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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


A few months ago I started rereading War and Peace. The first time I read it, the summer between my junior and senior year in college, I was helping my mother at an elderly care business she was running at the time, and my memory of reading the book is interspersed with the image of an old woman with dark red hair -- her name was Rosalie -- who sat on the loveseat next to the couch in a corner of which I was huddle with the heavy book propped on my knees, and every once in a while, when an airplane rumbled distantly overhead, would say, "My son Blake was a pilot. Have I told you? My son was a pilot." Her son was dead but she didn't remember that. I would look up at her, dazed, my hands shaking a little from the effort of thinking up something to say, my head, my whole body was full of Tolstoy's words.

Before I started rereading, I remembered very little from War and Peace: the beauty of Natasha Rostov; Pierre's love for her; the double self of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, the arrogant, distant one that irritated me, and the troubled, questioning, deeply intelligent one that made me love him. The war, the battle scenes, left no imprint on my mind after that first reading. And now, the second time around, they are the ones that strike me the most. I have to read very slowly through them in order to understand what is happening, to keep track of all the characters. So it takes me a while to notice Tolstoy's skill, to become aware of how deftly he handles these dozens of characters, and how he never fails to see them as individuals no matter how many of them crowd in his mind and on the page. Take Captain Tushin, who is in charge of the cannons and who mutters tenderly to the biggest cannon as it spits out its shells toward the village where the French are stationed, "Come Matvyevna, old lady, stick by us."

I ask myself over and over, sometimes with frustration, sometimes with nothing short of awe, how Tolstoy can refrain himself from making judgments about the war. Why doesn't he say clearly, passionately, that war is horrible, that the people who start wars are horrible, that there is no honor and no victory for anyone in a war? Even as he describes the chaos on the battlefield, the fear and exhilaration of the soldiers, and the arbitrariness of the decisions made in the heat of fighting, his equanimity remains intact. He isn't there to make judgments, he seems to say under his breath, between the lines. He's there to see, and to see as thoroughly and deeply as he can. He's an artist, not a politician.

After I put down the book and return to the routines of my day, I begin to think about the war in Iraq and how, if the president had ever read Tolstoy, he would never have started it. I want to send a copy of the book to him with a letter that says nothing except READ in huge red letters. But even if it got to him -- it might not, since the book is so big it's hard to believe it's a book and not some kind of bomb; and the truth is, it is some kind of bomb, the kind that explodes it your mind and throws blinding light on your darkness -- the president wouldn't have time to read it. He's a politician. And what has politics to do with art? Sadly, these days, nothing at all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks, green whale, you speak so out of my heart.
What concerns art, politics and Tolstoy (I love his books)

May 18, 2006  

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