September 18, 2019

Before and After September 11, The Tolstoy Tower Looms Large

By Stuart Mitchner

The Wednesday after the Tuesday from Hell I’m in the Community Room at the old library setting up what will be the last Friends Book Sale before the move to a temporary location in the Princeton Shopping Center. Like most people in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I’m still trying to deal with yesterday’s nightmare. So it’s good to have the distraction of a tiring, totally absorbing task. Although volunteers helped in the moving and unloading of donations, ultimately it’s up to me to get everything ready for the Friday morning opening, and I still have at least a hundred boxes to unpack and price. By the time I arrange stand-up signs on the tables for History, Religion, Biography, Science, and Literature, I’m getting punchy, thinking these aren’t books, they’re the broken pieces of western civilization I’m putting in place, one man’s deranged response to what happened yesterday in lower Manhattan against a pure blue sky, a perfect morning, absolute clarity, then out of nowhere absolute apocalyptic carnage.

Gazing out over the vista of tables piled high with books not yet arranged in rows, I see the towering stacks as buildings, or so it seems in the hour of supreme, up-after-my-bedtime mindlessness. Acutely aware of the relevance of the titles to Tuesday’s madness, I begin the first row of Literature with the Modern Library editions of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Balzac’s Lost Illusions. I’m wondering which would cast the longest shadow in a skyline made of classics, a tower of Balzac or a tower of Tolstoy? On any other day, measured in terms of sheer quantity, it would be the many-storied work of the author of the Human Comedy soaring skyward above all others, but War and Peace is the novel I’ve been absorbed by for months, finally, thankfully, for the first time since I was 20 and unable to love it as much as Anna Karenina. What I’m especially grateful for is knowing that on the night before the catastrophe I was reading and rereading Tolstoy’s account of young Petya Rostov’s enchanted final hours. It was something to cherish forever, to have felt the euphoria all readers should know at least once in their lives, to have spent that night of all nights under Tolstoy’s spell.

Now, after a day of non-stop beyond-belief television, I can’t stop seeing terrified New Yorkers in flight from the monstrous mass of debris risen in Satanic splendor from the smoking ruin, headed full-force up Broadway, as if the mad genius terrorists had designs on midtown, even Central Park. That’s when it dawns on me that the Balzac and Tolstoy buildings should be equal in height, like the Twin Towers.    

The Week Before

Working late Wednesday and Thursday, I have the library to myself, except for what has become an annual late-night ritual shared with Bianca, the cleaning woman, who sticks her head in the door, says hello, and goes “Ahhh!” at the sight of all those books. In the old library building, the Community Room was on the second floor, just to the right of the stairway,  except there’s no such thing as an unhaunted stairway on the Week After, not when you keep imagining the scene on the stairwells in the North and South towers.

It’s when I’m reeling around, dizzy-tired, that I begin remembering things that happened the Week Before. Given what I’m surrounded by, it’s no wonder my first thought is of Saturday’s 20th anniversary party for Micawber Books, celebrated at a roadhouse north of Hopewell with a live band rocking out while people boogied the night away. A few days later that rollicking festive occasion would become another of those sad-making “little did they know” events overshadowed by tragedy.

I’m also reminded of Sunday night watching the last film my wife and I saw before 9/11, an old favorite called (you can’t make this stuff up)  Ball of Fire. All day Tuesday the same television set would be recycling images of the smoking ruins, making a morbid pun on a title meant only to suggest the cosmic impact of Barbara Stanwyck’s burlesque dancer Sugarpuss O’Shea on a bunch of lovable stuffed shirts working on an encylopedia.

Last but not least in the land of little-did-we-know, late Monday night into Tuesday I was on the phone with an old friend of the road about the time we got free room and board for painting a mural in the dining area of Kabul’s Benazir Hotel. The mural was meant to show the dragon of the East in mortal combat with the eagle of the West. Our audience was composed of sullen tea-sipping Afghanis who could be fathers or grandfathers of today’s Taliban.

