The Paris Review

Childhood, Boyhood, Youth


They had finished reading War and Peace, and now they were celebrating their triumph at a Russian supper club in Brighton Beach. There were twelve of them seated at the long table (“Just like that painting of what’s-his-name’s dinner, minus what’s-his-name,” Kyla said brightly), and, well, Derek assumed that at least half had probably finished War and Peace. Or, fine: he imagined it was safe to say that, on the whole, the table had at least started reading War and Peace.

Derek had made it to within a hundred pages of the end, though he had admittedly skimmed a little down the stretch. He knew that Pierre and Natasha got together, which had begun to seem structurally inevitable at some point—in approximately ten thousand pages there were only about five characters—though it was somewhat psychologically improbable. He also wasn’t totally clear on what a samovar was.

He’d been proved wrong in his interpretations of the text at many junctures over the eight months they’d spent reading and discussing the book, his theories and analyses shot down by better, or at least more confidently, educated members of the group. Some of them had gone to Yale and others to Harvard, and he’d developed a handy cheat to remember which had gone where. The Harvard kids acted mildly embarrassed when he said something dumb, sometimes even waiting until after the session to correct him on his political or geographic ignorance. The ones from Yale made sure to keep the humiliation public and, if possible, prolonged.

In one of their first meetings, Derek had suggested that Tolstoy showed a grudging respect for Napoleon, or was at least willing to acknowledge his world-historic importance, even though he was the enemy.

“That’s completely the opposite of true,” a tall man named Jonathan said. “Tolstoy despised Napoleon and thought the whole idea of historical significance was nonsense. Do you have any examples?”

Derek had glanced around the room for support, but even Thomas, his roommate, whom he had invited specifically to back him up in moments like this, only stared down at the massive open book in his lap.

“Just … in the prose itself, I guess,” Derek said. “The prose about Napoleon just feels like it has an air of respect to it.”

“Well, does his prose ever seem disrespectful to you?” Jonathan said, peering down his nose through invisible reading glasses.

“To be fair, it is translated,” Violet said. “I don’t imagine any of us can really comment on the prose style very accurately.”

They all, consciously or not, transferred their gazes toward Pyotr, who had moved to the States when he was seven and was ostentatiously reading the book in his Russian parents’ Soviet-era multivolume edition.

“Sorry, friends, my literary analysis isn’t strong enough in either language to gauge, ah, respectfulness,” he said amiably. “Plus, I didn’t even know Napoleon was in this section. I was too busy the last couple of weeks to keep up.”

Pyotr was in law school at Columbia, a sudden turn he’d taken after two years of working on a comp lit Ph.D. in which he’d planned to focus on Italo Svevo and Joseph Roth. Derek had assumed that Pyotr must be extremely intelligent, given these pursuits, but at that point he had not yet contributed anything to the reading group other than encouraging nods and smiles. Now, after what felt like nearly a lifetime, Pyotr of anyone, with the likely exception of Leslie, who argued fiercely and cheerfully about the book month after month despite clearly having only the most glancing familiarity with its contents. She apparently read enough to draw a faint mustache on her upper lip upon arrival at the restaurant, in honor, she said, of the little princess.

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