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“All of my being is now in pining”: More Tolstoy

 I STILL haven’t finished “War and Peace”!! I have about 155 pages left to read and a long 4-hour layover in Bogota tomorrow, so hopefully I can triumphantly mark it as “read” on Goodreads by the end of the day.

War and Peace is a REALLY good (dare I say great?) book, so I don’t know why the last 300 pages have been such a slog for me. Maybe it’s a syndrome of “too much of a good thing”, as it’s the only book I’ve been reading for the past month (no, Judy Blume and Lois Duncan don’t count). As a way to “reward” myself in between chapters, I’ve been picking up Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, a relic from my sister’s freshman year at Wesleyan (the title even refers to War & Peace! How perfect is that?). I remember e-mailing passages from this book about the brutality of drunk Russian men and the woe-is-me folk songs that their abused wives would sing to an ex-friend of mine who was really into Russian culture. Now after reading it in more depth, I’m pleased to say that it really is a most enjoyable, highly recommendable book. The map in the front page was also extraordinarily helpful, as it helped me make more sense of Tolstoy’s historically-based passages (“The French are heading back to Mozhaisk via Smolensk? OMG!”).

I still have a hundred-ish pages to go, but I don’t think I’m being presumptuous by stating that one of the major themes (if not THE major theme) of War and Peace is the Search For Truth. This Search is embodied by the main characters, the dashing Prince Andrei Volkonsky (apparently based on Tolstoy’s grandfather, whom he greatly admired and sought to emulate) and the dour, chubby Pierre (whose life is similar to Tolstoy’s to the point of eeriness). Pierre, in all his clumsiness and WTF-are-you-thinking moments (kind of like a female, Russian, 19th-century Sophie from The Wonder Spot), was definitely the one I related to the most. Pierre is very much a a character who is constantly on a quest throughout the book, in search of something to give his life meaning and purpose:

Whatever he started thinking about, he came back to the same questions, which he could not resolve and could not stop asking himself. It was as if the main screw in his head, which held his whole life together, had become stripped. The screw would not go in, would not come out, but turned in the same groove without catching hold, and it was impossible to stop turning it. (347)

What is bad? What is good? What should one love, what hate? Why live, and what am I? What is life, what is death? What power rules over everything?… And there was no answer to any of these questions except one, which was not logical and was not at all an answer to these questions. This answer was: ‘You will die—and everything will end. You will die and learn everything—or stop asking.’ But to die was also frightening. (348)

(Here’s another great passage involving Pierre that my sister e-mailed me waaaay back in senior year of college, when she first read it.)

Now I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far it seems that one solution to this problem of meaning that Tolstoy proposes is Love and Compassion, which would definitely get the Pema Chodron stamp of approval. There’s a very moving scene in which one of the main characters (not Pierre!) is on his deathbed, and he forgives his very worst enemy, a person who has committed a horrible betrayal against him, and becomes capable of feeling love and compassion for him. After this realization of the importance Love as “life”, (984) the character experiences “an awakening from life” (985)and begins to drift into death. It’s almost as if by approaching this truth–of loving completely and totally, without reservations–the character can no longer be expected to remain in this world, and instead has to pass on to the next one. In this way Love is presented as the key to meaning, as the way of making sense of one’s life, but it’s as though it’s a meaning you cannot adopt without completely renouncing all earthly things, including the world itself.

(Renunciation is also an interesting theme in Tolstoy, if you consider “Tolstoyism” and his radical anarchist Christian socialism that he adopted later in life and yes, his Into the Wild fanboydom. But that’s a theme for another day.)

It’s interesting to me that Tolstoy uses the deathbed as the ideal moment (indeed, the only moment) in which Truth and Meaning can be revealed to the protagonist.  (Not just in War & Peace, but in Ivan Ilych, the only other work of his that I’ve read, way back in 10th-grade Spanish class.) These kind of death scenes are a far cry from the more “modern” kinds of death that take place in Onetti, or the inexplicable, horrifying ones caused by modern warfare in World War I, II or even the Civil War. It’s especially interesting if you keep in mind that according to Natasha’s Dance, apparently Tolstoy himself was both terrified and fascinated by death, in the best Woody Allen sense:

