[from Threepenny Review, summer 2008]
I’m forty-three years old, and to date I’ve read War and Peace eight or ten times. I’ve worn out one cheap paperback copy and am now working on wearing out an elderly Modern Library hardback I unearthed at a yard sale. My guess is that I’ll reread the novel a few more times before I die, though how many more times is impossible to calculate. As Arlo Guthrie says, “I’ll wait till it comes round on the gui-tar”—till I’m browsing along my bookshelves and am suddenly smitten with longing for the sight of Natasha dancing in Uncle’s hut, for fat Pierre innocently disrupting a fancy tea party, for Petya shyly asking a Cossack to sharpen his sword, for Nikolay stomping in to rescue Princess Marya from her confused serfs. One doesn’t plan ahead for infatuation; though after thirty years spent with the novel, I’m no longer surprised that it keeps appearing in my lineup.
On its simplest level, rereading books is a childish habit, like biting my nails or agreeing to play Monopoly only if I can be the dog. But children understand there’s satisfaction in familiarity. When I reread a book, I already know the characters and what they will do. I’m prepared for all sudden deaths and thwarted romances. The “shock of the new” is not, to me, a literary recommendation. It’s not that I dislike discovering unknown books. I just like reading them again better. Sometimes my desire to reread a well-loved book erupts twice in one year, sometimes once in a decade. Often I reread books I only sort of enjoyed the first time through, and fairly often I reread books that actively annoy me but that I hope will have a medicinal effect on my character or my brain. I’ve been known to reread books that have no good qualities whatsoever, just for old times’ sake.
Yet this clingy, childish attachment to books—this cozy insularity, this familiar pacifier—constructs its own lived history. That is particularly true of my inner circle of favored works, primarily novels, which have come to constitute an alternate lineage of near-equal reality. Among backward-looking literary types, it’s a common-enough list, including, among other works, most of the novels of Dickens, Eliot, Austen, and the elder Brontë sisters; several Gaskell, Bowen, Woolf, and Murdoch novels; and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Probably the only unusual factor is that I’ve reread each of these books ten or fifteen separate times without any intention of teaching them in an English class.
Lately I’ve learned that a new translation of War and Peace has been published, and by all accounts it’s a far better effort than the old Constance Garnett standby: more accurate to the rhythm of Tolstoy’s sentences, so the experts report, more attuned to the nuance of class-inflected language. The reviewers’ explications make good bedtime reading; and flipping languorously through the pages of the New York Review of Books, I’ve enjoyed various compare-and-contrast-the-translation extracts, easily convinced that the new edition would be a shiny addition to a bookshelf.
I’m relieved, however, that no one thought to give it to me for Christmas. For when it comes to my inner circle of books, I’m not all that interested in accuracy, or readability, or accessible notes, or pertinent introductions, or any of the typical reasons that drive a serious reader to purchase a new edition of a classic work. I do prefer to read a book that doesn’t fall apart in the bathtub; and since I’ve read many of my favored books to rags, I’ll occasionally acquire sturdier copies if I run across them at the Goodwill. But the idea of reading a new translation of a book I know intimately makes me anxious. I haven’t yet gotten used to the idea that Anna’s last name now translates as “Karenin,” not “Karenina,” or that the English title for Proust’s linked novels is no longer Remembrance of Things Past but In Search of Lost Time. What if a new translation of War and Peace spells Prince Andrey’s name in a new way? The thought is distressing in the way that any rupture in a comforting routine is upsetting. It opens a scary door. If Prince Andrey’s name has changed, will he be different from the man I love?
On one level, it’s troubling to admit that I foster these babyish mannerisms. I should know better than to cling to the familiar for its own sake, and in fact I do know better. Seamus Heaney’s version of Beowulf makes me much happier than its stilted predecessors ever did. But would Keats be willing to give up Chapman’s Homer for Robert Fagles’s Homer just because the newer translation is a snappier read? I don’t believe he could. If one ages alongside a book, even its flaws become precious. And though Keats didn’t have the chance to grow old, he pored over his favorite works with what his biographer, Walter Jackson Bate, calls “an adhesive purchase of mind.” Bate explains, “What strikes us most in his capacity for sympathetic identification . . . is its inclusiveness. This is not the volatile empathic range of even the rare actor. For the range is vertical as well as horizontal.” Thus, it didn’t so much matter how many books Keats read; what mattered was how intensely he read a few. Those that he loved were as constant as brothers; and “when he picked up styles in the writing of poetry, it was not as a mimic or copyist but as a fellow participator.”
