Nothing Is So Necessary for a Young Man...

More

Citizen E has been on me to read War And Peace for over a year now. He echoes my father, who has been on me to read War And Peace for the better part of twenty years. I'm having a hard time with it, and evidently, I am in good company. Henry James called it a "large loose baggy monster." I have found it much the same--emphasis on monster. It's tough to get a foothold on any one character, or any one set of events--there are many formal soirées where it feels like nothing, save gossiping over Napolean's latest machinations, seem to happen. 


And yet I am attracted to Tolstoy's seeming disrespect for plot and form even as I am not sure what, precisely, I'm reading. But more than that I'm attracted by own limits, to the rather strict nature of my native aesthetic. Pops traces my days as a writer back to toddlerdom. He says when I was just two I would sit by the speaker and demand that he play the Last Poets' Delights Of The Garden over and over again. I don't much remember what's on that record, but I have vague memories of being transfixed by the Last Poets. 

I think it's about some deep sense that a sentence is really an instrument of percussion, that I hear all my favorite writers the way other people hear Max Roach. I finished Rebecca a few weeks back and as much I loved how, for most of the book, Du Maurier manages the suspense, how she turns your own fearful curiosity against you, what I really love is the rhythm of something like this:

I wonder what she is doing now. She and Favell. I think it was the expression on her face that gave me my first feeling of unrest. Instinctively, I thought, "She is comparing me to Rebecca."; and sharp as a sword, the shadow came between us.

I read that, and, rightly or wrongly, I heard African drumming. Same for Doctorow. Same for Fitzgerald (especially in his Jazz Age essays.) Same for Komunyakaa. Same for Diaz. I see literature through an odd Afrocentric lens. What I love about the Western canon, I love because it  takes me back to what I thought was beautiful all those days ago when I would troop to school thinking over and over,

It's only one capable, breaks the unbreakable,
Melodies unmakable, patterns unescapble.
A haunt if you want the style I posses, 
I bless the Child, the Earth, the Gods and bomb the rest..

I read Tolstoy and don't hear drumming--or rather not the drumming that I am as yet qualified to recognize. And I think that's the point. I don't hope to love this book--if I do, that's great. But more so, I hope to understand why so many other people love this book, to appreciate their appreciation, if not to share it. I have said this before, but I would hate to grow old and become a prisoner to my own aesthetics. I do not despise those who inveigh against hip-hop and X-Boxes--but I fear, most powerfully, becoming them.

My Dad read War and Peace before he went off to Vietnam. He must have been about 16, a poor black kid trying to find his way out of Philadelphia. By the time he came to Tolstoy, he'd seen his father alive for the last time. He'd come home, as a six-year old, and seen all of his home set out in the street. He'd lived in a truck for a week, and he'd come to believe that if he stayed in Philly, he would be killed. Still awaiting him was the murder of two of his older brothers, the service, the Panthers, and a tribe of children.

What moves someone like that to Tolstoy? What allows you to cross that long, dreamy bridge from the ghettos of America to the parlors of old Russia?

There is something out there. I'm going to find it.

Jump to comments

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Did I Study Physics?

In this hand-drawn animation, a college graduate explains why she chose her major—and what it taught her about herself.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Video

How Is Social Media Changing Journalism?

How new platforms are transforming radio, TV, print, and digital

Video

The Place Where Silent Movies Sing

How an antique, wind-powered pipe organ brings films to life

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

From This Author