For me, one of the great pleasures in reading an approachable classic like War and Peace is the chance to meet Tolstoy face to face as it were, take his story one word at a time and derive a self-made opinion of everything he sets in front of me. The greatest novel ever written is not some monolith for Kubrick’s 2001 apes to caper around, grunting and throwing bones, cow-towing 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, as a respectful but exigent friend who needs to be amused, beguiled, thrilled.
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 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. In that context the difference is particularly stunning. Clearly words can be used to sharpen thought or to dull it. As Orwell points out in Politics and the English Language, many writers just piece trite phrases together as if they were “assembling the pieces of a prefabricated henhouse”.
I remember the exact moment when I turned away from the consumption of this kind of writing forever. It was about three quarters of the way through Leon Uris’ Trinity. The effortless sentence – you just know it flowed out of him with the giddy sluice of inspiration – was this: “His role was to ferret out brewing insurrection and nip it in the bud.” Not just four clichés, but four clashing and incongruous clichés jammed blithely together in the clattering rush of another day’s work. Many years ago, before computers, when an IBM Selectric was state of the art, Leon Uris gave my father some deeply considered writing advice. “You have to go faster. Get an electric typewriter.”
Over the years, I have come to believe that there’s some middle ground, some leafy suburb between the woods and canyons of literature and the grid-lock city streets of genre fiction (not to mention the graffiti-smeared urban blight of the sub-genre world).
That middle ground is my favorite landscape, and I would define it upward as a type of literature, rather than downward as a classier version of trash … in human terms: a young heir in jeans and a t-shirt, rather than a bum in a tuxedo. And of course it’s a sliding scale, with almost infinite gradations. The work I prefer, the work which has no official title, perches right on the border of literature, the rough undeveloped sections of that suburb, perhaps: the last house on the dead-end street whose back yard merges with a tangle of bushes that becomes the forest; the ranch style teetering on the border of the wetlands with the perpetually flooded basement; the canyon house stalked by coyotes.
Despite carrying the ‘genre’ stigma, these authors, these suburban pioneers if you like, combine the most enjoyable aspects of high literature and low. They don’t dig as deep into their characters’ psyches as the masters who dwell in the deep woods; but they reject the trite puppet shows of their inner-city brethren. They create the vivid dream that John Gardner talks about, they allow you to live in the particular world of a unique human sensibility and let your own perspective be colored and enlarged by the exposure.
I realize now that almost all the writers I love at least own property in this fringe area: genre writers like Len Deighton, John LeCarre, P.D. James, Dennis Lehane and Philip K. Dick; and masters who understand the power of plot, from to Faulkner to Graham Greene and John Fowles, to contemporary writers like Vikram Chandra and Michael Chabon.
And of course, standing genially above all the others, Tolstoy himself.
Tolstoy shares a craven common urge with the genre writers who followed 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.
I’ve always wanted to read War and Peace, but found the length daunting and the translations stilted. When I heard that Pevear and Volokonsky, who did the sharp and engrossing translation of Anna Karenina a few years ago, were working on Tolstoy’s masterpiece, I was thrilled. Perhaps I would finally be able to read this intimidating tome, this Everest of literature. Then it occurred to me that it might be interesting to chronicle the climb; if others chose to take it with me, we could share our thoughts and de-mystify the experience of reading a classic.
That’s the plan.
I’m standing at the base camp, among the litter of other people’s oxygen bottles, hoping you’ll join me, hoping we won’t be turned back by bad weather or the cold. If your lungs are strong enough for the thin air, and you’re not scared of heights, organize your equipment and get a good nights’ sleep.
We start our ascent tomorrow, at first light.