Saturday, April 25, 2009

Laughing Out Loud at Tolstoy

My wife is listening gaily to War and Peace and I am trying to read Anna Karenina!
by Charlie Leck

I’m hearing almost every night these days about the wonders of Tolstoy and War and Peace. My wife is listening to it on her iPod. She spends a couple of hours in the car every day and, even when working around the farm, she has that little bud neatly planted in her cute little ear. It’s there when she’s doing the laundry, vacuuming the carpets or polishing the hardwood floors.

Try to talk to her when she’s folding my underwear or attempting to untangle her bras. Impossible! If she gets a phone call I have to wave frantically at her and make the phone signal with my hand – you know, the 3 middle fingers folded down and the pinky and thumb protruding while you hold them to mouth and ear.

She’s claiming Tolstoy has a wonderful sense of humor – that he’s very witty and clever. “War and Peace,” she says “is wasted on the young. You need some years on you to appreciate it.”

Well, she couldn’t tempt me back into that immense novel that carries bad memories with it from my youth. So, instead, I pulled down Anna Karenina and gave that a go.

“Download,” she insisted, “and listen to it! It’s so much easier and better that way. The readers capture the humor and wit better.”

I have my iPod for something, I thought, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I’m stuck with that need to have the bound version in front of me. I get a thrill out of turning the pages. I like to browse back through the pages looking for a paragraph that will make more sense now that I’ve read further.

How could one possibly keep up with all the Tolstoyian characters without having the book and even a pad and pencil at hand?

Matrëna Filimόnovna, Princess Shcherbátskya and Nicholas Ivánich Sviyázhsky are already bouncing around in my head like ping-pong balls and I have to get them down on a pad with a little note about just who they are and to whom they are related. Reading Tolstoy is not exactly like reading Tom Robbins. It will take days and perhaps weeks to work my way through Karenina. My wife will finish War and Peace in 4 or 5 days.

She chuckles as she works. There she is, carrying a big load of towels back to the bathroom linen closet, laughing aloud as she goes. If one didn’t know she had that little thing stuck in her ear, one would think she’d gone a little bit flippy. The dog looks at her and cocks his head to the side, wondering what she’s laughing at. I try to explain that it’s War and Peace and I tell him that I didn’t think it was funny when I read it. She’s making it out to be a roaring comedy.

Something’s wrong here. I’m struggling in agony to make it to page 100 of Karenina and she’s breezing through the French invasion of Russia and the lives of five aristocratic families who were influenced by it – the good old Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, the Kuragins and the Drubetskoys. They never seemed to be very funny folks when I was forced to read this, one of the longest novels in history, at a period in my life when I could not have cared any less.

I’m a little annoyed that she’s enjoying it so and finding it actually fun to read.

There are 582 characters in the book says Richard Pevear, who did the most recent English translation of the book with his wife Larissa Volokhonsky.

“I began to see the constant humor of Tolstoy’s style,” Pevear says. “It is not a joyful humor. It’s a sarcastic humor, but there is a great deal of social ironies, social sarcasm.”

Well, my wife laughs at sarcastic humor, I guess. While she went on with her vacuuming I stole up to my treetop library and cracked Anna Karenina and looked for some humor. I was rumbling along at about page 100.

When he got out of the train at Petersburg he felt, despite his sleepless night, as fresh and animated as after a cold bath. He stepped outside the carriage, waiting till she appeared. ‘I shall see her again,’ he thought and smiled involuntarily. ‘I shall see her walk, her face… she will say something, turn her head, look at me, perhaps evens smile.’ But before seeing her he saw her husband, whom the station-master was respectfully conducting through the crowd. ‘Dear me! The husband!’
That elicited a mild smile from me anyway and spurred me on.

No comments:

Post a Comment