But I bring up Keats only as an after-the-fact excuse for my reading habits, not as their guiding rationale. I just happen to read books over and over again; and among those books, War and Peace is not even the one I’ve read most often. Probably David Copperfield or Villette or Mansfield Park would take that honor, though I’ve never bothered to keep track of the statistics. Yet the scale of War and Peace, not to mention the stamina required to finish it, makes the trajectory of our acquaintance easier to recall. It’s a giant book in more ways than one; and for me its first attraction, in fact, was its remarkable girth. In my parents’ matched set of Great Books, it squeezed out the rest of the weighty-tome competitors—Cervantes, Homer, even Shakespeare. (In my juvenile rating scale, multiple volumes by the same author didn’t count.) “Tolstoy” wasn’t the most elegant name in the set. “Pliny” and “Descartes” looked far more scintillating on a gilt spine; but fatness trumped all, and I was dying to read the biggest book on the shelf, even before I could read.
I’m certain I pulled the volume out of the bookcase many times before I was twelve, and probably I optimistically dipped into it each time I cracked open its stiff faux-leather boards; but twelve was the age at which I consciously and with much self-satisfaction announced my decision to conquer War and Peace. Though I was ignorant as a guppy about the workings of this particular novel, I had considerable reading hubris and believed wholeheartedly in my facile decoding abilities. The book was in English; how hard could it be? But more important than content, really, was style. People would see me reading it, and they would be impressed; for I had a naïve faith in the power of great books to reflect glory on their readers.
So I sat down on a beat-up tweed couch, opened War and Peace, and began plowing witlessly through the opening pages of Anna Pavlovna’s soirée. Not much takes place in this scene that could possibly interest a twelve-year-old girl living in suburban Rhode Island in 1976. Really, only two details prevented me from deserting the novel by page 10. The first was the silver samovar, a meal-related appliance that somehow involved tea and somehow involved steam and attracted the attention of ladies in silk evening gowns. Like many children, I adored lengthy descriptions of meals. And although nothing, in my literary experience, could yet surpass Ratty’s picnic basket in The Wind in the Willows—“coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidgespottedmeatgingerbeerlemondadesodawater”—the magical appearance of a samovar (what exactly could it be?) in the midst of a boring party was at least a promising hint of foreign and enigmatic meals to come.
The second detail attracting my attention was Princess Ellen, whose “white shoulders, glossy hair, and diamonds glittered, as she passed between the men who moved apart to make way for her.” That she turns out to be one of the novel’s few truly distasteful characters makes me sad every time I reread the book, for I know I would never have ventured further into its incomprehensible pages if I hadn’t succumbed to her enchantments. Blundering across Anna Pavlovna’s drawing room, I didn’t bother to stop and study Pierre or Prince Andrey or little Princess Bolkonsky. I didn’t understand why a short pregnant woman and her grumpy husband might make fascinating reading or why court diplomats were irritated by Pierre’s arguments and interruptions, but I knew enough about fairy-tale princesses to capitulate instantly before “the unchanging smile of the acknowledged beauty.”
As a whole, however, the drawing-room scene was heavy going, and I must have either skipped or dozed through the drunken-officer and Prince-Andrey-complaining-about-his-wife tableaux that followed. All I know for sure is that I woke up, suddenly and completely, when I read the following passage:
The dark-eyed little girl, plain, but full of life, with her wide mouth, her childish bare shoulders, which shrugged and panted in her bodice from her rapid motion, her black hair brushed back, her slender bare arms and little legs in lace-edged long drawers and open slippers, was at that charming stage when the girl is no longer a child, while the child is not yet a young girl. Wriggling away from her father, she ran up to her mother, and taking no notice whatever of her severe remarks, she hid her flushed face in her mother’s lace kerchief and broke into laughter. As she laughed she uttered some incoherent phrases about the doll, which was poking out from under her petticoat.
“Do you see? . . . My doll . . . Mimi . . . you see . . .” And Natasha could say no more, it all seemed to her so funny. She sank on her mother’s lap, and went off into such a loud peal of laughter that every one, even the prim visitor, could not help laughing too.
There’s a moment, as a reader, when you cross a river. Suddenly a book is not merely a journey. It becomes, most unexpectedly, a watery mirror—though not the reflection you might have prepared for. Such epiphanies are not one-time events. For me, these shocks never cease: in fact, one stunned me again yesterday when I was rereading Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, which I’d last read before I had sons, in the days when I had the leisure and detachment to hate Roth’s characterization of Alex’s overbearing mother. But even if I never know when books will pounce or how they’ll sink their claws into me, at least I now expect them to appall or delight or destroy me. At twelve, however, I was defenseless. For all their charms, Laura Ingalls and Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole don’t prepare a child for her first amazing vision of herself as a living character—in a stranger’s body clad in old-fashioned clothes, in a foreign room with a new family and unknown talents, behaving badly, stupidly, childishly, arrogantly, innocently—but like herself, with her own second heart beating through the page. I don’t know that I was a particularly charming child. But self-flattery isn’t what I mean here. Simply, I discovered a bit of myself when I met Natasha.
