Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Familiar ground -- "Tolstoy and the Times"

A few mornings ago I sat down to an email from my father, who currently resides in Poland. It reads:

Just wanted to let you know that I finally did it – I purchased the longest, most fearful and daunting book ever written by man – War & Peace. It is 1,344 pages long. When I finish it I can use it as a door stop.

The publisher is the Oxford University Press, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude, and edited with an introduction and notes by Henry Gifford – which amount to 55 pages and includes maps, cast of characters, chronology of events and a Table of Contents that runs to 13 pages (which is longer than some short stories I’ve read).

Wish me luck!


A few days earlier, he had explained over the phone that he told the woman at the little bookstore (all shops in Poland are little, truth be told) he frequents that he needed a changed of pace from Polish novels, whereupon she immediately pulled him over to the "Russian novels" shelf. She only suggested War and Peace -- it was ultimately me who convinced him at last to buck up and brave the 1,400-page slope.

Incidentally, when I flew out to Poland in the summer of 2009 for his wedding, Tolstoy's magnum opus was the book I brought along. Consequentially, inexorably tethered to my recollections of Kraków thunderstorms, underground chapels, getting lost in the back streets of Pruszków, and sitting out on the back stoop and watching the swallows during the sunset are Pierre, Andrey, Natasha, Napoleon, and the undying spirit and grand character of Mother Russia.* (A little ironic, given how the Poles generally feel about the Russians -- especially after that nasty business in Warsaw.)

It was funny that my father should bring up Tolstoy when he did. The Saturday evening before I spoke to him I had briefly chatted with an NYU biology student about Russian novels at an A Place to Bury Strangers show in Brooklyn. After getting chastised for not having read Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov (I'll get around to them, I swear), I asked her about her favorite passage from War and Peace. She didn't even have to think about it, but admitted it was a toss up between Andrei's near-death experience at the Battle of Austerlitz -- the page on which it appears is very prominently highlighted and marked in my copy -- and Pierre's dream of the globe, which I couldn't for the life of me recall.

For the next week or so I periodically picked up the book (no easy task -- you know, since it's so heavy and all, lol) and skimmed through it, trying to find this passage. I hadn't marked the page during my first reading, so all I could do was search all 1,400 pages for mentions of Pierre's name and then search the text for references to a dream.

I finally found it yesterday afternoon. It reads:

The calvary wagons, the prisoners, and Marshal Junot's baggage-train halted for the night in the village of Shamshevo. They all crowded round the camp fires. Pierre went over to a fire, ate some roast horse-meat, lay down with his back to the fire, and fell fast asleep. He slept as he had done at Mozhaysk after the battle of Borodino.

Once again real events mingled with his dreams; once again a voice, either his own or someone else's, was murmuring thoughts in his ear, some of the same thoughts he had heard in his dream at Mozhaysk.

Life is everything. Life is God. Everything is in flux and movement, and this movement is God. And while there is life there is pleasure in being conscious of the Godhead. To love life is to love God. The hardest and the most blessed thing is to love this life even in suffering, innocent suffering.

'Karatayev!' The memory flashed into Pierre's mind. And suddenly Pierre had a vision, like reality itself, of someone long forgotten, a gentle old teacher who had taught him geography in Switzerland. 'Wait a minute,' said the little old man. And he showed Pierre a globe. This globe was a living thing, a shimmering ball with no fixed dimensions. The entire surface of the ball consisted of drops closely compressed. And the drops were in constant movement and flux, sometimes dissolving from many into one, sometimes breaking down from one into many. Each drop was trying to spread out and take up as much space as possible, but all the others, wanting to do the same, squeezed it back, absorbing it or merging into it.

'This is life,' said the little old teacher.

How something like this could have slipped my mind? And why the hell didn't I slap a blue sticky note on this page?

At any rate, I'm rather glad it took so long to find this passage. Had I opened up to it right away, I might have foregone a chance a reread and reconsider some of the most powerful moments of the greatest novel ever written.

Yes, that's right. The greatest novel. Granted, I have not read every work of fiction ever published, but I'm not sure how anything could measure up to Tolstoy's magnum opus. It is a novel that transcends the novel. The count himself famously claimed that War and Peace indeed is not a novel, but declined to specify what he would call it instead.

The stock term critics, scholars, and fans fall back on is "panorama." War and Peace is less a story than an immense still-life of The Human Experience committed to print. And thought it would be no less derivative to turn to the "Shield of Achilles" comparison sketched in every AP English and World Literature 101 classroom since 1950, such an analogy is not only the most apt and accessible, but one of a presumable few that admits both halves of the scale their proper weight. War and Peace is an unparalleled achievement of the human intellect that can never be outdone. I'd even go so far to claim that one cannot call himself a complete human being until he has read it at least once. I don't care if this makes me sound like a douche; I stand by it. Argue with me after you've read it.

