I wanted to go back because six months earlier I’d had such a swell time; got a great tan, danced on the beach, lost twenty pounds (all that Dexedrine), and had an affair with a skinny friend of my ex-wife. But when I came home, everything had slid sickeningly back into place. So I hocked a family heirloom and bought a discount plane ticket. Three weeks, no changes. M, my ex-wife, cooked me dinner the night before I left. Our seven-year-old daughter skittered into the kitchen in a pink track suit. She drew me a picture of a snake in a top hat. For good luck, she said. She knew I was frightened of flying.
“Don’t say anything,” M said (she had something in her hand), “just give it a chance.” She plopped a fat, gleaming paperback novel on the table in front of me. War and Peace was a book I had avoided all my life, a book that, like Proust, only a stiff prison sentence could accommodate. But I loved M and I knew she loved me, so I put the book in my shoulder bag the next morning (Jesus, what have you got in there, a brick) and went to the airport. It was 1985. I was thirty-five years old.
I don’t care for airports in the early morning. There’s an alarming quality to people’s faces at that hour, a pink brutishness, which extinguishes one’s appetite for conversation. Stuck near the end of a long lineup to check in, I pulled War and Peace from my bag and scrutinized its cover. A Russian hussar cantering on dappled horse; you can feel the troops, cannon smoke, and bayonets in the background.
“That’s a marvellous book,” a small voice said. An elderly woman behind me pointed a finger at my book. You could see she was not a person to intrude on a stranger, but that somehow the occasion, almost as if I were holding a photograph of someone she knew, justified it.
“I’ve read it three times,” she said. “I’m getting ready for my fourth.”
“You’ve read this three times”
“I try to read it every five years.”
I woke up with a hangover the next morning in a small Jamaican hotel. Finding myself in the same sun-baked room I had so happily occupied only six months before (except not alone), with the same soupy heat trying to squeeze in the door like a fat man, a dog barking mindlessly in the yard below, I couldn’t recall for the life of me why it had seemed almost religiously important to get back here. I lay on my side like a wounded animal, waiting to be rescued by sleep’s second act. When that failed I opened War and Peace (this should do it), and facing the white stucco wall, sweat already dribbling across my chest, I began to read. We are at a gathering in the luxurious Moscow apartments of Anna Pavlovna, gossip and confidante to the powers-that-be in the Russian court. It is 1805, the talk is of war and Napoleon. “Well, my prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family....”
I have kept that copy of War and Peace, a spine-broken 1,400 pages held together by an elastic band. I cannot bear to throw it out (although I know my children will, twenty minutes after my passing). I have a check mark beside the paragraph where, even in the rollercoaster grip of a white rum hangover, I began to pay acute attention. I had been expecting, as one often finds with nineteenth-century novels, a kind of beautiful boredom. Instead, after only a few pages, I experienced one of those moments when you’ve been half-listening to someone you don’t take seriously and suddenly they say something so sharp, so true that it jars you physically, like the sound of expensive material ripping, and you realize tout d’un coup that you have completely underestimated them. Three days later, I found myself stopping a stranger on the road outside my hotel and asking him, “Have you ever read this fucking thing”