Headmaster’s Thoughts – May 2009

In my March “thoughts” I wrote that I had made a resolution: after reading books for my grandchildren like Goodnight Moon, I would read Tolstoy’s War and Peace all the way through. I do not now know what I meant by “all the way through” because there really is no other way to read a book. And I never expected that writing these essays would dictate what I would be reading. On the other hand, I shouldn’t be surprised. You cannot anticipate the consequences of most things that you start. Anyway, I have now read the book.

Actually it is quite a conversation stopper! To the question “Are you reading anything that is good?” you answer “War and Peace.” There is usually then a moment of silence while the questioner privately thinks what a pompous ass you are.

I have discovered that most people haven’t read the book (a group I was a member of until a few weeks ago), and that the few who have read it had actually read it a while ago when they were in school or college. It is not the sort of thing you generally pick up casually, although Barnes and Noble has displayed the new translation quite prominently in their store at Lincoln Center where I bought my copy.

Generally I read for escapist pleasure. It may surprise you, but there are stresses in running a school. So part of my sleep preparation ritual is to read each night. Usually best-seller type books. Not the War and Peace type. I mean, it is long. It took Tolstoy five years of “ceaseless and exclusive labor” to write it, and when you pick up the volume, its pure heft is intimidating. It is 1273 pages in all. Not something to be entered into on a whim.

I do not want my “thoughts” to become book reviews. That would be cheating. It would make them too easy and absolve me of having to think too hard about a new topic each month. But for War and Peace, I think I can make an exception. Perhaps because in the end I enjoyed it so much, and found—and I stress again, “in the end”—it was escapist literature.

Not that you would know this after the first 87 pages. In fact, nothing has happened by page 87, which is the end of the first scene. It is all peace and no war! You have no idea who the protagonists are going to be or what is going to happen. There is just a description of an evening at the home of a Russian “Grande Dame,” Anna Pavlovna. Eighty-seven pages of it. The novel starts in French, because that is the language of Russian aristocracy. By page two you need four hands: one to refer to the list of “Principal Characters” in the front of the book, one to read the text (and the translations of the French and German on the bottom of the page), one to turn to the numbered notes on the text at the back of the book (pages 1225 to 1247), and the final hand to refer to the historical index (pages 1249 to 1273). This is not so easy.

Even before page 87 (actually at page 76), I was getting nervous because very little had happened (actually nothing had happened), so I thought I needed some help. I had already decided that I was not going to read any comments on the book before I read it (it is my “ornery” nature), so I called one of my daughters who had majored in English at Harvard. She confirmed that she had been required to read the book, along with many similar Russian classics, for one of her courses. “How,” I asked, “did you get through all of that?” “Don’t be silly, Dad!” she replied, “I read the CliffsNotes!” When I enquired what grade she got for the course she reminded me that it was Harvard and therefore you got an A. Apparently, that is the deal there. (I secretly believe that she actually did read the book and was just showing off). Anyway, so much for asking for help! I resisted the temptation and plowed on without the benefit of CliffsNotes.

I have no idea how good a translation this new one (the one I read) by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is, because obviously I have never read another translation (and undoubtedly never will!). Until page 87, I doubted whether this husband and wife team had each read the whole book. I fantasized that one read the first half and one the second. It was just too long to translate. But I now believe that the translation is excellent, partly because I have read their notes in which they clearly think their translation is excellent. In fact they make a big thing about a particular sentence which reads (according to them) “Drops dripped.” It is a good sentence–short! They explain why it is such a good sentence and why their translation is better than three other translations of the same sentence which read “The branches were dripping,” “The trees were dripping,” or “Raindrops dripped.” They do not tell you that this sentence is on page 1055, and I have no idea of what they are really talking about.

If you only read the first 87 pages, you would think that there are just two classes of aristocracy in pre-Communist Russia, Princes or Counts. And they were boring. They stand around and make boring small talk. Lenin did them a favor (at least that is what you think at page 87). They drink tea and dislike each other. The women scheme to have their sons well placed in the elite guard (all in small talk; there is no actual action) and the men act as though they disdain everything. Have I said that for 87 pages nothing happens? The names are complicated. One of the protagonists, Count Nicolai Ilyich, has six names: Nikolusha, Nikolenka, Nicolashka, Kolya, Nicholas, and Coco. I have not put in the accents over the vowels because I don’t know how to do it on my word processor, and there are too many of them anyway. All the names refer to the father (the technical word is patronymic), so the real hero, Pierre, is Count Pyotr Kirillovich Bezukhov because his father is Count Kirill Vladimirovich Bezukhov. There are 35 “principal characters” listed in the front of the book.

After page 87, the book changes. War begins to replace peace. Bonaparte is fighting Russia and its allies, and the action begins. And from then on, you are hooked! It is extraordinary. We are drawn into the dramas of several families as they deal with the invasion and eventual retreat from Moscow of Napoleon’s forces. And this is where I lose any ability to describe the vast complexity of the book. The story takes over. The micro-detail makes sense. All the characters make sense. The story makes sense. You become obsessed as the reader.

So, yes, it truly was worth it. Really worth it! It took a long time (about a month), and Jayme got used to me lugging the volume around (lugging is good word for this task). I suppose that I have spent most of this essay putting down a book that has a depth and magic which is impossible (for me) to adequately explain. It has surprises all the way through. The characters become totally alive.It has the greatest descriptions of war and hunting. It is immense in vision and it is successful in communicating that vision. I think (and what do I know?) that if there is such a thing as a masterpiece, this is it.

There is a moral here somewhere. I am not very good at finding morals; I always think of Groucho’s line: “Here are my principles, and if you don’t like them, I have others.” But even I learned from this experience that a masterpiece of literature requires some dedication by the reader—in my case getting past page 87—and that the effort (for me) was immensely worthwhile. I think I spent over 50 hours reading this book, and now I feel sad that they are over. Jayme will tell you that I became mildly compulsive.

It is interesting that a piece about Where the Wild Things Are and Goodnight Moon should have led me to this experience. What is next? Charlotte’s Web and Crime and PunishmentPeter Rabbit and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War? Oh dear! As usual, I am getting carried away!

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org 

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