22 SEPTEMBER 2007, Page 43

Was Anna Karenina always beautiful?

Jonathan Mirsky ENERGY OF DELUSION: A BOOK ON PLOT by Viktor Shklovsky Dalkey Archive, £9.99, pp. 440, ISBN 9781564784266 E7.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 It's terribly distasteful and revolting. I am now going back to the boring and tasteless Anna Karenina, with the sole desire to finish and free up some time. . . I am fed up with my Anna; and am dealing with her as with a pupil who has turned out to be unmanageable. Everything is vile and all must be reworked and rewritten, everything that has been printed needs to be crossed out, dropped and disavowed.

Such were the agonies of Leo Tolstoy about one of his two great novels, with whose central character, writes Viktor Shklovsky, the great man fell in love — as have many readers. Later he said, 'I am proud of its architecture; the structure is unified not through plot or the relations of the characters, but through an inner unity.'

Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky (1893-1984), himself one of Russia's notable novelists, was a superior critic. He liked oblique. He says things like this: 'I can put this sentence anywhere I like in my book; in fact, I'll put it right here or anywhere — it's like when a person is headed somewhere without having an address.' As a reviewer, a kind of critic, who knows how often he fails, I was especially struck by this: Most mistakes in literary criticism, I think, occur when people approach so close to the poetic horse — Pegasus — and mount it so swiftly that they miss the saddle and end up on the other side of the horse. Then they get up, look around, the horse is still standing there, but the person is not in the saddle.

Let's approach this horse. Energy of Delusion is a book about many things and many writers, from Homer and Boccaccio, to Dostoevsky, Pushkin and Chekhov; but Shklovsky loves Tolstoy, and is also in love with Anna, so there is much to learn here. Thompson Bradley, a noted specialist in Russian literature, told me that Shklovsky wrote largely from his prodigious memory; he wrote Energy of Delusion in 1981, when he was 88. He knows all the drafts of the great works; this makes his comments fascinating. He says, for example, that Vronsky, Anna's lover, for whom she abandoned everything respectable, originally had a different name and wore a ring in his left ear, 'apparently, according to the Cossack custom, to show a man of Anna's circle, but at the same time slightly different, a Cossack'. I am glad to know that. But I can't read Russian and have never seen the earlier drafts. So we count on Shklovsky. Should we? On page 38 he says, 'In the first drafts, Anna Karenina is not beautiful; she is fat and ungraceful, although charming. Gradually, Anna Karenina evolves into a charismatic figure.' I found this amazing; and I was happy Tolstoy changed his mind. On page 83, Shklovsky writes, 'In the first drafts of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy conceives a pretty woman who attracts men but is not a complete woman. She doesn't know how to dress, she has bad manners This is how Tolstoy loved the woman.' Shklovsky was right the first time. I've learned that in the first draft Anna was indeed fat and vulgar. Having seen the mangled body of an unfaithful and abandoned wife who had thrown herself under a train (as Anna would do), Tolstoy set out to condemn an adulterous wife, even to making her ugly.

But as he wrote, Anna took over, as characters do, becoming beautiful, while her originally blameless husband becomes stuffier and less appealing — although he becomes humane. The later, beautiful Anna bowls over Vronsky — who no longer wears a ring in his ear and is a less innocently dashing and more charming but calculating roué — who has really fallen in love. In the superb translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Vronsky sees a 'very beautiful' elegant, modestly graceful woman of a sweet and tender expression, animated and with curving red lips. Dead sexy. She always moved 'resolutely', even when she threw her left arm around the neck of her adulterous but charming brother (whom no one apart from his wife condemns) and gives him a 'hearty kiss'. Anna, married to a much older, always ironic and dead not-sexy husband, is knocked discreetly sideways by Vronsky, and abandons not only her family but her aristocratic manners. She adroitly — it wasn't hard — draws Vronsky away from Kitty, a pretty, simple, inexperienced upper-class girl who loved him madly and doesn't stand a chance when Anna slips him her smile. As Shklovsky says, Kitty, the pretty, simple girl who sews and makes jam — almost a 'liturgical" thing for Tolstoy — is the great man's ideal of the good loyal wife — but he loved Anna whose 'love is carnal'. Tolstoy also thought `the good woman's calling — the bearing, upbringing, and suckling of children — is after all the most important one'. Men, he thought, were artificially true to their wives, for whom fidelity was natural. The 80,000 prostitutes in London, Tolstoy believed, 'were legitimate, otherwise the family could not exist'.

Yet, as Shklovsky notes, while Anna's love is 'carnal', she has the right to 'social respect'. No chance. The novel's epigraph famously says, 'Vengeance is mine; I will repay,' which sounds at first like the Old Testament Almighty. But as Shklovsky says, 'It's not God, it's class society that executes Anna Karenina through expulsion.' Insofar as the epigraph arises from traditional religion, Shklovsky observes, it suggests 'a kind of communal justice, stoning the guilty person'. He says, 'Anna Karenina is a judgment on life. It's a judgment on judgment.' Tolstoy himself couldn't make up his mind or settle his morality. Always conflicted in a world where the Woman Question was increasingly debated, the great writer, a devoted husband and seducer of peasant girls, remained convinced that marriage was part of the divine order. But while he 'chose Kitty he loved Anna Karenina'.