I suppose obsessive readers usually become obsessive because they identify with characters and their emotional and psychological situations. (Perhaps exceptions would be obsessive readers of mystery and suspense novels, who must be dedicated fans of plot.) Certainly in my own case, a fascination with characters and their interactions draws me back to my favored novels again and again. Yet that fascination is fluid: every time I reread one of these books, a new element rises to the surface. I’ve been reading Jane Eyre, for instance, since I was in early high school; and during my first immersions, I soaked up Jane’s loneliness, her melodrama, her self-sacrifice, her destitute-plain-girl-makes-good trajectory. They were the novel’s wonders and attractions. Though sex infiltrated my consciousness, the notion that married bliss thrives on continuous warfare remained invisible. I wasn’t ready for it, just as, at twelve, I gave up on War and Peace as soon as Natasha started to grow up.
But during my most recent reconnoiter with Jane Eyre, the novel seemed to bristle with erotic manipulation. As I read—hardcover on my lap, knees politely crisscrossed in an orthodontist’s crowded waiting room—it became clear to me that Jane and Mr. Rochester are ideal partners because neither can overpower the other. They flourish on combat; they grapple like heroes. And now that I’ve been a wife for nearly twenty years, I can see that Brontë is right: married happiness does require a shared commitment to scratching and clawing. For all its unreality, Jane Eyre shrewdly depicts the shifting and contentious balance of passion in a relationship of equals.
No doubt, Jane and Mr. Rochester’s sexual warfare has been discussed in many a journal article and master’s-degree thesis. But so what? Taking the word of a literary critic is a bit like being pregnant for the first time and listening to a friend with a two-year-old discuss the near-death experience of childbirth. You understand intellectually that it will hurt; but until you are hurt, you don’t comprehend the real depth and definition of pain. What matters to a dedicated rereader is the present-tense moment of discovery—the instant at which a forty-three-year-old “I” reading Jane Eyre for the fifteenth time uncrosses her knees in a crowded waiting room and whispers, “Oh!”
I managed to finish War and Peace sometime before I left for college. I say “finish” to imply that I traveled through its pages, for large portions of the novel continued to elude me. I had zero interest in Napoleonic war tactics or Masonic rites; I had little grasp of Russian history or geography; Orthodox ritual was a tantalizing mystery. But I now possessed my own paperback copy, less dramatically fat than my parents’ Great Book though still impressive. And I’d by now achieved a somewhat broader involvement with Tolstoy’s characters, not only Natasha but Pierre, Andrey, Nikolay, Sonya. Yet there were still large gaps in my relationship with the book. Ugly Princess Marya interested me not at all, nor did the soft-hearted Rostov parents or irascible Prince Bolkonsky or dull-eyed General Kutuzov. Adult life remained boring, but the emotional vicissitudes of youth drew me like a moth. I was twenty years old, in love with the idea of being in love, overexcited about knowledge and experience; and when I read that “in Pierre’s soul . . . a complex and laborious process of inner development was going on that revealed much to him and led him to many spiritual doubts and joys,” I recognized instantly, as I once did with the child Natasha, my second self on that page. But the epiphanic shock was different. I’d become accustomed to the pleasures of perusing exact replicas of my own sensations, but the notion that my second self could be an overweight, near-sighted, imaginary man filled me with amazement. It seemed that books could not only feed my inner life but could invent strange fantasies for it as well.
As was the case with most of the books I read at college, I never read War and Peace for a class. In truth, I have only a vague memory of what I was supposed to read for class, though I clearly remember that my father, in a burst of affection, bought me an omnibus Jane Austen at the college bookstore and that early during my freshman year I made a pact with myself to read all the novels of Dickens at least once before graduation. I did in fact read everything I set out to read (though I didn’t always manage to read class assignments), but more in the manner of absorbing cereal-box copy than as a budding scholar of the nineteenth-century novel. I read, like I kissed boys, because I couldn’t help myself, though both tendencies predicted trouble. Schools, even the socially sensitive Quaker enclave I attended, don’t tend to cater to students with a penchant for self-motivated dreaminess. “But, as so often happens with people of weak character, as it is called, Pierre was . . . overcome with such a passionate desire to enjoy once more this sort of dissipation which had become so familiar to him”; and I likewise kept returning to my extracurricular reading, aware that I was wasting time, rather embarrassed but making no effort to improve myself. The novels seemed to have relatively little pertinence to my academic affairs. What did Austen have to do with Samuel Johnson, Dickens with Thomas Carlyle? I barely knew that the authors of Our Mutual Friend (not assigned) and Past and Present (assigned) lived in the same era, let alone were personal friends.
