Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina Had a Secret Talent — Writing
Tolstoy’s epic novel Anna Karenina mentions in passing that Anna herself is working on a book. But when a publisher deems Anna’s manuscript worthwhile and seeks to acquire it, Anna declines. “No,” she says, “it’s all so unfinished.”
“Tolstoy never mentions Anna’s book again,” writes the acclaimed Mexican novelist Carmen Boullosa (Macaulay Honors College) on the first page of her new novel The Book of Anna. But in Boullosa’s retelling, Anna eventually produces two manuscripts of her own: the one Tolstoy described, and another that she was revising until just before her death. The Book of Anna presents Anna’s revised manuscript as Boullosa imagines it, along with the story of its discovery in St. Petersburg on the eve of the Russian Revolution.
In an interview with the CUNY podcast Book Beat, Boullosa recalled disliking Anna Karenina when she first read it as a teenager. Boullosa’s teenage self, she said, “didn’t want ever to be trapped in a situation like Anna Karenina’s, trapped between a husband and a lover in a life that in reality was run by others.” In Tolstoy’s narrative, Anna is a tragic heroine: Scorned by Russian society because of an extramarital affair, she becomes a morphine addict and eventually commits suicide.
But when Boullosa reread the book as an adult, she picked up on the reference to Anna’s manuscript and decided that Anna’s “life would have been different” had her literary aspirations been fulfilled. “If her book had been a success, she would have had a room of her own,” Boullosa told Book Beat. By restoring “the book she lost, the book she wrote, and the book she never got,” Boullosa redeems Anna’s fate: “It’s an act of literary justice to Anna Karenina.”
The Book of Anna is Boullosa’s 18th novel. She’s also a poet and playwright whose subjects have included other celebrated female figures from Cleopatra to Sylvia Plath. Channeling these varied voices and spirits, she told Book Beat, “you are in the hands of your characters. When I feel that a novel has really taken its way and become really powerful, I don’t feel I am the doer. I feel I am more like the archaeologist that is discovering what the hell was already there … You are possessed by the story you are telling.”