy wrote (and avoided writing) Anna Karenina. He refers to Tolstoy’s diaries and letters, as well as his Confession, in which the novelist traces his spiritual crisis and turn to Christianity. Blaisdell also makes rich use of the clear-eyed writings of Sofia Tolstoya, the count’s wife and collaborator, including her own diaries and letters as well as her autobiography, My Life. Add to these sources the many recollections of Tolstoy’s children, extended family, friends, fellow writers, editors, and literary sounding boards; the author’s death sparked a veritable cottage industry of memoirs.

What I found most striking were the letters Tolstoy exchanged with certain of his relatives and literary associates — how different he was in each relationship, exposing a different facet of his kaleidoscopic interests and personality. With this one he might be more open and tender, with that one more stern and tendentious. With his brother, for example, he might reveal a terrible depression, while with an elderly cousin he might adopt a cheery flirtatiousness.

The impression that arises from the pages of Creating Anna Karenina is one of unexpected variety. There were so many Tolstoys! Coming off the triumph of War and Peace, Tolstoy was at the same time the involved father of a large family, a landowner and farmer of several estates, an active proponent of public education (founding as many as 70 schools and writing a grammar and a simple reader for the newly literate), and a teacher to several of his children. Here he raises money for the Samara famine, there he attends a symposium on pedagogy. He was partner in a close, interesting marriage with a highly intelligent woman, a compulsive purchaser of horses and land, a pure artist, a spiritual seeker, and a man with enormous blind spots, many of which reflected the limitations of his own class and time. Like Whitman, he contained multitudes.

But unlike the American poet, Tolstoy’s inner cast of thousands was in fact a source of great suffering. He could not embrace his own multitudes. It made the writing extremely difficult. “Every man of our time,” Tolstoy wrote, “if we go deep enough into the contradiction between his conscience and his life, is in a most terrible condition.” He struggled to bring into line who he was with what he thought a moral person should be. He wanted praise and then scolded his correspondents for praising him. He mocked his own vanity but was easily slighted. He doubted his work, yet, at the same time, who could be more confident in his own opinion?

Another surprise: His work habits were terrible. In this he was a true aristocrat. Though he frequently required money — a large family and that taste for horses regularly set him in arrears — he could only write when he felt the connection with his subject, and to the highest level of art. He felt none of the contractual compulsions that drove more workmanlike craftsmen like Dostoyevsky. “The Tolstoy who writes novels still has not come,” he wrote to a friend, “and I expect him with particular impatience.” The working writer cuts such a different figure than the author one feels in Anna Karenina — that divine omniscience, one step from God, loving, pitiless, accurate, absolutely planted in his moral universe. As a writer, Tolstoy preferred writing philosophy, but, as Blaisdell winningly puts it, “The problem with Tolstoy’s philosophical works is that they argue but they don’t discover. […] Expository prose brought out Tolstoy’s tendency to emphatically agree with himself.”

We read that he loathed Anna, the adulteress, but perhaps what really bothered him was what she drew out of him as an artist. He was quite puritanical in his views, very much a man of his time and status — and yet, he could not help following his artist’s sense of truth. Once he allowed himself to open up to this guilty woman — not as a Pushkinian object of sharp-witted derision, but as a Tolstoyan human being, someone who must be allowed to live fully in three dimensions — she became a tragic figure. He could not help deepening Anna’s sensibility and sensitivity, and he changed her circumstances to highlight it. Karenin is no longer the tender Papa with the awful wife, but the conventional man unable to meet the demands of a new emotional reality. Now Anna is the one who deeply loves her son Seryozha, not her husband, which raises the costs of her love affair with the handsome, passionate, but limited Vronsky.

I had always believed Anna’s circumstances were extraordinary, but thanks to Blaisdell’s work, I find that a married woman of rank having an affair and producing a child out of wedlock was not so unheard of in the count’s world. Early on, we learn that a woman Sofia met on a Volga ship inhabited precisely that situation. This encounter prepares us for a later revelation: that Tolstoy’s own sister Maria found herself in identical circumstances. In a letter, she writes of her yearning to return to St. Petersburg from Europe, but she felt that would have been impossible with the child. Then we discover that it was Tolstoy himself, along with his brother, who had convinced her to leave her husband in the first place — advice he later keenly regretted.

One of the delights of the book is the revelation of several parallels between the experiences of Tolstoy’s circle and the incidents in the novel. Blaisdell leads us along, section by section, pointing out the many resonances: Levin, Tolstoy’s stand-in, is as obsessed with agrarian reform as the author was with pedagogical reform; Vronsky takes on his creator’s obsession with horses; Stiva Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, exhibits his constant concern with money, selling his wife’s forest to pay the bills just as Tolstoy had sold Sofia’s.

