Paul Grondahl is director of the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany, the author of several books and a weekly columnist for the Times Union, where he spent 33 years as a reporter. He is a UAlbany distinguished alumnus in arts and letters.
Favorite poet: Tyehimba Jess. Not only is he a brilliant poet, but he wants to bring the beauty of literature to underserved communities. I spent an amazing three hours with him in a New York State prison talking about poetry and writing and life with 100 inmates.
Favorite writers: William Kennedy, a no-brainer. I go back to the classics: Steinbeck, Hemingway, Mark Twain, and more contemporary writers including Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson.
Books that I must own: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Anything by John McPhee.
On finishing War and Peace
By Paul Grondahl
Three times I began War and Peace.
Each time, Leo Tolstoy's literary classic, all 2.3 pounds and 1,408 pages of it, defeated me.
It shames me, an English major with a bachelor's and master's degree in literature, to admit that I did not have the stamina or commitment to finish the Russian novelist's masterpiece – widely considered one of the greatest novels ever written.
As I approached 60, it loomed as a glaring omission in my reading repertoire. It was a challenge unmet, a marathon abandoned at mile 17.
"You're bringing that on the trip?" my wife asked, with a quizzical look.
She had seen me drop Tolstoy's tome – as thick as two bricks and roughly as heavy – into my backpack as we prepared for a summer trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg. It made a dull thud.
"I can't think of a better time to read it," I said.
I hefted that Tolstoyan doorstop out of my backpack and rested it on my knee on planes, trains and automobiles as we toured Russia, a weighty and insistent presence.
Writers Institute Director Paul Grondahl hefted this copy of War and Peace all across Russia in 2018
War and Peace came alive in my mind's eye with pulsating power and descriptive force, when Mary and I visited Tolstoy's estate, Yasnaya Polyana. It is located in Tula, a sister city to Albany. Yet nobody with whom we spoke – assisted by my wife's fluent Russian – from our cab driver to train station attendants had ever heard of Albany.
We arrived in Tula after a nearly four-hour train ride from Moscow. The only seats available were in a sleeper car, where extended Russian families in pajamas and under garments turned the bunk areas into de facto campsites. A rank, oniony tang permeates piles of shoes and socks, sweaty bodies (there was no air-conditioning), towels wet from the shower at the end of the car, and mounds of food and drink. Loud snoring and crying babies became our soundtrack. It felt like I had walked into a scene from War and Peace.
At Yasnaya Polyana, we met Galina Alexeeva, a Tolstoy scholar and author who has worked at the author's estate for 33 years. She organizes a conference every two years with Tolstoy experts from a dozen countries. She led us through the mansion and grounds where the great writer was born and spent most of his 82 years. He died in 1910, but the place feels like he just stepped out for the afternoon. We perused his personal library of 22,000 books and journals that spill into most of the rooms. Many of the volumes are stuffed with handwritten notes in the margins. His walking stick rests by the front door. Two of the simple white peasant blouses Tolstoy favored hang on hooks in his bedroom.
Count Leo Tolstoy had one of the greatest beards in all of literature, a wild tangle of chalky moss. His restless genius was forever searching and rarely satisfied. He engaged in existential internal debates as he sought to answer profound questions on the meaning of life and his place in the universe. He poured his heart, mind and soul into the pages of voluminous diaries and protean novels. He was a jumble of contradictions: a law school dropout, a gambling addict who lost a fortune, a traitor to his aristocratic class, consumed by a spiritual crisis, prone to depression and kind to the serfs on the estate. He was a veteran of the Crimean War who became a pacifist and maintained a correspondence with Mohandas Gandhi. He and his wife had 13 children, but just before his death, he signed away all rights to his lucrative literary catalog, a middle finger to ownership that cost millions of rubles to his descendants.
Tolstoy filters all that drama and conflict of his life down onto the page of War and Peace, the way intense heat renders sap into maple syrup. His characters moved me with their human frailties and how they fought and loved, picked themselves up from ruin, and soldiered on.
I read the Anthony Briggs translation, published in 2006 by Penguin. It's hard to believe War and Peace celebrates its 150th anniversary of publication this year. Tolstoy's language shimmers with lyricism and potent emotion. Its dozens of characters from across the social stratum feel timeless as they navigate the upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars. I liked the war parts better than the peace sections. Tolstoy brilliantly captured the banality and absurdity of the ornate soirees and liaisons of aristocrats in his acerbic critique of Russian high society, but the set pieces felt soulless. It is in the graphic and heartbreaking battle scenes where Tolstoy excels by capturing the chaos and madness of war and all the ways conquest destroys individual soldiers, families on the home front, and entire societies. It is a study in political power and social order run amok.
Alexeeva has lost count of how many times she has read War and Peace, but each re-reading brings fresh insights. "I find it inspiring, rewarding and endlessly fascinating," she said, and finds Tolstoy's influence on Faulkner, Hemingway and other great American novelists.
By finally finishing War and Peace, I felt like I joined a certain club of elite readers, including the critics. A writer friend made this assessment: "Tolstoy needed a good editor." I don't disagree. I could only read the exquisite filigree of his prose in short stints and I came to think of that thick tome like a bottle of rare Scotch to be sipped and savored. I found the 100-page epilogue excessive, an author overreaching by riffing on philosophy and the gyre of history and having a hard time letting go of his masterwork.
I told an emeritus English professor from graduate school at UAlbany that I was reading War and Peace. We corresponded about other things every few months and he asked how the reading was going. He concluded one email: "P.S. That big book. Who won? Napoleon or the Russians?"
Trick question, professor. Neither the French Emperor nor Russian Czar Alexander I could claim victory in madness of the war begun in 1812, fought over the pretense of religion. Napoleon entered an abandoned and deserted Moscow, depleted of supplies. He left without a surrender or a decisive victory and French soldiers dropped like flies in the wintry retreat. The czar caused the dislocation of the entire capital and more than 4 million Russians died, soldiers and civilians, while France suffered a million casualties.
We walked through the woods to a clearing and stood at an unmarked mound of meadow grass ringed by ferns and pine trees on the edge of a ravine. Tolstoy's grave is a serene, peaceful and unadorned place where pilgrims leave flowers and notes of admiration. The late French President Francois Mitterrand came for a tour. President Vladimir Putin visited Yasnaya Polyana two years ago. Today, War and Peace is required reading for all Russian high school students.
Tolstoy chose his final resting place based on a story his older brother Nikolai told him when he was a young boy. He convinced little Leo that in the ravine in the woods a little green stick was hidden with the secret of the universe engraved on it. If one could find and decipher the markings on the stick, there would be no wars or illnesses and all people would live in peace.
I felt the comforting weight of War and Peace in my backpack as I turned and walked away, humbled and grateful, trying to fathom the profound lessons contained in it.
First published in the Albany Times Union March 5, 2019. Reprinted with permission.