And then one evening, in a classroom crowded with would-be lawyers and earnest future professors and a few intelligent wastrels, a teacher suddenly stood up in the somnolent fluorescence and barked, “Pay attention! Think of War and Peace, the end of the book! That’s what matters!” And he read this passage aloud:
Natasha [now married to Pierre] did not care for society in general, but she greatly prized the society of her kinsfolk—of Countess Marya, her brother, her mother, and Sonya. She cared for the society of those persons to whom she could rush in from the nursery in a dressing-gown with her hair down; to whom she could, with a joyful face, show a baby’s napkin stained yellow instead of green, and to receive their comforting assurances that that proved that baby was now really better.
I was stunned. Here was a teacher telling a room packed with high-achieving Ivy League researchers-of-the-future that dirty diapers were what mattered in life. This was the kind of advice I might have expected from my coal-country aunts, comments that made me suspect that I really was a barefoot clod masquerading as a high-achieving researcher-of-the-future. But it was not the kind of advice I expected to get from a teacher of high achievers.
Still, this was not necessarily an unpleasant jolt. I could perceive possibilities for personal redemption in such an assertion. The greater and more horrifying shock was the fact that I had just finished rereading War and Peace on my own for the second or third time in my life—I had spent days idling over this book when I should have been taking notes on Ruskin or Carlyle—but I had absolutely no memory of having ever seen the diaper passage before. Apparently I was not only wasting time on unassigned texts; I wasn’t even able to remember the words I was reading.
Discovery of my defective reading memory was a terrible blow. In some ways I think the moment froze for years any blossom of self-confidence in my unscholarly mind. Yet the fault was not the teacher’s, who was a humane and intelligent man. “Pierre regarded Prince Andrey as a model of all perfection, because Prince Andrey possessed in the highest degree just that combination of qualities in which Pierre was deficient.” Surrounded by “better” kinds of braininess, I, like Pierre, felt I couldn’t trust my own sort of intelligence and imaginative engagement. Clearly I saw in books only what I wanted to see. But like Pierre, my innocence was at fault. I didn’t yet perceive that I saw only what I could see.
It goes without saying that close analytical reading is a valuable way to penetrate literature. But literature also does its own penetrating—in its own time, at its own pace. A reader can be at the mercy of a book. As one’s age, experience, obsessions, and fears advance or accrue or erode, so does a book’s power of influence. I was home alone with an inconsolable infant when I first read Updike’s Rabbit, Run. It was not the best time to read about a drunken and unhappy Janice accidentally drowning her baby daughter in the bathtub. The scenario was too possible: anything can happen; horrors overtake us. I realized, with a too dreadful clarity, that I could murder my child.
Even though I’ve reread the other Rabbit books many times, I have not yet brought myself to reread this one. I know that when I do venture to open Rabbit, Run again, the drowning scene will be smaller, flatter. Some other, now-unremembered aspect will loom. The story will be new. But the worry remains: why do certain vivid depictions of evil never move me, while others, such as the baby’s drowning, matter disproportionately? In The Magus, for instance, John Fowles details the carnage of a 1915 battlefield in precise and revolting detail: the rats, the torn flesh, the carrion stench. The scene disturbs and impresses me; nonetheless, I’ve read the novel many times without dreading those pages. Partly the issue is characterization: the protagonist who tells the battlefield tale is himself a cold and detached man. But partly the issue is personal. For whatever reason, I cannot as a reader walk onto that particular stage-set of fear. It’s a selfish and subjective response, but it’s nonetheless true to my flawed, individual, monocular engagement with history and emotion.
The novel itself is particularly cogent on this theme: “Why should such complete pleasure be evil? . . . You will say, Because children were starving while you played in your sunlight. But are we to never have palaces, never to have refined tastes, complex pleasures, never to let the imagination fulfill itself?” Yet as Fowles takes pains to remind us, imagination, for all its charms, is willful and capricious, leading us into drought as well as revelation. We see only what we can see, as even a twenty-year-old rereader of War and Peace may begin to comprehend: “‘Behold me, here I am!’ [Natasha] seemed to say, in response to the enthusiastic gaze with which Denisov followed her. ‘And what can she find to be so pleased at!’ Nikolay wondered, looking at his sister. ‘How is it she isn’t feeling dull and ashamed!’” Every time I read the novel, I’m at sea with him again.
