Friday, October 9, 2009
Literary Adventure: War and Peace
Leo Tolstoy began writing War and Peace, his epic story of Russian Society during the Napoleonic era, in 1863 and finished it 6 years later, in 1869. Today, many people spend as long just trying to read its table of contents.
At 1456 pages, War and Peace is far from the longest book in the world (that distinction belongs to the fully-illustrated Uncle Wally's Big Book of Dirty Jokes), but it is long AND boring, with no pictures whatsoever. The last person to supposedly read War and Peace in its entirety was in fact, Leo Tolstoy, and even that is in doubt.
Many skeptics note that War and Peace was originally written in Russian, yet now exists in an English translation. They ask where this translation could have come from unless someone read the entire book. They might just as well ask how baby sparrows learn to fly, or why balloons fall up. Such things simply are. You can shut these naysayers up real quick by asking if THEY have ever read the book, at which point they will stare down at their shoes and mumble incomprehensibly.
In 1935, as part of the New Deal, Roosevelt constructed a team composed of one-hundred and fifty unemployed novelists, poets, vaudevillians, and one actual Russian to read War and Peace. Each person was in charge of exploring approximately ten pages, and then summarizing to the rest of the group what they learned, to try to form a complete picture of the book. Here is a transcript from one of their meetings:
F. Scott Fitzgerald: Uh, well it was hard to say really, what was going on. There was a lonely boy, and he was in Russia of course . . .
Buster Keaton: (makes a funny face and falls out of his chair)
(laughter from the group)
Jilly the Ventriloquist: I actually fell asleep two pages into my section. Before that they were walking in the snow, talking about stuff. I think my dummy, Woody, read the rest though.
Woody: Who you callin' a dummy?
It was this team which wrote the historical "War and Peace with the Boring Parts cut out," which has been the basis for every subsequent book report, critical review, flip book, and computer-animated musical film adaptation.
The first 200 pages of the epic novel are widely read, but around page 220, readership drops off sharply, and comes to almost a complete halt by 643 (see graph). Despite the many attempted expeditions into the interior of War and Peace, few have pierced its deep, dark center, or glimpsed the fabled 150 blank pages said to lie near its core. Indeed, more is known about the surface of the moon than about page 1028 (if it does in fact exist) of War and Peace.
I resolved to see how far I myself could journey into the impenetrable depths of War and Peace.
Reprinted here are excerpts from my journal which I kept during the journey.
– – –
I pulled a hamstring just lifting the book off the shelf. You use different muscles lifting books than you do in everyday life, and I just wasn't ready for it. Problem numero uno. The native guides took this as a bad omen and fled. I must carry on . . . alone.
Page 10: I decided it's not cheating to skip the copyright page and table of contents. I plunge right into the beginning of chapter one.
Page 12: I am immediately immersed in a world strange and incomprehensible. My compass spins madly; my sextant turns red hot and melts into a puddle of molten brass.
I leave a trail of breadcrumbs and tie a spool of twine around my waist, should I need to find my way out again.
Page 150: Ive set up camp for the night under a dangling participle. Reading going smoothly so far. I tripped over a 16-letter word and opened a small cut on my forehead, but other than that I'm doing fine. We'll see what happens when I hit the first landmark, page 220.
Page 220: I hit 220 at first light and discovered what has discouraged so many readers before me: a sheer wall of prepositions three pages thick.
I decided to cut my losses and go back. However I turned around to find that voles (or ferrets, its hard to tell from the tracks) had eaten my bread crumbs. My twine is gone as well, and was doubtless untied in the night by mischievous faeries.
There is no turning back now. I must press on.
Page 378: I have befriended a small arctic hare and taught him to walk on a leash. I've named him Leo. He's a capital fellow! We hold long discussions about Nietzsche. I hope I'm able to bring him home to show the chaps at the whist club.
Page 379: Hunger has set in, and I had to eat Leo.
Day 4, or maybe 4,000:
Page 654: I'm lost inside what can only be described as the Literary Bermuda Triangle: a paragraph ten pages long. Without any paragraph breaks, I've lost my sense of direction. I find it increasingly difficult to keep my eye on the folios, and I fear I may be reading in circles.