Tolstoy desperately tried to rationalize death as a part of life. ‘People who fear death, fear it because it appears to them as emptiness and blackness,’ he wrote in ‘One Life’ (1887), ‘but they see emptiness and blackness because they do not see life.’ Then, under Schopenhauer’s influence perhaps, he came to regard death as the dissolution of one’s personality in some abstract essence of the universe. But none of it was convincing to those who knew him well. As Chekhov put it in a letter…, Tolstoy was terrified of his own death, but did not want to admit it.” (345)

 Contrasting Chekhov’s attitude towards death with Tolstoy is also an interesting exercise, as apparently Chekhov had a much more relaxed, down-to-earth attitude. With the moment of his tuberculosis-induced deathbed rapidly encroaching, Chekhov dealt with it by checking into a hotel with his wife and drinking a glass of champagne before expiring. Talk about “a good death,” the proper way to approach your momento moris! We should all be so lucky (the soldiers getting blown to bits in Iraq and Afghanistan are definitely not afforded such a luxury). According to Natasha’s Dance, Chekhov’s understanding of death was closer to the peasant’s understanding: “Chekhov understood that people die in a very ordinary way—for the most part they die thinking about life. He saw that death is simply part of the natural process.” (348) Tolstoy himself  “long believed that the peasants died in a different way from the educated classes, a way that showed they knew the meaning of their lives. The peasants died accepting death.” (353) This reminds me of the people I met and worked with during my oh so brief foray into microfinance, who would definitely be considered peasants on the social-economic scale of things in 19th-century Russia. I’m reminded in the sense that they were accepting of their fates and always spoke of a higher power that guided them (I always wanted to tell them to give themselves more credit!). Death is a firmly established, indisputable ritual, and that’s why there’s no fear or uncertainty: they know how to die. Death is a moment when you need to get your affairs in order, so you don’t leave things in a big mess for your family to deal with after you go. It’s a very simple, practical attitude, as though you’re just walking through an open door to go on a trip somewhere.

Chekhov's calm, appropriately doctorly, all-accepting countenance inspires reassurance

I have to go to bed soon (7AM flight…woooo!) so I’ll keep this brief, but let me just say that if I had to write a college paper about Tolstoy (Ha Ha Ha!) or War and Peace, I’d probably want to write about his attitude towards the peasants. There’s several interesting scenes in War & Peace that could be used for this purpose. The best one is when Pierre meets a peasant who seems to be the embodiment of the simple living and acceptance of meaning that he’s been desperately searching for throughout these 900+ pages:

Karataev had no attachments, friendships or love, as Pierre understood them, but he loved and lived affectionately with everything that life brought him in contact with, particularly man—not any particular man, but those with whom he happened to be… To Pierre he always remained… an unfathomable, rounded, eternal personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth.” (lost page number, sorry!)

Karataev appears to Pierre as the embodiment of simplicity and truth because he seems to be very certain of his place in his life, of his membership to a particular community. So in addition to LOVE being one of the key solutions to the Search for Truth, Tolstoy also seems to be saying that COMMUNITY is equally important. As Natasha’s Dance puts it:

“Tolstoy thought of God in terms of love and unity. He wanted to belong, to feel himself a part of a community. This was the ideal he sought in marriage and in his communion with the peasantry… All Tolstoy’s characters are searching for a form of Christian love, a sense of relatedness to other human beings that alone can give a meaning and a purpose to their lives.” (341)

(I would just substitute the word “truth” for “God” here… aren’t they basically the same thing? IDK)

 I guess I’d like to end this entry with a question about the Eternal, Ever-Present Search for Meaning (LOL) inspired by Chekhov:

Modern culture is but the beginning of a work for a great future, a work which will go on, perhaps, for ten thousand years, in order that mankind may, even in the remote future, come to know the truth of a real God—that is, not by guessing, not by seeking in Dostoevsky, but by perceiving clearly, as one perceives that twice two is four. (Chekhov)

Are we getting closer to that moment, in which we’ll be able to find the Truth by “perceiving clearly,” as clearly as we perceive 2+2 = 4? Is living the simple life, toiling in the soil like a farmer key to this (Tolstoy seemed to think so, with his live-like-a-peasant-and-renounce-everything-Into-the-Wild-style at the end of his life) Or are we still stuck in the guessing and searching stage? Take a wild guess…

(The title for this entry comes from the PJ Harvey song “The Devil,” apparently based on the Tolstoy novella by the same name, which I haven’t read but will have to as Natasha’s Dance refers to it constantly. Polly seems to be quite the Tolstoy fan; the lyrics to “Before Departure” also appear to be based on a kind of Ivan Ilych deathbed realization.)

