It was an ill-advised journey. You don’t go to Jamaica in August unless you grew up there. Too hot. And those roosters.
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? ”
I was the only guest in the hotel. The staff had retreated to their homes in nearby towns. There was only the owner, who was a big-chested former policeman, and a bean-pole bartender, who subbed as cook. And me, of course, drifting up and down the hotel steps with War and Peace in my hand. Eating a solitary breakfast in the dining room. Wandering down the road to the beach where bare-breasted Italian girls played volleyball on the sand and I, like that poor prick in Death in Venice, read in the shade and waited for lunch.
It sounds bad but it wasn’t. Because I had War and Peace and it pulled me out of my unhappiness as if I were on a rail. While the girls splashed in the waves (“Tonio! Vieni amore! Vieni!”), I followed the doings of a handful of Russian aristocrats on the eve of the battle of Schongraben. The clumsy, illegitimate Pierre Bezuhov comes into a huge inheritance that transforms him overnight into Moscow’s most attractive bachelor. A teenage Natasha Rostov (after whom men have been naming their daughters for nearly 150 years) thrills at the spectacle of her father’s agile dancing at a court ball:
“Look at papa,” Natasha shouted to all the room (entirely forgetting that she was dancing with a grown-up partner), and ducking down till her curly head almost touched her knees, she went off into her ringing laugh that filled the hall.
Then come the great battles. Sweet-natured Count Nicholas Rostov (Natasha’s softie brother) finds himself in combat for the first time. Who, before Tolstoy, wrote a paragraph like this?:
He gazed at the approaching French, and although only a few seconds before he had been longing to get at these Frenchmen and cut them down, their being so near seemed to him now so awful that he could not believe his eyes. “Who are they? What are they running for? Can it be to me? Can they be running to me? And what for? To kill me? Me, whom everyone is so fond of? ” He recalled his mother’s love, the love of his family and his friends, and the enemy’s intention of killing him seemed impossible .… He snatched up his pistol and instead of firing it, flung it at [a] Frenchman and ran into the bushes with all his might.
Years later, I cemented an intuitive dislike for a television producer who turned her lovely, careerist features toward me one afternoon and claimed that the battle scenes in War and Peace had “bored” her (her ascendancy through the hierarchy of international television remains, depressingly, unchecked), whereas when I put the unforgiving W&P question to her husband, a spiky-haired local personality who had always struck me as an articulate flake, he raised his shoulders in a matter-of-fact gesture and said, “Oh, it’s the greatest novel ever.” I’ve adored him ever since.
Like the acting of Christopher Walken or the movies of Eric Rohmer, Tolstoy’s magnum opus is a magnet for foolish opinions. It always has been. When it came out in 1869, a number of Moscow critics denounced it, some for containing too much French, others for being the self-regarding work of an aristocrat. One rancorous fellow attacked it for not “being either a novel or a novella.” Most surprising, though, was Turgenev, who described the first twenty-eight chapters like this: “The thing is positively bad, boring and a failure .… All those little details so cleverly noted and presented in baroque style, those psychological remarks which the author digs out of his heroes’ armpits and other dark places in the name of verisimilitude—all that is paltry and trivial.” Heroes’ armpits? Wow. Talk about missing the boat. Never mind. Joseph Stalin liked W&P so much that during the Nazi invasion, he retooled the country’s military outfits—gilded epaulettes, scarlet and white jackets, trousers with piping—so they might more closely resemble those in the novel.
On a less historical scale perhaps, M and I went shopping for a high school for our by-then-teenage daughter (no longer in pink sweatsuits). We interviewed one gentleman, the head of a reputable English department who, after a gentle prod, announced that he didn’t care for Tolstoy. “None of it,” he said, crossing his legs and folding his arms defiantly. Once, when I was interviewing the English “novelist” Ken Follett, he confided that Anna Karenina was “okay” but that he “didn’t care at all” for War and Peace. All this delivered with a straight face from the man who brought us The Hammer of Eden.