Human Meaning

I’ve just now gone back to the New York Times’ interactive “Portraits of Grief” website for the first time since writing about Portraits: 9/11/01 on the tenth anniversary of the attack. This time what caught my eye as I scrolled down through the names and faces was a piece of poetry written by a 29-year-old father for his infant son that begins, “Open your eyes young Nicholas/Open and see the colors/Of the world around you,” and ends, “Walk young Nicholas/Walk and find — “ That’s as far as he got. It’s like a microcosm of what happened that day, the abruptness of a line and a life cut short, the way the father’s life had ended. Walk and find what, I’m wondering. Nicholas would be going on 19 today. What did he find? One thing we know he found is an unfinished poem made all the more precious by an act of mass-murder.

Great literature transcends “little-did-they-know.” Writers like Tolstoy and Balzac somehow know, regardless of specific situations and sheer numbers of the lost and fallen, and the incomprehensible magnitude of events like 9/11, which we’ve neatly and conveniently reduced to a two-digit code. What the reporters who put together “Portraits of Grief” were trying to do is to bestow some human meaning on each of the lives lost that day. What happens in War and Peace when Tolstoy writes about a 16-year-old soldier’s last night alive is the same thing taken to the highest power.

A Fairy Kingdom

The spell Tolstoy creates around Petya Rostov’s last night is further evidence of the novelistic magic that has readers caring about a minor character so far  known merely as Natasha’s younger brother. Seen through the boy’s drowsy eyes, the “big dark blotch” on his right is a watchman’s hut, and the “red blotch” below to his left the “dying embers of a campfire.” Soon he’s in a waking dream, “a fairy kingdom where nothing resembled reality. The big dark blotch might really be the watchman’s hut or it might be a cavern leading to the very depths of the earth,” while the red of the campfire “might be the eye of an enormous monster.” Perhaps he’s “really sitting on a wagon” or it might be “a terribly high tower from which, if he fell, he would have to fall for a whole day or a whole month, or go on falling and never reach the bottom.”

As his eyes begin to close, the sound made by the Cossack sharpening Petya’s sword against the whetstone becomes in his ears an orchestra “playing some unknown, sweetly solemn hymn.” Somewhere between waking and dreaming, he imagines himself conducting the orchestra. Whatever he wishes to hear, the sounds obey him: “Now softly, softly die away! Now fuller, more joyful. Still more and more joyful!” As from “an unknown depth” rise “increasingly triumphant sounds.” Now he hears men’s voices and then women’s growing “in harmonious triumphant strength,” as he listens “to their surpassing beauty in awe and joy.”

In the next chapter Petya’s living his dream, riding his horse into battle, waving his sword, shouting “Hurrah-ah-ah!” as “without pausing a moment” he gallops “to the place whence came the sounds of firing and where the smoke was thickest.” We see what happens next through the eyes of Denisov, an officer the boy idolizes: “Petya was galloping along the courtyard, but instead of holding the reins he waved both his arms about rapidly and strangely, slipping farther and farther to one side in his saddle. His horse, having galloped up to a campfire that was smoldering in the morning light, stopped suddenly, and Petya fell heavily on to the wet ground. The Cossacks saw that his arms and legs jerked rapidly though his head was quite motionless. A bullet had pierced his skull.”

Tuesday morning there’s no room for Petya’s final hour, which is still glowing somewhere in my mind, and I remember it when I read the words, “Walk young Nicholas/Walk and find —”

The Library as Refuge

It’s pouring rain the Friday morning of the book sale, never a good sign, yet there’s the usual long line for the paid preview. The mood is different, however. With all the death and destruction being constantly recycled on the news, people seem to be sharing an awareness of the unthinkable reality only an hour away. 

Saturday and Sunday the weather’s beautiful and the library’s bustling, not so much the “community living room” as it will be known in its 2004 incarnation, but a calm refuge in the eye of the hurricane. The turn-out is amazing, unprecedented, as though the event had been a formally arranged respite for people in need

In his journal for September 1899, Tolstoy asks himself, “What is this faculty connecting separate beings in time, into one?” He continues, “I have to manifest myself and know myself in time — for communion with other beings and for influencing them.”

The quotations are from the Oxford World Classics India paper edition of War and Peace, translated by Aylmer and Louise Maude.