My Tolstoy Year

war_and_peaceTwenty-five hundred pages or so later, I sit at the end of the year dumbfounded as to how I'm supposed to concoct a best of 2007 list. I'm obsessed with the best of 1868 or of 1873 or 1855 -- or, should I say, of ever. And I'm not alone. By dint of Kismet, it seems I wasn't the only one having a Tolstoy year in 2007. Something about the soundbiting and youtubing of our collective sensibility sent others to the Count. This fall marked the publication of a massive, drum roll please, lauded, heralded, dissected and mightily worthy, translation of War and Peace by the indefatigable husband and wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.Instead, I settled from the brick-sized Constance Garnett Modern Library translation, for two reasons. a) It was readily available at the New York Public Library, and b) I figured this is probably the version that all the writers I cared about read first -- this is the War and Peace that Roth and Bellow and O'Connor and Salinger and Cheever and -- maybe, just maybe -- James Thurber read.

How long did it take me? I renewed it four times and was still overdue about three bucks. Of more importance, was it good? Why, in this day and age of snark and wit and brevity and market focus and platform, did I gut through it? Or, to put it more succinctly, what kind of a self-torturing, spinach-eating, masochistic lunatic am I?

The answer to that is easy. The book was like a rocket blast. Sure, it took me about a thousand pages to get all the characters straight, but I suppose I can be excused because by some counts there are over 300 of them. But what was it that drew me in, and through it? It's because Tolstoy went for the whole shooting match with this one. Not just what's it all about? (Alfie), but how's it work? What is the relationship between me as a person and my fellow people and then, as I said, the whole shooting match -- you could call it history, or life. Tolstoy himself was very adamant about the fact that this was not a novel -- and upon plowing through its gazillion pages, I can certainly agree. It's as if he just took a huge scoop out of the loam that is life and showed us the underside with all the worms squiggling around and then moved the view on top to show us the tufts of grass and then pulled back to show it to us within the gigantic field from which it was taken and then zoomed in with an electron microscope. There are morals and misfires in here, but the way he describes the way we work is bracing. So much so, that as soon as I closed the last page (1423 if memory serves), I opened another Garnett-translated Tolstoy doorstop, Anna Karenina. I could not pass go, could not collect 200 dollars, I had to see what this one was all about.

And damn if the mystical, crotchety old Count didn't pull one off again. If W&P was about the whole shooting match in a cosmic scale, Anna K dug deep inside the irrational but profoundly powerful forces that drive each of us. What drives people, or in this case a person, to do horrible things to themselves and the ones they love? Freud would have bonded heavily with this one -- probably did, in fact. But, as they say in the ads, there's more. Anna K. is nothing if not the template for every serious work of romance to follow, from a thousand soap operas to Max Ophuls's magisterial film The Earrings of Madame De... 

So what did I do after digesting all that Tolstoy? I supped upon some more, his unbelievable Sebastapol Sketches, called by some the first modern war correspondence --one would only wish our current war writers and videographers had half the vision. Along the way I read some contemporary memoirs, notably Cynthia Kaplan's, a great personal history by Wilfred Sheen, a less-than-stellar comic collection by America's greatest living humorist (well, next to Dave Barry) Woody Allen, and I tried reading a lot of other things, but I'm afraid, old Leo swallowed up a lot of my year. I'm curious to try Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke , but now, when it comes to fiction, and I'm not kidding about this, I keep thinking about rereading War and Peace , but this time I'll try the new translation. - Ken Krimstein

Purchase Thru Amazon Ken.jpgMr. Krimstein is a writer, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in New York City. So there.