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Some books from my childhood

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I was a big fan of this book and still am. It’s basically a who-dunit detective story, as an assortment of eccentric characters attempt to figure out a murder in order to win an inheiritance. This novel taught me (among other things) the lyrics to “America the Beautiful,” a song I have yet to hear, even to this day.

(Speaking of detective novels, I read a very interesting article on Borges and his short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius that had the following to say about the detective story: “the detective story, unlike the novel, accepts from the start that the logic of fiction is not the logic of life and that as a fictional construct its prime duty is to be interesting, not realistic.” I think this is a wonderful sentence, not only in regards to Borges, but for fiction in general!)

The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden

One of the books responsible for sparking my interest in India, along with my parents’ tales of their epic Peace Corps adventures. Also responsible for sparking my fear of ever getting pregnant. My favorite scene is still the one where the Indian servant boy helps the heroine with her geometry homework; the mathematical language that they speak in this scene was by far the most exotic sounding thing to me in the book.

In Dark Water by Mermer Blakeslee

Wow, is this ever an obscure book (the only image I could find was from Amazon). I don’t even know if I should count this because I never actually read the whole thing. I only read the first part, the one that was narrated by the daughter, since that was the bit that interested me. The second half–narrated by an omniscent narrator in country bumpkin dialect like this: ”They was aimin’ for the rock where the sun land just south of the barn. Outta Beulah’s line of sight.”–was understandably of absolute no interest to me. But I liked the 11-year-old narrator’s descriptions of her mom going crazy, of playing let’s pretend in the grass at night, and her evil smile that drives her mom round the bed. Crazily enough, I first heard about this book in a review in Seventeen magazine (can you believe that?! I wonder if they even have book reviews anymore).

Daughters of Eve by Lois Duncan

I went through a big Lois Duncan phase there between third and fifth grade: The Third Eye, Summer of Fear, Down a Dark Hall… mm-hmm. Oh man, wikipedia has just informed me that apparently she also wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer (not so surprising) and the Boys & Girls Club favorite, Hotel For Dogs (a shocker)!

In general, Daughters of Eve was somewhat of a disappointment for me in Duncan’s canon. I wanted there to be more violence at the end. I wanted the crazy feminists to do something more RADICAL other than just smash up school property and shave the nasty popular boy’s head. But Duncan does have a good ear for teen dialogue (it doesn’t even sound that horribly dated now, as it takes place in the Midwest). I’d definitely let my preteen daughters read these.

I also have to mention that this the first image that comes up in the Google images search for the book’s title.

Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher

A very educational, classic formative book in my youth. I was constantly stealing this from my mother’s bedside table. How else would I have learned the difference between bulimia and anorexia? How else would I have learned that cutting or burning yourself with cigarettes is an erroneous form of self-therapy? I think it’s good that my mom let me read this, because it definitely left me with the feeling of “Wow, I do NOT want to get involved in this kind of craziness at all,” i.e. drinking, prescription drug addiction, sexual prolificness, focusing on being popular and pretty, etc. Instead, I survived my adolescence relatively intact. And then right before going to college, I saw the movie Thirteen, and was like “Oh my God, I am never going to fit in after I move to America.”

Another thing I liked about this book was the author’s personal anecdotes about growing up in a small town in the rural Midwest in the 60’s. It all sounded so quaint and foreign and so far away from what I was familiar with!

Starring Sally J. Friedman As Herself by Judy Blume

I can never find the images of the book editions that I own on Google. It makes me wonder where the heck my parents got them, if they cannot be found in the archives of the internets. Anyway, this is a great book that has stood the test of time. I read it in first grade and dug it a lot; re-read it last night and still really enjoyed it. The references to Easter Williams, Kilroy Was Here, The Shadow radio show and other such antiquities from the 40’s mystified me as a seven-year-old and still do. This book is also responsible for teaching me who Adolf Hitler was, and for triggering my primary school fascination with the Holocaust, which in retrospect was maybe a wee bit creepy for a seven year old. I would always order any book that were about the Holocaust that appeared in the Scholastic catalog (which used to be the main way we got books–I remember whenever my box arrived ,it was always the biggest of any other kid’s in the classroom, as they would usually just order one or two. Ha Ha Ha!). My friends and I would also play Concentration Camp together, or pretend we were running away to escape from the Nazis. I’m pretty sure I actually wished I was Jewish a couple of times, too. Oh Judy! Gotta love her!