As such, War and Peace has the potential to be a little discouraging to an aspiring authors who has spend a lot of time with it. What we have here is a book that makes nearly every novel written after 1869 virtually superfluous. There is no romance, no epiphany, no act of battlefield heroism, no travails of maturing youth, no praise nor criticism of human nature that War and Peace doesn't already brilliantly (sufficiently, and definitively) touches on.

Hemingway suggested that if something has already been written, the author's task becomes to write it better; to "beat" the older story. If we take him at his word, then, the author trying to make a point about the Human Condition -- at least in any conventional sense -- is like a featherweight boxer stepping into the ring for ten rounds against Mike Tyson on PCP. No matter what you commit to paper, The Count has already kicked your ass. Your own novel might as well be a booklet containing nothing but block quotes from Tolstoy.

As a writer who believes that the novel should primarily strive to elucidate and offer perspective on what it is/means to be a human being, it can be somewhat daunting to approach a blank page knowing that Tolstoy already did your work for you, did your work better than you over 140 years ago. It is equally troubling to consider the idea that the ongoing transformations in human though, communication, and literacy wrought by the Information Age have all but placed the novel in the wax museum of cultural has-beens.

The novel is dead. Tolstoy already did it best, besides. So what's the point? Why don't we just resign ourselves to typing up Top Ten lists and barbed pop culture analyses?

A thought struck me last night -- a thought about Tolstoy and the times. Leo successfully pins down and paints nearly everything that is eternal and immutable about The Human Experience. That much is practically a given.

But Tolstoy couldn't possibly have imagined the ways in which the experience would change in the years after his death. He never dreamed that man could devise a means of splitting the atom and building weapons capable of annihilating entire cities and nations with the push of a button from across the planet. How could he have foreseen the technological, digital, and consumerist revolutions? Could he have predicted (as Melville did in The Bell-Tower) that human beings might contrive the means of making human labor practically obsolete? Did it ever occur to him that the day-to-day domestic activities he celebrates in War and Peace might someday make the oceans rise, poison the air, and irrevocably alter global weather patterns?

There is much about humanity that will never change; the extant beauty and continuing relevance of ancient works such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Iliad attest to this. But there is much about humanity that is not only malleable, but rapidly transforming.

If the Twenty-First Century novelist -- that poor, shrinking, outmoded anachronism -- can claim a purpose, perhaps this should be it. Not to demarcate and illuminate the established givens of humanity and the world, but to examine what is changing throughout and within them -- and to do so with the essential purity, honesty, and control that is only possible through written fiction. To do that which the other subjects and speakers of this peculiar period, this TELL ME NOW TELL ME FAST TELL ME NOW Information Age, haven't the time, inclination, or ability to do themselves.

* I've finally come around to checking out Proust and the Squid.** Very early on, Ms. Wolf quotes this chunk from Proust's On Writing:

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those...we spent with a favorite book. Everything that filled them for others, so it seemed, and that we dismissed as a vulgar obstacle to a divine pleasure: the game for which a friend would come to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the troublesome bee or sun ray that forced us to lift our eyes from the page or to change position; the provisions for the afternoon snack that we had been made to take along and that we left beside us on the bench without touching, while above our head the sun was diminishing in force in the blue sky; the dinner we had to return home for, and during which we thought only of going up immediately afterward to finish the interrupted chapter, all those things with which reader should have kept us from feeling anything but annoyance, on the contrary they have engraved in us so sweet a memory (so much for precious to our present judgment than what we read with such love), that if we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason that that they are the only calendars we have kept of the days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist.

** I should confess that I am listening to an audiobook version of Proust and the Squid; I thought it would be more constructive to listen to something other than MST3K episodes and Sisters of Mercy albums when I sit down to draw. Listening to a book about reading doesn't sit altogether well with me, but...


  1. "Life is everything. Life is God. Everything is in flux and movement, and this movement is God. And while there is life there is pleasure in being conscious of the Godhead. To love life is to love God. The hardest and the most blessed thing is to love this life even in suffering, innocent suffering."

    Interesting considering the memories and events I'm working through on my blog at the moment.

  2. Y'know, you're the reason I spent four months of my life this summer-ish period reading Moby Dick, and I don't think I can thank you enough for that.

    I guess it's off to the book store again! That is, after I finish Varieties of Religious Experience. I'm only about 150 pages in, but I'd highly recommend it to you if you haven't read it yet. Very, very fascinating (you can find it cheap at Barnes and Noble as part of their "Classics" series).

  3. Deez: Read the book!!

    Osode: I'm very glad you read it and very, very glad you enjoyed it. I actually picked up Typee the other day, but I'm afraid I won't be able to start it until I finish this six-hundred-page 1890 Polish novel about the haberdashery shop owner and the woman he loves.