The nature of plot

Perhaps it’s because we’re now past the halfway point in our reading of Anna Karenina (from this point on, to be referred to as AK) that my thoughts are turning to plotting again.  I’m re-discovering how impressive the design of this novel is.

To say design makes it sound like Tolstoy had some kind of plan to work to.  Ah, yes, the D word, the secret formula.  It’s one of those things that block so many would-be writers from starting out.

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We have an idea for a story, but are not sure how to manage or shape it.  That formula, the one that successful writers use, and seem to hint at, but never quite explain, that’s what we’re after. If we can once discover the trick, then we know that we too can begin to tell our stories.

Apparently, Tolstoy took his inspiration from the tragic death of a neighbour’s mistress.  That and reading some Pushkin.  A week later he was writing to tell his friend that the novel was finished.

Involuntarily, unexpectedly, without knowing myself why or what would come of it, I thought up characters and events, began to continue it, then of course, altered it, and suddenly it came together so neatly and nicely that there emerged a novel, which I have today finished in rough, a very lively, ardent and finished novel, with which I am very pleased and which will be ready, if God grants me health, in two weeks.

Now before you accuse me of a typo, Tolstoy really did claim to have written a novel in a week.  You’re jealous, aren’t you?  That is a phenomenal achievement.  Actually, it wasn’t AK as we know it, and he never sent the letter.  Instead Tolstoy got stuck into reworking his material.

We might more accurately call his novel at this point a rough draft.  Some of the events he described were subsequently included in the final draft of AK, but the characters were re-named and transformed as Tolstoy developed his ideas.  Now, if we’re looking for direction in our own creative writing surely that flexibility is a lesson to think about.

There was a plan.  You can read accounts of it in various academic books and essays.  Just note that he didn’t stick to it.  If he had, I’m not sure we would be studying his novel today.

Tolstoy made major changes to the central characters which affected their motivations and actions.  He introduced new characters and changed the narrator’s tone.  He expanded his original plot out.  He didn’t just write onwards, when he realised that he was telling too much back-story, he re-set his beginning to an earlier date.  The story evolved.

There is evidence from Tolstoy, his wife and his friends, that a great deal of thought and planning went into developing these ideas.  He talked a great deal about ‘linkage’, and themes and symbols.  It seems he envisaged the patterns he would create with his forty two named characters.

Around the time he was writing AK he abandoned an old project to write about Peter the Great.  He couldn’t seem to get started on it.

Funny that, sounds familiar, and perhaps a little reassuring to find that one of the great novelists was also floundering around with an idea.  Go back up this essay a little and look again at how Tolstoy came to start writing AK.  It wasn’t just an idea, he’d been reading Pushkin.  A fragment beginning, “The guests were gathering at the dacha,” was the inspiration.

Involuntarily, unexpectedly, without knowing myself why or what could come of it, I thought up characters and events, began to continue it…

Two things I take from this.  First, writers read, and are influenced by other writers, and that’s a good thing.

Second, don’t wait.  Trust your subconscious.  Let your material direct you.  Worry about sorting the technical bits out later.

Weighing words to shade the focus

Our book group have now read to the end of part two of Anna Karenina, and we’re all deeply engaged in the novel.  Opinions are forming about the characters and their actions and we’re enjoying the descriptions of 1870s Russia.  There’s no doubt that Tolstoy tells a cracking story.

Between us, we’ve bought a good range of translations.  None of us read or speak 'Waterfall' Copyright, R. Bullock (2)Russian, so it seemed to me that the closest we could get to Tolstoy’s voice was through comparing and contrasting the various versions at key points.  It’s raised interesting discussions about how translation and author-ship work, and something that we often take for granted, that is the significance of language choices in any text.

Take these three versions of the same description of Prince Stepan Arkayich Oblonsky.   In one, he has a ‘portly pampered body‘, in the next a ‘full, well tended body‘, in a third version his body is ‘stout and well-cared- for‘.  There’s nothing wrong with any of these, and I don’t have a preference for one over the other.  But I do think each suggests a slightly different character picture.  Perhaps you think that doesn’t really matter.

Well, lets try considering his wife, Dolly, at the moment she discovers her husband 'Waterfall' Copyright, R. Bullock (3has been having an affair with their ex-governess, who is now pregnant.  Dolly confronts her husband with a revealing note she’s discovered in his pocket, and looks at him with an expression of:

a) ‘horror, despair and wrath’

b) ‘horror despair and indignation’

c) ‘terror, despair and wrath’

I’m not questioning the quality of the translation here.  I’m sure the dictionaries would allow each of these variations.  I’m looking at the difference in effect created by each of these three interpretations, and wondering about the impact such choices have upon our overall reading experience.

This isn’t the place to draw conclusions on the novel, that’s something we’ll be discussing 'Waterfall' Copyright, R. Bullockin the group.  I’ve been thinking about the way I employ words though, and reminding myself that words are not just about explaining what I mean, the choices I make are my voice, and my language creates subtle shades of meaning within the text.