But back to Jamaica. Late afternoons, I trudged home from the beach, two miles, and napped in my little white hot box. In the yard the dogs slept in the shade. When I woke up the sun had set but the room sweltered. I staggered onto the patio with my book and turned on the light and settled into a deck chair. A round moon rose up in the sky as a world-weary Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (the scene gives me goosebumps just recalling it) opens the shutters on a beautiful starry night and overhears the enchanting voice of a young girl, Natasha, on the floor above:
“Just look how lovely it is! Oh, how glorious! Do wake up, Sonya,” and there were almost tears in her voice. “There never, never was such an exquisite night.”
It just went on and on, a reading experience of such transport, of such tenderness (Tolstoy’s compassion for his characters has the vividness of a mother suffering for her own child) that, for hours at a time, it blocked out the bleakness, the carnival’s-left-town feel of a Caribbean resort in the off-season. Tolstoy is one of literature’s great payoff artists. If you think about a novel (and let’s not get too highfalutin about this) as a series of musical chords, say, C, Am, F, for example, then Tolstoy, more than any other writer I’ve experienced, understood what chord the reader needs, really needs to hear next—the inevitable G, the progression’s perfect consummation. Which is why Tolstoy can make a reader so deliriously happy. (Unlike Chekhov, who, like Charlie Parker, follows a series of unpredictable chord changes that make his short stories seem both atonal and at the same time completely lifelike.)
Writing War and Peace was a happy time for Tolstoy. You can feel it in the prose, in the ineffable lift of some of the book’s 125 scenes. He was already a bit of a literary star when he started it in 1862. Childhood (1852), Boyhood (1854), Youth (1857), and The Cossacks (1862), all novellas, had already come out in literary journals and made quite the splash. And unlike his contemporary, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy (pronounced by Russian speakers with the emphasis on the second vowel) didn’t have any money worries; he was an independently wealthy aristocrat who lived on an inherited four-thousand-acre estate with a woman who, at that point anyway, adored him and believed ardently in his gifts. Writing in her diary, Sofya confided, “Are there any couples more united and happier than we? Sometimes, when I am alone in my room, I begin to laugh and cross myself,” and elsewhere, “Nothing affects me as strongly as his ideas and his talent.” Sofya also, and this seems almost unimaginable today, copied out most of the 1,400-page W&P manuscript at least seven times. “Have I changed,” she wrote, “or is the book really very good? ” Tolstoy was never so joyful again and, for my money, never wrote so well again.
One morning I zoomed into the hotel restaurant and spotted an inordinately good-looking young man sitting at a table, having coffee. I had just finished the section where Rostov takes a nighttime sleigh ride with the young Sonya, the moon hanging in the sky, bells on the horses jingling. It was a scene that had so exhilarated me, so excited my faith in romantic love, the notion that all things were still possible, even for me, that I had been unable to sit still and had finally shot out of the room. And now, look, a human being! Tanned, with a Roman nose and perfect teeth, he looked like a movie star. When he opened his mouth to return my greeting, I heard a soft Australian accent. I plied him with questions. He was a musician, taking a holiday. That’s nice. And is your band doing well? Quite well. Do you play at dances and stuff? No, we play stadiums. Stadiums? “I’m with Midnight Oil,” he said, and rather shyly too.
He stayed for three days; we had breakfast together each morning, on the last of which I read him the passage about Natasha and the starry night. I never saw him again, but I’ve always remembered his fresh good looks, his patient interest in Tolstoy. Years and years later I interviewed the lead singer for Midnight Oil, I forget his name, the bald guy, and I asked him about the young man in Jamaica, the bass guitarist, and I heard he’d quit the band after only a year or two, hadn’t liked the life and had gone off and opened up a surf shop somewhere on the Queensland Coast—which made me like him even more.
