I have always had a problem with the classics. I find them remote and forbidding. Dauntingly verbose, armored with generations of academic exegisis, their aura of difficulty and virtue sealed under a yellowing veneer of remote time periods and foreign cultures, they were always a chore. I read them for the hard-won satisfaction I felt at being able to say I’d read them. Nothing in all of In Search of Lost Time (even the hilariously botched kiss with Albertine in Book Two), was remotely as satisfying as simply telling people I was reading Proust. I’d find almost any excuse to drop it into a conversation. Had I seen the Patriots on Sunday, started the new Salman Rushdie book (Proust trumps Rushdie without lifting a perfectly manicured finger); was I going to the circus, the left-wing puppet show, the local theatre production of Oklahoma? No, sorry, I didn’t really have time.
I was reading Proust.
Sure, it was about as much fun as sitting through a full-length Noh play or a lecture in particle physics. But that was okay—I was getting respect. It was a respect tinged with suspicion and concern for my sanity, as if I’d told people I was helicopter snow-boarding unstable glaciers on my weekends. They couldn’t quite believe I was doing it and couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to.
It makes sense. The dutiful concentration such books require has nothing in common with the carnal pleasure I get from the modern books I love. The advice from teachers and parents to “Give it a hundred pages or so,” seems to come from another world, too; as disconnected as a sex education class is from the sex itself, the real education of a first kiss.
With my favorite novels, it has always been love at first sight, or first sentence:
It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen. (Nineteen Eighty-Four)
Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton. (The Sun Also Rises)
In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. (The Great Gatsby)
I seem to fall through the pages, pulled down into the intricate layers of someone else’s dream, all the way to the end:
He had won the battle over himself. He loved Big Brother.
Isn’t it pretty to think so?
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back endlessly into the past.
That’s what makes finding a classic you can actually love such a unique thrill. It’s a mark of adulthood, like realizing that sautéed calf’s liver doesn’t taste half bad, or writing tuition checks. Which brings me to my new friend Leo. “All happy families are alike,” were his first words to me. “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
A famous line, famously true. But the next second he plunges into a particular unhappy family and barely pauses for breath during the next six hundred pages. It’s one scene after another, each scene pushing you into the next. Anna comes to Moscow to talk her sister in law into staying with her brother, the delightful Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky. First we see Stepan confronting Dolly; then we see Anna actually talking her out of a divorce.
That’s more events and incidents (and full-blooded characters) than in all of the thousand or so pages I read of Proust, put together. Proust would describe how it all felt, and the way in which his memory of it all had warped over time, and how he felt about that subtle transformation, and how his memory of those feelings about his recollections changed the nature of the memories he recalled … all of this deftly woven into several pages of description evoking the various root vegetables everyone was eating at the time.
Okay, I won’t belabor it. Tolstoy isn’t Proust. But it’s more than that. He’s the anti-Proust … he may even be the paradigm of the kind of fiction Proust was rebelling against. And Proust’s descendants seem to validate his position … Joyce, Pynchon, DeLillo. It’s a grand tradition of intricate, challenging prose, cherished by degree candidates everywhere.
Whereas, Tolstoy’s descendants, many of them—though vastly readable—are mediocre at best: Clavell, Michener, Uris, even Ayn Rand. Tolstoy, along with Dickens and Balzac, more or less invented the big, broad-canvas, multi-character epic novel as we know (and sometime despise) it today. The party scenes that allow him to show a dozen fragmentary incidents at once, the great set pieces (Vronsky’s steeple chase, Levin’s wheat harvest) defined the way big-canvas epics are painted to this day. But it’s not only in the pulp blockbuster books that you can find his influence. Margaret Mitchell and Theodore Dreiser learned from Tolstoy; so did Nabokov and Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Frazen. It’s not just in the story telling, which is headlong and compulsive, but in the forces surging under the story, the class struggle and social change, the striving idealism, brute cynicism the warring political philosophies driving it. When you press your hand to the metal of that locomotive, you can feel the density of social observation and the immanence of revolution making the metal vibrate, making your feet tingle on the riveted floor, while that landscape of confrontations and embraces rockets past, buffeting you with the wind of its sheer exuberant momentum, until you pull into the station and there’s a dead girl on the tracks.
Every detail and description stokes the engine. Not a word or gesture is wasted. Russian novels are supposed to be baggy and digressive, full of bombast and padding.
Not Anna Karenina.
But the best thing about reading this monumental classic is the ease and intimacy of the experience. It’s incongruous: like having a picnic at Stonehenge, or going Christmas shopping with Nelson Mandela. It’s a shockingly enjoyable experience, a lark, burnished and made slightly surreal by the majesty, the unassuming greatness of the weather beaten stones rising around you or the self-deprecating old man taking your arm in front of FAO Schwartz.
Yes, Tolstoy was a giant of world literature, a titan of Russian history, but he was also … just a guy. A shrewd, overbearing, funny guy who understood people as they were and are, better than almost anyone before or since. I read him and it’s just the two of us: the crazy Russian landowner and the housepainter from Nantucket, sitting together in a communion so extreme it approaches telepathy. I am, quite literally, reading his mind. It’s like the touch of a calloused finger on my cheek, like a smile of recognition over the third glass of vodka. What a bore Karenin is! What a big city fool Oblonsky is, selling off his trees without even counting them! And what a glorious moment for Levin, after his sleepless night in the fields, to see Kitty passing by in her coach, on the empty road at dawn.
A hundred and fifty years, fifteen hundred miles, a different language and a different alphabet mean nothing. Leo is a friend of mine now. We make a last toast to Levin and Kitty; bow our heads for a moment in the firelight, mourning for Anna; then we totter off to bed.
I’m looking forward to many more nights like this one.
However much of a titan Tolstoy may be, however hallowed War and Peace, the book is still just one sentence after another, one situation causing the next, one line of dialogue, one idea, one insight at a time. The greatest novel ever written is not some monolith for Kubrick’s 2001 apes to caper around, grunting and throwing bones, kowtowing to the critics; it’s a living narrative that sets out, whatever its other ambitions, to entertain its audience. I love that about Tolstoy. Though he dwarfs me as a writer, as a reader he approaches me as an equal.
Everyone starts with the same materials, the blank screen or sheet of paper, the keyboard or the pen, the same twenty six letters. There’s a kind of fierce democracy to that, a level playing field; or is it a mine field? You feel it at my MFA residency sitting in Noble Hall at Vermont College, listening to a student reading one night and a faculty reading the next afternoon. The wild-eyed kid’s garbled ungrammatical account of catching his parent’s making love and—for example—Larry Sutin’s latest admixture of Kafka and Dinesen, precipitated with the mysterious reagent of his own lucid vision and wry humor into a compelling and mysterious potion, both start the same way, with a nervous man standing in front of an audience; with scratches on paper.
Tolstoy shares a craven common urge with those students and faculty, and all the genre writers who followed him and learned the tricks of their common trade from him: he wants you to turn the page. It democratizes his greatness, somehow. It’s endearing. And it makes a book written 150 years ago about events transpiring 50 years before that absolutely present, an urgent transaction between two minds, an intimate seduction and a great mutual project.
And so, I begin. It’s time to set all excuses aside, brace myself and start forging my way through War and Peace—tedious battle scenes, droning philosophical passages, patronymics and all.
I can feel Leo extending his hand, offering to be my guide through this immense winter-bound continent of prose. And I extend my hand to you.
Let’s take the journey together.