Tuesday, February 14, 2006


There was an excellent article in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer by Frank Wilson discussing a new translation of War and Peace, the second greatest novel ever written. Wilson ably explained what makes Tolstoy's immense classic a great read.

I encountered the work 20 years ago when working the night shift in a huge railyard in the industrial heart of Detroit. In a spartan office of stone walls and a steel desk on an upper floor of a narrow tower, I would look out across a barren gray landscape and take in its silence. A sole light from a reading lamp shone on the desk upon which I scanned the train consist, manifest, and invoices when trains arrived direct from Canada through an ancient underground tunnel under the Detroit River. I'd hear the three yellow diesel "pullers" roaring and straining with their train of 100 cars. As the glowing yellow light of the front engine approached, with tremendous power, the window and entire sooted stone tower itself shook from the passing thunder as I checked off the cars. I'd walk the mile-long train after it was yarded.

Back in my office, with time to kill before the next puller, I'd return to the novel. The mood of the railyard in winter, snow sweeping across it, in the brooding city of Detroit, perfectly matched the expansive Russian tone of the book.

Wilson's article caused me to think about Tolstoy and why novelists today can't achieve what he did. Could the answer lie in Tolstoy's essay "What Is Art?" in which he mocks the schools and salons of his day which cranked out not original free-thinking artists but well-trained slavishly sycophantic copyists?

Literature today is corrupt and decrepit, irrelevant to the overwhelming bulk of the populace. It's a sad statement that a novel written by a Russian dude 100 years prior had far more to say to an ordinary guy working in a Detroit railyard than any contemporary work produced by his own culture.

Our literature is beyond redemption; it's built on weak ground, with a crooked foundation; we can only tear down the house and start over-- which the ULA is doing. While surveying the landscape and designing the new home, we can at the same time pay attention to neglected novelists of our day (Philly writer Lawrence Richette has a new book out) who write with ambition, fire, clarity, and intelligence, as once did Leo Tolstoy.

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