Page 653: Yes, I'm reading in circles.
Page 654: Hey great, I'm finally back here again.
Page who cares, I'm going to die: I should've asked Debbie to dance, and now I'll never get the chance. I've wasted my life.
Page ???: Legs . . . weary. Vision . . . growing dim. The sea of words is rising higher around me. I surrender to their cold embrace and sink. Darkness washes over me . . .
Page 664: I awake on the shore of page 664. Behind me, stretching unbroken to the horizon, lays the mammoth paragraph which nearly claimed my life. But how did I get here?
In the midst of the sea of words a large sea tortoise floats, waving his flipper at me. He must have towed me to safety! I salute the brave terrapin and set off with new resolve, knowing that providence has handed me a mandate.
Page 725: New words, never before seen by man, scurry amongst the underbrush all around me. I try to catalog as many as I can: bulbouslyish-like, portitudity, gwibberrrrrr, fnoob. Though I'm unable to ascertain their meanings, I can tell you that a fnoob will snatch a ham sandwich right out of your hand if you don't keep your eye on it, and that a gwibberrrrrr is good pan seared with butter and saffron on a bed of baby spinach.
Page unknown: I made a grave error today. I took a nap without laying down a bookmark. When I awoke, I had lost my place. It took me the rest of the day to find it again, after re-reading plenty of pages that weren't interesting the first time around.
Page 800: I am now deeper than any man has read before. The air is very thin here, and I find myself tiring easily.
Page 890: Living so deep within the book, words here have evolved very differently from those at the surface. Many of them are translucent and have luminescent organs, eerily similar to the deep-sea aliens in James Cameron's blockbuster, The Abyss. This merely buttresses my theory that James Cameron is the mouthpiece for the creator of the universe.
Page 925: Something is approaching on the horizon. It's outline is dim, is it a mirage? No! It's an International House of Pancakes with an attached War and Peace giftstore!
The prices at the gift store are outrageous; this is what happens without the healthy competition of a free market. I had to pay $20 for a War and Peace t-shirt. I just had to get it though, because it's really funny. It says on it, "Warren Peace? Never heard of him." If I live through this, I'll kick myself if I haven't gotten a souvenir.
Page 1000: It is no myth. I am standing on the threshold of the fabled 150 blank pages written of in War and Peace lore. Tolstoy peered deep into himself, and envisioned a wasteland so absolute, so empty, that it could not be expressed by words. Either that or I've finally gone blind from peering at the tiny font this book is written in.
Page 1075: Smack in the middle of the wasteland, I find a lone word: PERSPICACITY.
Page 1150: At the edge of the wasteland I come upon three doors. I somehow know that I can only choose one, and how well I choose will decide the outcome of my journey.
I pick the middle door.
Inside is a dusty mirror. Inside the mirror, my mirror-self. He is grotesque. He has little bony-girl legs with gawky doorknob knees and a scrawny chicken neck. His knuckles are hairy. His teeth are gappy. There is a mad, feverish gleam in his pornographer's eyes.
He looks just like me.
He lunges out of the mirror and wraps his filthy fingers around my neck. Though he barely has the strength of a fourth grader, I'm unable to fight him off. I have only one recourse.
I pull my mental self back into my physical body. I come to in my high backed Windsor chair, covered in cobwebs, the mammoth book open and glowing in my lap. A strong wind--a vortex--tears at my smoking jacket, threatening to suck me back into the pages. My pipe is sucked out of my mouth and disappears into the book.
With every last bit of my strength, I close the book and hurl it into the fireplace. This accomplishes little, since the fireplace is never lit (Im allergic to smoke). I quickly take the book outside with a pair of tongs and burn it on my hibachi, where it explodes in a noxious tower of blue flame which all my neighbors complain about the next day.
What did I learn from my journey? Did I learn anything about myself? Did I learn anything about the tragic comedy known as the human race? No. All I learned is that War and Peace is a dog from hell, and that bitch will finish you if you don't finish it first.
"But you didn't finish the book," I can hear some of you smarty-pants in the back row saying.
I'm sorry, but that is the end of this week's adventure