One afternoon, as I flopped soft-tummied and sweating in a beach chair not fifty feet from the Italians (“Ciao! Mia, Ciao!”), a pair of big-toothed California girls (they stayed at an all-inclusive, miles down the beach) struck up a conversation with me. Seeing that I was reading Tolstoy, one of them said, “What do you do? ”
“I’m a model,” I said. And they stayed; they stayed the whole afternoon and when they left they invited me to meet them later that evening. What excitement. Company! Conversation! (I had taken to eating my lunch in front of the mirror.) But when I turned up later that night, fluffy-haired and chirpy, at a cliffside restaurant, I saw them stealing their way across the patio. (It irritates me to this day.) The one in the lead caught sight of me; her fingers reached guiltily for an earlobe, an involuntary gesture Tolstoy would have enjoyed, and she told me, get this, that they had already eaten. Already eaten? Embarrassed, shocked, speechless, and then enraged, I said, “I’m going over there for a drink,” and hurried to the empty bar. I drank several ice-cold Red Stripes so fast they made my eyes burn. I felt like I was putting out a fire.
I walked home that night under a beautiful moon. On the main floor of the hotel, behind a metal grille and curtains, I could make out the blue glare of a television set. The owner, that big ex-cop, was watching Scarface with Al Pacino. I coughed into my hand, then again with the vague hope that he might call me in for a visit—his wife was teaching school in Kingston—but no luck. I heard a murmur of confidential laughter. The girl who did the housecleaning was in there.
Later that night, Tolstoy just about finished me off. (Never get too comfortable with a Russian writer.) Natasha—my Natasha—is being seduced by a worthless playboy at the opera:
When she was not looking at him, she felt that he was looking at her shoulders, and she could not help trying to catch his eyes that he might rather look in her face. But as she looked into his eyes she felt with horror that, between him and her, there was not that barrier of modest reserve she had always been conscious of between herself and other men. In five minutes she felt—she did not see how—that she had come fearfully close to this man.
News gets back to her fiancé, Prince Andrei, and the marriage is off.
A double disaster in paradise. I turned off the bedside lamp.
Jump ahead now to 2004, almost twenty years after that night in Jamaica. I sat on the porch with my nineteen-year-old son on a fall evening in Kensington Market in Toronto. His young face wore a look of controlled horror and I dared barely glance at him. A summertime romance, white hot, had come to an unexpected end a few weeks before. First the dreadful premonitions, then panicky, long-distance calls (she went to university in another city), one of which found the young lady in a bar. To his question, “Are you breaking up with me? ” (how courageous, the nakedness of it!), she replied offhandedly, “Yes.”
So there we were, he and I, sitting side by side, staring at the damp street. “You know that thing I was afraid of happening? ” he said.
I was almost unable to catch my breath. “Yes.”
“Well, it happened,” he said. Someone had informed him by phone. His girlfriend had gone to bed with an old lover. He couldn’t stop smoking cigarettes and he couldn’t stop imagining the things you should never imagine, but always do. You could see it playing out on his pale, childlike features: she does this to him, he does that to her. We’ve all done it but you’d step in front of a car to spare your own son doing it.
“I think she’s making a terrible mistake,” I said, uselessly. In the long silence (puff, puff), I found myself thinking about Natasha and her betrayal of Prince Andrei.
“I’ll never take her back,” my son said.
Then miraculously (but not surprisingly), a few months later, just after Christmas, his girlfriend suffered a change of heart. It started with an emissary (“She really misses you”), then a “surprise” encounter at a party (“If you keep looking at me like that, I’m going to have to kiss you”). Where did she learn to speak like that? Had she read War and Peace too?
So there we were again, bundled in coats on the porch. Snowflakes, some large, some small, settled indecisively on the front lawn. I knew what he was thinking. Recriminations and brutal quizzes lay just ahead for both of them. “What if she does it again? ” he said.
“You know what Tolstoy says.”
I said, “Tolstoy says a woman can never hurt you the same way twice.”
“You think that’s true, Dad? ”
“Yes,” I said finally, “I believe it is.”
With a swift but circumspect movement, Natasha came nearer, still kneeling, and carefully taking his hand she bent her face over it and began kissing it, softly touching it with her lips.
“Forgive me!” she said in a whisper, lifting her head and glancing at him. “Forgive me!”
“I love you,” said Prince Andrei.
