Monday, May 28, 2007

My Leo Tolstoy Vendetta

I am not at all shy about hating Leo Tolstoy.

At this very moment, I could list off half a dozen literature professors I had in college who would lecture me soundly that I don't really hate Leo Tolstoy, that perhaps I dislike a particular work of Tolstoy, or have a bone to pick with Tolstoy the author as opposed to Tolstoy the historical figure (as if Tolstoy the author were the evil twin of Tolstoy the man). But I find that my bloodthirsty rage against Tolstoy is not half so satisfying when I give way to such pedantic discriminations, so I'll just go ahead and say that I hate Leo Tolstoy, and if this particular DWM (dead white male) were loafing around St Petersburg today, this LWF (living white female) would hop on the first transatlantic flight for the singular satisfaction of punching him in the nose.

The infamous, nefarious, and otherwise intolerable crime for which I cannot forgive Mr. Tolstoy is that of having written War and Peace. Now, I'll surmise that for most of us, this quintessential Russian novel, longer than the Bible, falls under the category of books that everyone would like to have read, but no one wants to read. (For the record, I do like some things that Tolstoy has written. He has some first-rate short stories with which I can find no fault.) During an ill-fated trip to the bookstore recently, I picked up a copy of War and Peace, a delicate little 5-lb tome, to make myself feel better about the otherwise fluffy fare I was purchasing, in the same way a dieter might eat 5 lbs of lima beans to assuage their conscience concerning a piece of German chocolate cake.

My first charge against the Mr. Tolstoy is this: War and Peace entirely ruined my Memorial Day Weekend. Tolstoy lured me so effortlessly into a flood of Russian dissipation and depression that it was all I could do, on this loveliest of four-day weekends, not to compensatorily imbibe large volumes of vodka. Without my here rehashing 1100 pages of plot about Rostovs and Borises, Sophias and Natashas, you would have to read it yourself to understand, and if you've ever experienced any suicidal ideation, I beg of you not to attempt it.

My second charge against Mr. Tolstoy is this: He's way too damn good of a novelist. Yes, I said damn. He breaks every single rule that I know of. Instead of sticking to one point of view, he introduces hundreds of intricately imagined characters with such brilliancy that I feel sucked into the vortex of their psyche, drowned in their guilt and their downward slide. He drones on for epic lengths about parties and balls, dinners and pointless affairs of state, as if he wanted to cover eight years of boring Russian domestic life in real time. No major publishing house in our sound byte age, I venture to guess, would have found any place for this novel of novels but the waste basket. But it is perfect. As a novel, absolutely perfect, because it thrusts myself and all mankind into the light of day, with all its pettiness and haunted searching and irrational loves. That is why I could not put it down, even while I was busy wanting to burn it in some satisfyingly intricate way. It was like reading my life.

Nobody, Mr. Tolstoy, should be that good.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And that is the magic of great forces you to look deep inside yourself and confront those hidden truths you have not examined. It touches the soul.

You have that poetic magic as well.