When I was 14 years old, I got a scholarship to an elite Catholic boarding school in Florida. My best friend Arlene (the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica) did too, and we were off to an adventure together across the water from Palm Beach Island, home to the Kennedys and other American aristocrats.
We were day students, dropped off by our parents in the morning and picked up some time after school, and we did duty on the grounds and at the switchboard, where we might take calls from parents of boarding students from the Caribbean, Central America, or South America. Many of our classmates had grown up in walled enclaves, and some number of them already had been promised in marriage to sons of other elite families, whose fathers had titles like General.
It was an ideal place in which to read the nineteenth-century novelists.
In the cafeteria stood a revolving bookstand, the location for the paperback book exchange. In the biblical spirit of putting off childish things, I brought my Scholastic Book Club paperbacks, and took in exchange fat volumes of nineteenth- and twentieth-century family saga. The two I remember best are Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the byword for Big Fat Novels, and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, more of which in a later post in this series.
The first edition I read was abridged. The editors had cut Tolstoy’s philosophical disquisitions on history and causality. (‘Abridgment’ struck my fourteen-year-old sensibility as first cousin to ‘censorship,’ so as soon as I was done with my first reading, I resolved to get my hands on the full edition, Naughty Bits and all.)
That first reading, by the way, changed my life. I was seized with the writer’s question: “How did he do that?” It was the first novel I re-read in the spirit of industrial espionage.
War and Peace is a tour-de-force built out of deceptively simple materials. The variety of people and situations is dizzying: from little 14-year-old girls (whose characterization I mistrusted, by the way; Tolstoy’s Natasha struck me as a confection of smoke and mirrors) to teenaged cavalrymen to thirty-year-old perpetual adolescents (Pierre Bezukhov, over six feet tall and heavily built, was the doppelgänger of the skinny 14-year-old who read him). But the scenes are very simple. It took me four to five readings of the novel, over fifteen years, to figure out his method: he was a screenwriter before there was a name for it.
I figured that out on an otherwise unpleasant car trip across Michigan, with only Jackie Collins’ Hollywood Wives for company. I hated the novel, but there was something familiar about the structure. (If you hate the content, analyze the structure).
It was the scenes: both their length and the way they set up conflicts. I’d seen that before, in Tolstoy’s novel, but hadn’t been able to pay attention to it for long, because the story sucked me in. I wasn’t compelled by Collins’ story, so I could look at how it was built. And her training was in Hollywood screen-writing, which made her a very cinematic writer.
The seventh time I read War and Peace, I was reading it in Russian and researching all of the material that Tolstoy had used. (See the link on this page to the 1812 Project in Moscow, Russia.) I was taking Russian language lessons at the time, and the reading was making me just skillful enough in conversation that I could make small talk about the weather…
… in Russian so archaic that I sent my tutor into gales of laughter.
“You sound like a character from Tolstoy,” he said.
What else did I learn from that novel? That epics are built of clear, transparent, all but invisible prose; that there is a chess-master’s technique in bringing threats from background to foreground; that historical research is addictive, and it gives you the wherewithal to fake things.
Furthermore, I learned a ton about office politics. That was my first and last reading of the novel: it’s how people operate inside institutions. I’ve met Tolstoy’s characters many times, beginning at that boarding school where I met military-school cadets with manners quite as polished as those of Tolstoy’s Russian courtiers, and the daughters of Latin American aristocracy (including regimes later to be notorious for human rights violations). Tolstoy warned me in advance about pretty boys who practiced seduction as an indoor sport and sycophants who got advanced ahead of people who did the work.
That last reading, alas, remains unfinished. In March 2003, I reached the second volume, at the outset of which Napoleon is crossing the Niemen River into Russia and saying (I translate loosely) “This is gonna be a cakewalk.” At just about the same moment, then-President George W. Bush launched the U. S. invasion of Iraq.
I stopped reading, since it was redundant at that point. I’d already read the end of the novel.