Writers sleep better if they trick themselves into believing that the great masterpieces of literature were written in old-age homes—by the grey and the venerable, in other words. Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day) confessed to a reporter that he’d ruined an afternoon for himself (possibly his life, he joked) when, on one imprudent occasion, he did some elementary math and discovered how old his favourite writers had been when they produced their chef d’oeuvres. I did the same thing myself a while ago and I now share his dismay: Virginia Woolf, only forty-two when she wrote Mrs. Dalloway; F. Scott Fitzgerald, an unforgivable twenty-nine with The Great Gatsby. Joyce’s Ulysses (punishingly dull but nevertheless—) thirty-nine. Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy was forty-one when he finished War and Peace, arguably the greatest novel ever written, after which, instead of taking a Caribbean vacation, he launched into an obsessive study of ancient Greek and then took up the bicycle. (Russ Meyer, by the way, was the same age when he finished Faster, Pussycat, Kill, Kill.)
When I finished War and Peace, I had a hell of a tan and I wanted (a lifetime bad habit) to keep the party going. I came back to Toronto and one of the first things I did was to buy a no-nonsense hardback of Anna Karenina. But it didn’t work this time. Something was different; I couldn’t engage; the novel didn’t block out the dozen worries that nibbled at my attention. I thought it was the book. It was as if—and I’m not convinced this isn’t the truth—Tolstoy had used all his favourite characters in W&P and was now working through the “B” list. After a hundred or so pages, I put the book aside. And that’s where it stayed for seven years, until 1992.
I was greyer, fatter, and witnessing, with escalating upset, the death of a love affair. Another love affair. (Love, I’ve learned, is a living creature and when it’s dying, like an animal too weak to care who feeds it, the signs are unmistakable.) X and I spoke to each other with excessive caution, the way people speak who have lost their natural ease with each other, a mother tongue that somehow the two of you have forgotten.
There are ways, of course, to put lipstick on the corpse, to get it up and dancing, however grotesquely. Get married, buy a house, have a baby, that’s what some couples do. But there’s a fourth, less binding option: take a holiday together. And that’s what we did. At 5:30 on a black, snowy morning in Toronto, a limousine picked up me and X and my old hardback of Anna Karenina and drove us to oblivion.
By the time we got to the hotel in Bangkok, it was as if I had taken two hits of old-fashioned blotter acid. The world shimmered—all those hours on the plane. (She had slept like a child, her long beautiful eyelashes twitching. What was she dreaming about? Beside her, like the troll under the bridge, I glared at six films, one after the other.)
It was a lovely hotel, the river winding below our window. At night you could see long boats moving on the water. But nothing could save us, not sex or gin or Santa Claus.
“Is anything wrong? ”
“No. You? ”
“No, I’m fine.”
(Anna Karenina, in four lines.)
I stayed in the hotel room, the city a smoggy, uninteresting blur outside, and started Anna K. for the second time. X walked through the city, visited the university, I’m not sure what else. There’s a way you read when you travel; it is, in itself, a kind of transport, the purity with which you pay attention. You never read like that at home. In fact, as the years have gone by and with them a dozen other trips, it has occurred to me that reading, all on its own, may well be the best reason to travel. This time out, I was so entranced with Anna Karenina, the story of an unfaithful woman getting fed, however beautifully, into Tolstoy’s lawnmower, that the events in the book became more real to me, more important to me, than Bangkok’s foul air, my girlfriend’s unreachable unhappiness, or the bar upstairs where one evening I encountered an old friend from university, a professional traveller who, like many professional travellers, had no curiosity about anything he encountered and talked about himself with an almost autistic insistence.
I hurried back to my room downstairs—back to Tolstoy, back to Levin’s unhappy thwarting at the hands of young Dolly. Tolstoy had such excitement about romantic love (at least for a while). You can feel him purr during his great love scenes. He adored the red-light, green-light nature of it, its democratic stranglehold. You’re never too rich, too beautiful, too stupid, too broke, too anything to resist its crooking finger. Unlike Chekhov, whose unhappy characters tend to stay unhappy, Tolstoy believed (once again, for a while) that romantic, sexualized love had the power to transform people, to make them happy. It lured Prince Andrei from a pit of malignant self-absorption; made Pierre Bezuhov into an adult, thrilled Anna Karenina for the only time in her life. Eventually it ripened and completed Levin as a man.