The most intriguing of these life-into-art translations are the ones relating to sexuality. Sexual prudery and squeamishness dogged Tolstoy — largely, we learn, due to his horrific honeymoon, an encounter that Sofia basically characterized as a rape. He never got over the shame and guilt, nor the fact that his sexual needs regularly resulted in his wife’s debilitating pregnancies. Tolstoy naturally gives Levin and his virginal bride Kitty the disastrous honeymoon, but, strangely, gives it also to Anna and her dashing Vronsky in describing their long-awaited first tryst — at which even his editor at The Russian Herald, which published the book in serial form, balked. This was a rare case where Tolstoy the man overrode Tolstoy the artist in the novel. Blaisdell suggests that the famous horse racing scene in Anna Karenina is Tolstoy writing sex without the guilt; however, Vronsky does break the back of the mare and it has to be shot, so the chapter is not without its overtones of destructiveness and guilt.

Much has been said of Tolstoy’s depression, but the day-to-day life of the count seems to give lie to that major theme. His letters and diary entries show us an active, vigorous person, capable of sustained endeavor at a time when he was, supposedly, suicidal. It leads one to wonder how much of his depression was self-dramatizing. Or was he simply so adept at compartmentalizing that he could suffer that degree of malaise while hunting, traveling, buying and racing horses, debating pedagogy, playing with his children, raising funds, bullying his literary friends, charming his cousin, arguing with his editor, taking charge of printing the grammar, and so forth?

Whether or not his depression really was of the dimension Tolstoy ascribed to it in his Confession, he carried on astonishingly well. Brokenhearted at the death of three children in infancy, he could still do business, travel, have a suit made. This aspect of the count’s life reminds me of the novel’s epilogue, in which, after Anna’s death, the “happy families” of Levin and Kitty and of Anna’s brother Stiva and his wife live on, stepping over the tragedy as over a grave — which is of course the deeper tragedy of the book, the fact that we live on.

As was the case with War and Peace, Anna Karenina was first published in installments, a savvy business decision on Tolstoy’s part, in that he could sell the novel twice. But Tolstoy was not a steady producer; he kept to an aristocrat’s schedule. He didn’t write in the summertime, when he went to his estates; he didn’t write when he was publishing philosophy, his grammar, or his educational tracts; he didn’t write when he was depressed or hunting or entertaining. Yet when the writing came, it came fast, sometimes a chapter a day, with Sofia copying the new text every night so that he could have a clear copy in the morning. There were gaps of months in Anna Karenina’s appearance in The Russian Herald, which didn’t trouble Tolstoy as much as did the actual task of writing this difficult book. Rousing himself to the necessary mastery was the main thing. The only thing.

Perhaps the most rewarding element of Creating Anna Karenina is not the research but Blaisdell’s own imagining of how it would feel to be part of that first audience, one of the 5,000 subscribers to The Russian Herald. He puts us into the reader’s chair as we receive our installments of Anna Karenina, and in the process deftly includes a summary of the offering, very helpful for those who haven’t read the book in a long time. Here we are, receiving the first installment:

Can we imagine ourselves well-off educated Russians and that it’s the middle of winter, 1875? There’s a fat issue of the Russian Herald that has been delivered in the mail. Being bookish sorts, we’re going to survey the table of contents […]. And yes, look here, what we had heard rumors of, is the beginning of a novel by Lev Tolstoy!           

Anna Karenina”? The title indicates a heroine, not a theme like War and Peace.

Let’s open to it!

[…] “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Is that true?

That is true!

Well, let’s see if that’s true.

In Creating Anna Karenina, Blaisdell has created a worthy companion to the novel, a personal and deeply researched, multifaceted portrait of a literary genius that does indeed indicate the source of the book’s greatness: the battle of elements within Tolstoy himself. The author’s uncompromising artistic honesty both pushed against and was fed by his personal vitality, obsessions, limitations, doubts, vanities, and strivings toward moral perfection. Anna Karenina came from the perfect balance between irritation and oyster in those few short years before the irritation tore Tolstoy the man from Tolstoy the artist.

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Janet Fitch is the author of White Oleander, Paint It Blackand The Revolution of Marina M., an epic journey through the Russian Revolution, which concludes with Chimes of a Lost Cathedral. She lives with her husband in Los Angeles.