(Photograph, ‘Waterfall’ used with the permission of R.R. Bullock.)

Tolstoy and the Reading Group

This week we finished reading Anna Karenina.  My conclusion?  You should read it too.  Sure, see the new(ish) film, it’s great, and manages to include the main themes and majority of the story artfully.  I loved the way the scenes intersected with each other, and the way they used theatre and dance.  The casting was, mostly, great too.

Sorry Kiera Knightly, but you were not Anna Karenina.  You are far too thin.  You should have been cast as Dolly, and wouldn’t it have been interesting for you to be playing against your looks at this stage in your career?

Oops, side-tracked.  What I’m trying to say is that this novel is worth reading even if you have seen the film, and regardless of whether you loved or disliked that.

Read it even if you already know what happens with Anna, because the journey is what counts. That’s true in all good fiction, surely, otherwise we’d just read the first and last chapters of any book: the first and last paragraphs of a short story.  Besides, does any reader begin reading about Anna Karenina without knowing her ending?

Read it because Anna Karenina is a gloriously huge story.  I’m not just talking about how many pages it fills, I’m thinking about how the whole thing works.

Tolstoy is a master puppeteer, controlling characters and balancing ideas all the way through.  He creates a picture of Russia at a moment of change, when its society is still trying to work out what being Russian means.  True, we’re talking aristocrats, largely, but should we dismiss it for that?  After all, what a vast and unlikely collection of ideals they are.

Besides, other great Russian writers will step forward to fill-in the social gap.  What Tolstoy does is recreate imperial Russia with all its fashions, ideas and worries, and he does it so artfully that even though he is criticising, the public mostly loved his story.  Their engagement was such that they waited anxiously for each new section over a period of four years, with long gaps between some of the sections.  Many wrote to him with advice, suggestions and questions.

Okay, Anna Karenina wasn’t written in English, and of course there are technical arguments that can be made about authorship when someone stands between us and the original. However, interesting though that discussion would be, I’m going to count it as something of a sidetrack.  It doesn’t seem to offer much of an incentive to read.

The story remains Tolstoy’s, despite the translators.  If you don’t believe me, compare a few pages.  The structure, the events, the characters and characterisation, those are Tolstoy, and what a joy they are.  From the hedonistic Stiva to that dry stick, Sergei, and all the rest of them, they leap off the page.  Including even, Kostya’s dog, Laska, who leads us on a hunt at the expense of her master’s dignity.

I admit here that there were sections I skimmed through on my first reading. But reading it again for working on with the group I realised I had missed out.    This is a story of many facets.  Tolstoy wrote with care, and edited and rewrote and edited again.  There are sections that could be lifted out and stand-alone as short stories, but they belong within the text.  They are part of a large picture that we, the reader must build.

Tolstoy provides us with scenes so that we can interpret or re-interpret the events.  His is a modern method of teaching, not direct lecturing, but leading us to understand through the questions we ask.

Tolstoy, 1876: “I have noticed that any story makes an impression only when one cannot make out with whom the author sympathises.”

This is a ‘modern’ novel in many ways.  Its subjects are the state of marriage and sex, amongst other things.  It includes a long and detailed description of a woman giving birth to her first child, and an account of breast-feeding at a time when high-class women did not mention pregnancy, but used a series of euphemisms to imply their condition.

What else?  Check out the dialogue.  It’s fresh, believable, interesting and varied.  Conversations flow, not just in one direction, but to include inuendo, gossip and asides.  They deliver information without appearing to clunk, and incorporate actions and descriptions seamlessly.

His descriptions are spare, but telling, and his use of the interior monologue would influence the modernists, particularly James Joyce.  If you want to know more, there are thousands of good criticisms to look at, but don’t take their word for it, or mine, go away and read or re-read it for yourself.

Yes, but what did you think?

I’m re-reading Anna Karenina for my new creative-reading class.  I love these sessions, when we take a section of novel or a short story and investigate it.  I don’t wear a deerstalker, but I do study the text as closely as if I had taken out a magnifying glass.

It’s so much easier to be a detective between the pages of a novel than in real life.  For one thing, everything is neatly gathered together.  I can look beyond the text to find out background information, but I don’t have to.  And surely, I shouldn’t expect to on a general read.  After all, I don’t know about you, but I read fiction to be entertained, in the first place, and that usually means I engage in the story-world.

My copy of Anna Karenina weighed in at 817 pages of quite small text. It’s a much bigger story than I remembered, but just as with some other apparantly dauntingly hefty classics, I was driven to read on: to find out what, how, why, when and where?

This novel is over one hundred and thirty years old.  So some things are mentioned that I needed to check the notes in the back for, but not so many that it broke the narrative spell. Tolstoy’s characters and setting, combined with my own store of experiences and general knowledge, brought nineteenth century Russia to life.

As you have no doubt realised, I think Anna Karenina still works.  Someone else may not.  Isn’t that the most basic of test of fiction, not what the critics have to say about how or why it was written, or even who it is by, but whether you liked it, and why?