“Classics you must read,” and Other Lies I’ve Been Told

September, 2022
Una V., Blog Correspondent
Una V. (she/her) is a proud Vic student who thinks that both Taylor Swift and Anton Chekhov are the best things to have happened to society. Ever. In between her lectures you'll find her speed-walking across Queen's Park, retreating to the (relative) safety of Graham Library, where she pretends to do readings while blasting UK rap.

In a system where productivity is everything, it’s hard not to treat the books you read as just another item to check off your never-ending “To-Do” list. For a long time, I’ve noticed this tendency in myself and in others to read books for the sake of being able to say we’ve read them. This is especially true of literary classics, the names of which are known to anyone who has existed in this world long enough to come across a “Top 100 Books” scratch-off poster in the home of some bibliophile or other. As a lover of classics, I can personally attest that To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Eyre are all fabulous books, worthy of their places in our high school curriculum. Still, something about the way we treat classic novels really rubs me the wrong way. It’s as though we place these books on a pedestal so high that we dare not reach out our arms to really grab ‘em.

My own deferential attitude towards classics changed recently when I read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The book sat squarely upon my shelf, glaring at me, until a post-exam cold forced me into bed for two weeks, leaving me with endless time to do my favorite thing in the world: read. Perhaps it was feverish delirium that finally drove me to pick up War and Peace, I know not. For the score of readers who are not my parents or dear friends, picture a twenty-year-old girl, short in stature but frequently told she gives off “tall person energy,” with bangs painstakingly trimmed using bathroom scissors, likely wearing her Garfield pajamas while blowing a nose she is excessively proud of and sucking on throat lozenges her mother hand-delivered to her bedside. Now, I doubt most people would consider War and Peace a suitable read for a poor, ailing student but they would all be grossly incorrect. There is no better time to pick up War and Peace than when you’re laid up in bed—a mountain of pillows supporting your exhausted, sweaty head—with essentially no way of escaping the 1200-page “baggy monster” which Henry James famously called that novel. ‘Cause trust me, there will be times when you will want to run and hide from the monotonous descriptions of battle movements which Tolstoy so painstakingly relates in his book which is part historical record, part essay, and part novel, all in one.

Don’t get me wrong, I found most of War and Peace a genuine delight to read, especially the chapters which center around the adventurous, captivating—occasionally cruel, but ultimately human—members of the Rostov family. One scene sticks out in my mind, above all else for its description of childish wonder and excitement at first love. After performing some silly Christmas-play at a neighbouring estate, Nikolai Rostov drives off alone in a troika with his cousin, Sonya. He is decked out in a woman’s dress while she wears boys’ clothes, sporting a fake moustache to boot. They had just had their first, clumsy kiss:

Nikolai, no longer racing, drove smoothly on the way back and, in that strange moonlight, kept peering at Sonya, seeking, in that ever-changing light, behind the eyebrows and mustache, the former and the present Sonya, from whom he had now resolved never to be parted. He peered, and, when he recognized the same one and the other and remembered the smell of cork mixed with the feeling of the kiss, he drew in the frosty air and, gazing at the earth speeding past and the brilliant sky, he again felt himself in a magical kingdom. (Tolstoy 787)

This passage made my heart ache when I read it, and even more now that I know how the novel ends. Nikolai’s boyish sense of invincibility, combined with his strong morals, puts him in direct conflict with not only the established rules of well-bred society, but with the endless protocols he must follow in the army. The youthful arrogance Tolstoy describes here serves as the basis for Nikolai’s tyrannical disposition as a lover and eventual head of his family. All that aside, it is a pretty passage that captures the world the way a child sees it: eternal and promising. I would never have known the wealth of beauty or humanity War and Peace had I let its intimidating reputation or page length prevent me from giving it a shot.

Like I always do with novels that feature an introduction, I put off reading Pevear’s introduction to War and Peace until I finished the whole book (‘cause, hello? Spoilers!). Pevear includes a quote from playwright Bertolt Brecht that perfectly encapsulates what I’m trying to say here about labelling books as classics:

What gets lost is the classic’s original freshness, the element of surprise… of newness, of productive stimulus that is the hallmark of such works. The passionate quality of a great masterpiece is replaced by stage temperament, and where the classics are full of fighting spirit, here the lessons taught the audience are tame and cozy and fail to grip. (Brecht 23)

It took reading the words of a world-famous writer to understand my own feelings on this matter for likely the same reason we’re all scared to pick up our pens and write; in our society, an author’s death exalts them to an untouchable status, beyond the reproach of those of us who normally never write anything longer than a tweet or email. At least, that’s how I always saw it. But how often have you read a classic that felt “tame and cozy,” a book which failed “to grip” (23)? Why should our literary heroes be beyond reproach, when we subject our contemporary writers to an even harsher criticism? We are so used to extolling the virtues of classic novels that we often neglect the very quirks that made these works so endearing in the first place.

I knew from hearsay when I picked up War and Peace that I was risking feeling extremely bored. And I was bored, at times, but I was also charmed, thrilled, heartbroken, and moved. If I wish to say anything else on the subject it is this: once you let go of the expectation that a book is either tremendously fascinating or terribly dull, you can accept that any great work of literature is often both, or sometimes neither. Sometimes, it is simply an enjoyable ride; and that’s the best thing of all.

Why should our literary heroes be beyond reproach, when we subject our contemporary writers to an even harsher criticism? We are so used to extolling the virtues of classic novels that we often neglect the very quirks that made these works so endearing in the first place.

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