I happened to be reading War and Peace when I went into labor with my second son. I had chosen it earlier in the week it because it was the book I was least likely to finish before leaving the hospital. Having already experienced, during the arrival of my first son, the bored and vicious antagonism that arises from being trapped for hours in a birthing room decorated with pink-framed photos of cute babies in sweet hats, I armed myself with a very thick distraction.
I arrived at the hospital around nine in the evening, and Paul was born at four in the morning. The intervening hours were intense but dull, rather like being up all night with stomach flu. My husband fell asleep in a chair. Nurses whispered down the hall. The contractions became progressively more wrenching, but in the intervals I continued to read. There was a kind of clock-ticking inevitability to my alternation between worlds—one composed only of dazzling pain, the other merely my everyday self reading War and Peace in the middle of the night. It didn’t seem necessary to call a nurse or wake up my husband. The pain arrived. I squeezed my eyes shut, held my breath, gritted my teeth. The pain vanished. I opened my eyes, took a breath, and turned a page.
An hour or so into my routine, I encountered this passage:
The little princess was lying on the pillows in her white nightcap (the agony had only a moment left her). Her black hair lay in curls about her swollen and perspiring cheeks; her rosy, charming little mouth, with the downy lip, was open and she was smiling joyfully. Prince Andrey went into the room, and stood facing her at the foot of the bed on which she lay. The glittering eyes, staring in childish terror and excitement, rested on him with no change in their expression. “I love you all, I have done no one any harm; why am I suffering? help me,” her face seemed to say. She saw her husband, but she did not take in the meaning of his appearance now before her. . . .
His coming had nothing to do with her agony and its alleviation. The pains began again, and Marya Bogdanovna [the midwife] advised Prince Andrey to go out of the room.
When I recall this scene—myself in the throes of childbirth reading about Tolstoy’s little princess in the throes of childbirth—the memory has a play-within-a-play quality, a staginess. It feels, in truth, like something I’ve read about in a novel. What remains tangible is a sensation of profound mutual sympathy. I was, at that instant, enduring with this familiar yet imaginary woman the dance of torment and reprieve, torment and reprieve. We were, at each paroxysm, in the talons of death; at each release seized again by life. It was an accident and a strange miracle to read it and to suffer it simultaneously.
The twist was that I had read the book before. So I knew she would die.
The door opened. The doctor with his shirt sleeves tucked up, and no coat on, came out of the room, pale, and his lower jaw twitching. Prince Andrey addressed him, but the doctor, looking at him in a distracted way, passed by without uttering a word. A woman ran out, and, seeing Prince Andrey, stopped hesitating in the door. He went into his wife’s room. She was lying dead in the same position in which he had seen her five minutes before, and in spite of the fixed gaze and white cheeks, there was the same expression still on the charming childish face with the little lip covered with fine dark hair. “I love you all, and have done no harm to any one, and what have you done to me?” said her charming, piteous, dead face. In a corner of the room was something red and tiny, squealing and grunting in the trembling white hands of Marya Bogdanovna.
So much anguish, cohering like dust to a wet broom: the dead woman’s innocence, the simplicity of Tolstoy’s prose, my foreknowledge, my own wracked body. I remember thinking, Of course I could die as well. And then thinking, with a kind of wrenching clarity: I am learning how to grow old.
The thought is banal. The thought is inexplicable. It’s the life-and-death conundrum, mysterious and melodramatic and plain as a dirty diaper. Tolstoy parsed the enigma in the course of writing his thousand pages, but I’ve required considerably more time. It’s humbling to be a rereader. I maunder through his well-worn tale like Hansel and Gretel following a half-eaten trail of crumbs through their own backyard. I know where I am, but where am I?
When Pierre realizes he wants to marry Natasha, he behaves, as he usually does, both foolishly and earnestly. He tries to think, but he can’t think. He trips over his own motivations; he second-guesses himself; he leaps blindly into the future. He’s dopy and sweet, and after spending so many years with him I’ve become very fond of those qualities in his character. He’s meant so many things to me over the years—innocence, curiosity, kindness—but these days he mostly reminds me to forgive myself. I mean to be good, I mean to be thoughtful, but in the end I am whatever I happen to be.
“‘Well, what is one to do, if there’s no escaping it? What is one to do? It must be the right thing, then,’ [Pierre] said to himself.” That, in a nutshell, is why I reread War and Peace. I walk through a room and see the book sitting on the shelf. I think, “It must be the right thing, then.” So I take it down, and I read it again.