From The Wall Street Journal:
In 1873, soon after abandoning a novel about Peter the Great, 44-year-old Leo Tolstoy wrote a friend that he had begun drafting the book that would become “Anna Karenina” and that he expected it to be finished within two weeks. A year later he had made so little progress that he was still able to tell himself he was composing a trifle: “I think it will be good, but it won’t be liked and it won’t be successful because it’s very simple.” But by the summer of 1874, his attitude had darkened and he wrote that an admirer “got me interested in my novel again, but I just dropped it. It is terribly disgusting and nasty.” November, 1875: “My God, if only someone would finish A. Karenina for me. It’s unbearably repulsive.”
There is a happy ending here, as the novel did of course come to be written, but that was little comfort to Tolstoy, who by 1881 was back to his old song: “Concerning Karenina, I assure you that for me that abomination does not exist.”
This catalog of gripes comes from Bob Blaisdell’s entertaining micro-biography, “Creating Anna Karenina” (Pegasus, 414 pages, $29.95), which focuses on the years 1873 to 1878, when Tolstoy was writing, or more often not writing, the novel many consider to be the greatest of all time. “In about thirty of those fifty-three months” he spent on “Anna Karenina,” Mr. Blaisdell notes, “he doesn’t seem to have done a lick of work on it.” The book is a chronicle of distractions and peevish excuses that also shows how the consuming labor of procrastination became a crucial part of the novel’s texture.
. . . .
He was also addicted to buying land and horses, a fortunate obsession because, as Mr. Blaisdell notes, it was a need for money that pushed him to begin serializing “Anna Karenina.” But as he tried again to focus on the novel, a new obstacle arose. A few years later, in his “religious-philosophical” work “Confession,” Tolstoy would write about the depression that overwhelmed him during the mid-1870s: “It had come to this, that I, a healthy, fortunate man, felt I could no longer live: some irresistible power impelled me to rid myself one way or other of life.”
. . . .
Virginia Woolf observed that, unlike Dostoevsky, Tolstoy wrote from the “outside inwards.” The details of life absorbed him, despite his growing desire to be more spiritually centered. In “Creating Anna Karenina,” Tolstoy’s endless side projects seem at first like nuisances deterring him from the single-minded production of art, yet it’s in the daily minutia, and the passionate convictions his characters could inject into it, that we find his great novel’s soul.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)