It’s also important to say that there a quite a few references to sex, drugs and alcohol in this book that I definitely didn’t catch the first time around, that still seem quite brave for a children’s novel. For example, the scene in which the mother gets drunk on champagne, the definition of “bordello”, references to “tits” (which shock me more now than they did then, weirdly enough!) and of course the classic eponymous phrase “Love and other indoor sports” (which my sister and I still use to sign our e-mails with sometimes, ha).

Tell Me If The Lovers Are Losers by Cynthia Voigt

I was a big, big Cynthia Voigt fan: When She Hollers, Izzy Willy-Nilly, A Solitary Blue, the Homecoming series… these are all great books. In comparison to these classics, Lovers is not really a standout. And yet, back in the day I would reread Lovers over and over again mostly because I was interested in its descriptions of college. I guess maybe I thought my college experience would be similar: I’d be friends with the same two or three people throughout (check), I’d be the star of the volleyball team (uhh… no), and get excited about writing papers about Shakespeare (I think this happenned like once). I bet if I were to reread this, it would seem REALLY dated. The ending is definitely a little melodramatic. An astute reviewer on Amazon observes that the three girls represent “Mind, Body and Spirit,” which is maybe going a little deeper than what I’d give the book credit for.

The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

I stole this book from a fifth grade classroom that wasn’t mine, another example of my shameless lifelong book thievery. Man, I was into this book! This book was a good example of my back-in-the-day interest in witchcraft. I was OBSESSED with the Salem Witch trials and just like with the Holocaust, I would definitely order any book related to witches that appeared in the Scholastic catalog pages. I really wanted to be like the (retrospectively bratty) teenage daughter, stompin’ around the house in her goth black boots, with her pet crow and her seances. Oh man, how I would have killed to have black eyeliner like hers! I always did have crushes on the Goth kids at CTY summer camp…

Eva by Peter Dickinson

This along with A Bone From A Dry Sea (also by Dickinson) are great pro-nature books. The ending of this book still strikes me as remarkably powerful and relevant, as humans start committing mass suicide together by holding hands and walking into the sea while singing. I would definitelystill recommend this book to anyone (both children AND adults) interested in apocalyptic themes or man’s relationship with nature.

I think that’s enough for now… to be continued, maybe…

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My Family’s Books

Bookshelf #1 - In Hallway outside of room. General fiction.

Bookshelf #2 - My dad's in his bedroom. History, economics, and religion.

Bookshelf #3 - My brother's, in his room. Fantasy and some history.

 

Bookshelf #4 - The beast in the living room. My mom's Penguin Classics, general fiction, childhood books, photo albums, and another entire shelf of my dad's history books that had to be double-stacked here because they were getting eaten by termites in the other shelf.

Bookshelf #5 - Otherwise known as the one I rarely pull a book from. Enclyclopedias and huge hardcovers on the bottom shelf, with the rest being books my parents first brought to Colombia (most from grad school, I think)

Bookshelf #6 - Next to the piano in the living room. Dictionaries, guidebooks, music, poetry, Shakespeare.

Bookshelf #7 - In the tiny sideroom that stinks of the cat's litter box. More of my dad's history and non-fiction, mostly on the Civil War, China, the Middle East, and Californian Native Americans.

Bookshelf #7 - My little brother's, outside his room in the hallway. Science fiction and fantasy.

Bookshelf #7 - In the hallway by the phone. More general fiction.

Bookshelf #7-8- More by phone. #7 is obscure history and religion books of my father's that I swear to god I've never seen before. #8 is childhood fiction, self-help, health and my mother's Sharpe series.

Bookshelf #9, my mother's silly romance novels, is so far the only one in the house to have been cleared and packed away into boxes

Bookshelf #10 - MORE of my dad's agricultural science, policy, history, fiction and grad school books. My God!!

My mother claims my father once counted them all and it was over 2,000, but she thinks it may actually be more…

Now can you understand what kind of childhood I had?

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