One morning X and I were having breakfast in the upstairs bar. I was spooning honeyed yogourt into my mouth with a greedy urgency.
“I don’t mean to be insulting,” X said with a strained smile, “but you’re making quite a racket over there.”
That, for those who don’t recognize it, is the sound of a woman who no longer wants you. It reminded me—with the suddenness of someone smashing a hammer on the table—of a scene I had read only days before where Anna views her husband’s ears (they stick out) with revulsion.
A few days later, the sun was setting over the river. Such a melancholy time, the boats with little bow lanterns, like fireflies, drifting downstream with the current. I was caught midway in that famous scene where Anna, having fled her family, sneaks back to her former house to visit her nine-year-old son. Her husband is asleep downstairs. She bribes a servant, she starts up the stairs—.
I knew that this was a one-time moment in literature, that I would never again get to experience the unfolding of this scene without knowing its outcome. Would she get to see the little boy or not? It felt as urgent as a crisis in my own life and I feared, I actually feared, that X, with her blond hair and sharp features, those beautiful eyelashes, would wander into the room at that very second and spoil everything. I leapt up from the bed and locked the door to the room.
The end of a love affair comes in different ways. For X, it was the spectacle of me wolfing down a dish of yogourt (as if someone might steal it); for me, it was the moment I decided to shut her out of the room and all the things inside it.
Pretty much everything Tolstoy wrote after Anna K. is so top-heavy with pedantry or moral instruction that you can’t finish it. The danger signs were there even in the divine War and Peace—that dull section where Pierre joins the Freemasons, or the novel’s last, dreadful chapter. (Surely the real ending comes forty pages earlier with Prince Andrei’s son eavesdropping on a favourite uncle downstairs.) There’s trouble brewing here and there in Anna Karenina, too, in Levin’s tiresome reflections on rural agriculture. How I long to stop strangers when I see these books under their arms, to implore them to skip those sections so that they won’t leave such magnificent works on a note of anticlimax.
From 1881 onward, Tolstoy underwent a spiritual crisis that was characterized by great, some would say insane, extremes: a disgust with sex, a disdain for literature, an abandonment of secular pleasures, even of riding his bicycle. (“Daddy loves giving things up,” one of his daughters wrote snidely in her diary.) His unforgiving embrace of Christianity (with a few suggestions for its improvement, naturally) made him a kind of holy figure in Russia and attracted devotees and lunatics from all over the country, many of whom stayed at the house, much to the fury of Madame Tolstoy. But even when he was out in the barn dressed like a peasant, making his own boots and calling his wife a whore, there remained a few dazzling literary turns in the by-now-old coot. It was as if every so often Tolstoy couldn’t stop being Tolstoy, couldn’t stand in the way of his own nagging genius.
People know The Death of Ivan Ilyich, but for some reason almost no one I’ve talked to has read the extraordinary novella Master and Man, which he wrote when he was seventy-two years old. I came across it by accident years after I thought I knew all the Tolstoy hits, when, out of a nostalgia for a more excitable time in my life (literature leaves fainter traces as the years go by), I sat in on an undergraduate course in the nineteenth-century Russian novel at the University of Toronto. (I had time as well as nostalgia on my hands.) Master and Man, I discovered, is the great Tolstoy buried treasure. It’s a very simple story indeed. A peasant, Nikita, and his master, a lumber merchant, set off on a winter afternoon to conclude a deal in a neighbouring village. A storm comes up; they lose their way; night falls. As the two drift through a zone of lunar frigidity (“It sometimes seemed that the sledge was standing still and the countryside was rolling away behind them”), what the reader experiences may well be the best description of winter in literature.
Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya, who looked after the business end of things, was away when Tolstoy finished Master and Man. In her absence he sold it to a magazine for next to nothing. Big trouble when she came back. Raging through the house (the servants cringing behind the furniture), she accused him of sleeping with the editor and raised such a row that Tolstoy declared the marriage over and went to his room to pack. Not to be outdone, Sofya ran outside into the Russian winter clad in only a nightdress and a dressing gown. Wearing underpants and a vest, with no shirt, Tolstoy chased after her. Once rescued, the distraught wife took to her bed. Unable to endure her unhappiness, Tolstoy relented and cancelled the magazine deal. But two days after the rights were formally returned, their seven-year-old son, Vanichka, a gifted, sweet-natured boy, developed scarlet fever and died. His parents, the quarrel over the manuscript suddenly forgotten, sat together on the sofa, “almost unconscious with sorrow.”
A word to the wise, if I may, about Master and Man in particular and about Tolstoy in general. Be careful. Tolstoy is not afraid to hurt you. When the timber merchant realizes that Nikita is freezing to death, he does something so astonishing—and then not astonishing—that you have the feeling of someone sticking a hand into your chest. I won’t ruin the story for you but, in a word, this is not the guy to read before your afternoon nap.
Which brings us happily and finally to the present. Havana, Cuba, 2006. Not the end but nearing the final chapters of my life with Tolstoy. I didn’t bring him with me this time but, then again, he is somebody you never quite leave behind. Once infected, never cured. And like Proust, Tolstoy changes not just the way you see the world, but occasionally even the way you experience it. Sometimes, in fact, I feel I’ve come to lean on Tolstoy rather too much, have seen him in too many of my own life’s events (Oh! Just like that moment in—), have quoted him too often (as I do with the Beatles when I try to inspire my son’s sporadically deflated musical aspirations). I remember once, when I was working in television, a producer raised her head in indignation from a script I’d written about a Manitoba violinist and snapped, “No more Tolstoy, okay!”
So—a last Tolstoy moment before I go. It’s a sunny day in Havana, the wind high and whipping through the power lines outside my hotel window; the ocean is bluer than yesterday but still wild and white-capped. Many years have lapsed since Bangkok. I have remarried, but I have left my wife at home this time, have come for a holiday in my own company, something I have not done for many years.
Yesterday I took a walk along the seawall. A wedding procession roared by; it looked like a scene from The Godfather: Part II, when Michael Corleone goes to Cuba. Later I had a coffee on the terrace of the Hotel Inglaterra in the old city. (What does one do with all this time on one’s hands? I can’t quite remember.) Another wedding procession, beribboned cars from the fifties, a white bride and a black groom perched on the back of a convertible. A Frenchman at the next table tells me Havana is a big town for public weddings.
Which makes me think about my own wedding only a few years ago. We had it in the living room of our new house (my “starter” home at age fifty-six) in Kensington Market. My second ex-wife, H, stood with our son, both of them lanky and lovely. How lucky I am, I thought, looking at them, that they are still here, still part of my life. After a certain age losing people is like losing teeth. They don’t grow back. And there’s M, my first ex-wife—the one who gave me Tolstoy all those years ago—laying out the food and bossing the help around (she wants the food table against the wall, not “in the middle of the goddamn room”). Our daughter, all grown up now, tall and blond and somehow extravagant even at rest, calls the room to order. She is the Master of Ceremonies tonight and begins to read, stopping a sentence in. “I hope I can get through this without bursting into tears,” she says. The room falls silent. She continues:
Prince Andrei loved dancing… and chose Natasha for a partner because Pierre pointed her out to him, and because she was the first pretty girl who caught his eyes. But he had no sooner put his arm around that slender, supple waist, and felt her stirring so close to him, and smiling so close to him, than the intoxication of her beauty flew to his head.
Looking at my daughter and then at Tina, my wife of only a few minutes now (so pretty in her black dress), I feel a wave of almost unendurable good fortune and think, Yes, that’s right, I’ve always known it—love really is the only game in town. And when Tolstoy was at his best, he knew it too.