lazy August and why I'm not spending it trying to finish War and Peace

War and Peace may not be the longest book in the world, but for a few years I believed it was. In fact,  as desperate paragraph followed desperate paragraph, I believed it was getting longer.

Disclaimer: I know that Tolstoi's writing and philosophizing were supported by the labor of serfs. I've read that he was kinder to "his" serfs than most people of his class were to "their" serfs, and in the context of the times, this was probably a radical attitude, given that the life of a serf was constrained by fear, superstition, illiteracy, and numbing labour, and was generally not as comfortable and clean as, say, the life of a cow. And not much longer, all things considered. Tolstoi wasn't what you'd call a bomb-thrower, but he did popularize compassion as a hobby.
None of that was on my mind when at age 12 I decided to read War and Peace. I didn't realize that "reading War and Peace" was a euphemism for "couldn't find a summer job," or, more precisely, "couldn't find a glamorous summer job." I thought the title sounded vaguely cynical and world-weary and less willfully symbolic than, say, Catcher in the Rye, and so I set off for the public library, hoping to find a copy in which the corners of the "hot" pages had been turned down.

The library had three copies, all with faded covers and crisp new pages, some yet uncut, inside. That should have been warning enough. That, and the weight of the book, except that a friend of Mom's was at the library changing her Agatha Christie, and she gave me a ride home.

I lugged the book upstairs and settled in.

Several weeks later, it occurred to me that it might be easier to keep track of who was who and who was doing what with/to whom if I listed or charted all of the names. This in itself was a major project, as each character had three, four, sometimes five names. I thought it was unfair to the readers to require all this extra work, but I tried. (I just googled "chart of War and Peace characters." It looks like a lot of people have had this idea, with varying negative degrees of success.)
shortlisted



 I also tried to get a perspective on the repeated and improbable journeys back and forth across Russia and to and from Western Europe, using the enormous globe in the library lobby. I concluded Tolstoi hadn't checked a globe while writing. I reached a point where it seemed that I was reading about moody Pony Express riders who had crushes on irritating girls who wore mythical feathers and corsets and ball gowns. Gallop, gallop, she had nothing to say. Canter, canter, she seemed preoccupied.
I perservered. Well-meaning relatives took an interest: "you know, to this day they don't have paved roads in Russia." Argument followed, and a compromise was agreed - there were a few roads with paving but the roads were in larger cities and the paving broke up every winter and most people didn't have cars. Or shoes. Thus - a helpful explanation for those moods.

The book became a doorstop for the rest of the summer. In the fall the library began sending me postcards, which I hid from my parents. Shortly before Christmas the book vanished. I decided not to ask questions. The book reappeared, in bows and wrapping paper, under the Christmas tree. Mom, who knew everyone, had run into one of the librarians at Gristede's market. The vague, indeed Tolstoyan, sense of guilt and pursuit that had hung around since the end of August lifted. Briefly. The expensive settlement with the library had created a sense of financial interest in my parents. There really was no Santa Claus.

From that point on, it seemed there were Russians, or people of Russian ancestry, or noteworthy Russian activity, everywhere. Every reference, however vague - a recipe for Borscht, unrest in Eastern Europe, a prize to the author of Dr. Zhivago, a school trip to the United Nations - reminded my parents that I hadn't been reading War and Peace. So much for my hopes that 9th grade would be happier than 8th grade. We were at that stage of "education" when the words "Book Report" haunted every long weekend, every break, every vacation. I had to do them in school or at a friend's house, because there was only one book I could be seen reading at home.

I considered simply telling everyone that I'd finished the book and now understood how Communism had had such appeal for the lover classes in early 20th-century Russia. I even prepared a few unpromising responses, based on overheard conversations, in case I was asked why I thought that. "A false hope, but where there was none - sort of like Hitler's early appeal." Hitler was a diabolical monster, for sure, and the mere mention of his name was a guaranteed conversation-changer, especially at dinner where the conversation would turn to being grateful for America. As I would have been had I been asked about anything other than War and Peace.

I took to daydreaming with the book open on a table before me, and thus many key points may have eluded me. I was delighted when someone pointed out that the book took place in the time of the Napoleonic Wars. I rooted for Napoleon.


As spring wore on and the empty days of summer threatened, the book and I reached a kind of understanding - an entente? We would both try to remain inconspicuous. When asked why I wasn't carrying the book around, I explained that Grandma was afraid I was developing crossed eyes and a stoop and was concerned that I'd never find a husband. This sweetly old-fashioned expression of concern for one's un-dowered female descendants was entirely fictional, I got it from War and Peace, not from Grandma.

Every child, especially every adolescent, has an admired and well-loved friend who does not attract parental approval. Whether the friend is too smart for her own good, dresses like a tart, is boy-crazy, an atheist, a slob, too sophisticated, a religious fanatic, too childish, the secret ingredient is that one's parents know she's trouble. A girl named Janet told me to buy a CliffNotes version of War and Peace, so that I'd know how it came out. "Like who dies and who gets married," she explained patiently. "Then you can crumple some of the pages toward the end," she added. Why had this way out of the labyrinth not occurred to me earlier? Two reasons. First, at least at the beginning I really had wanted to find out for myself why the book had such a great reputation. Second, the onset of puberty really does fog the brain.

This, then, is how I came to spend almost an entire summer in a tree. The big tree nearest our house had a good sitting place on one branch, I was the only one who could climb there, and in green-lit privacy I tried to reconcile the pace of the little paperback summary with the thudding prose of the doorstop. As a decoy, I sometimes carried another small paperback. All the girls in my class had been given copies of a hysterically funny little book called something like Your Developing Body, and while it didn't convey any real information, it covered the W & P crib nicely.

When school started, I refused to glory in the accomplishment of having read War and Peace. I declined the opportunity to discuss it with a visiting Russian hockey coach, who looked panicked at the very thought, as did his hosts. I slipped War and Peace into the Goodwill bag, and I refused to read Dr. Zhivago. 

Shortly before a key basketball game, I decided I was in fact finished. Napoleon had lost, and according to CliffNotes it was Russia so there were no clear winners, our team won the basketball game, and a few couples finally got together. 
The following summer, the daughter of a family friend announced that she was going to read War and Peace. I slithered out of the room before anyone could suggest that I might be helpful.

Time passed. On a whim, I signed up for Russian in college. The instructor, a charming elderly lady born in Moscow and educated in Paris, told us not to feel threatened by the challenges of starting a new language at age 20. Her family were from the last remnants of a class that insisted on speaking French, not Russian, and she had learned Russian as an adult, to please her in-laws. "Vous allez adorer Gogol," she purred. "Si comique, si insolite!" The class moved quickly, and when it came time to decide whether or not to sign up for a more advanced level of Russian, one of my classmates asked if the syllabus would include War and Peace. "Dahhlings," came the reply, "no Russian would waste the time to read War and Peace. It is long and boring."

I seized the opportunity. Admitting nothing, I asked "So why do people say it's so great?"

"Disinformation, my dear, disinformation. Invented by Russians. Not my relatives, but Russians."
Dear Readers, Blogger swallowed this post while I was trying to reply to a few lovely comments. Fortunately for my vanity, the comments were preserved on a mobile blogging app and I have taken the liberty of reposting them below, together with my completely inadequate replies. And with apologies for the "Anonymous" signatures, the app and I are still working on our relationship.

18 comments:

  1. Hello,

    This post is a triumph!

    At first we rather thought that this was the WDAWFF version of War and Peace but, no, we were delighted that the denouement was a comment on Life itself, which truly must be the aim of all great literature or, indeed, blogposts.

    How well we too remember childhoods and adolescences hiding all manner of things from our parents. Lady Chatterley's Lover was a must read but nobody could know about it. And, the discovery that there is no Santa Claus is surely an event imprinted on all our minds. The day, the year and even the moment that it happened stays with one for all time.

    This is a fabulous post, written with such a sharp eye for detail and evoking an atmosphere of the past so very cleverly. Wonderful!

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    1. FROM THE HATTATTS, and thank you, Jane and Lance, praise from Caesar indeed!

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  2. This is so true on so many levels, that I am giving you a standing ovation (except I am lying on the couch with an espresso...)

    In many cases, the great novels concept is simply a class/elitist thing perpetuated by academics torture students!

    I cannot claim that level of dedicated precociousness, but the summer I discovered marijuana (something I have not used in well over 30 years, not because I am against it but because I smoke nothing and I was married to a policeman) and so Hawkeye is shrouded in smoke and brownies for me, never to be revisited except on Netflix with Daniel Day Lewis...you have made me happy this morning!

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    1. FROM WENDY M M

      and thank you, I always suspected the teachers of inventing the symbolism (as opposed to the writers)

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  3. Hilarious! I wish I wrote this! I still haven't finished the book. It was on my old iPhone and I read 1000 pages of the 37900 page iPhone edition. But I could never remember who is who and it was so dire that I had no compunction to even read the cliff note version and didn't care if they made it dead or alive. I have now formally given up and will not be downloading the version on my new phone...

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    1. Eeps, W&P on an iPhone? Sounds like the Bible on a grain of rice... I think you should be applauded for having stuck it out for 1000 tiny pages! (claps)

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  4. Great essay! Thanks for posting.;

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    1. Thanks, Hexicon, glad you enjoyed it.

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  5. Great essay! Thanks for posting.;

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  6. Ha! Emily read this thing last summer. At first I thought "Good God, get a life" and then I was quite pleased that I actually now know some one who has read it. She actually enjoyed it. Maybe someday I'll conquer Moby Dick.

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    1. Well. I am impressed.
      Wait, did you check under her bed for CliffNotes?

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  7. You've given me a good laugh! I tried to read it last year. I have no idea why I thought I could do that when I was in the middle of a taxing renovation, living in half a house with 3 small children (2 of whom were not yet in school) underfoot and a husband constantly on overseas work trips (very convenient….). Needless to say the names were so confusing I gave up and read the Board Book instead. It's wonderful, and as they managed to summarise the major plot points in just 12 pages with only one word on each, that really says something.

    I read Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky aged 12. I have no idea how I ploughed through it, but I did. But it is a fair bit shorter, and with far less characters (and certainly not ones with aristocratic titles, family nicknames, and various variations of their names to confuse you).

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  8. Oh, I love the Board Books. I also treasure the Monty Python skit when they do Great Literature without books - the Semaphore version of Wuthering Heights, Julius Caesar on a signal lamp, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in smoke signals.... Pure genius.

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  9. Oh WFF, another triumph of the pen, dear girl. What a delight this post is! As compared to, say, War and Peace. :-) Wikipedia, that great font of bourgeois wisdom, notes that Tolstoy "somewhat enigmatically" said that W&P is "not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle." Indeed, still less is it an intelligible -- and even still less enjoyable -- read. I've always wondered what CliffNotes had to pay the poor schlub who wrote the CliffNotes version, ya know?

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    1. Hi, TarHeelMom, thank you, it's great to hear from you!

      I've wondered about the CliffNotes version from time to time also, like did anybody fact-check or cite-check the writer's statements?
      Not that I ever wanted to test it myself.

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  10. Awesome post! I am cracking up that your Russian teacher said that, so funny. My Russian teacher never made us read it either. She sometimes gave us Stolichnaya so maybe that would have made War and Peace more palatable, had we read it.

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  11. Hi, Cate, thank you!
    Stoli sounds like a brilliant way to handle all those cases, although I wouldn't want to try counting things in Russian after a few shots.

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