Unhappy in Its Own Way or Happy Alike?

As many of you know, there are many times that I like to fancy myself a wordsmith. However, it is a rare day when I actually practice this skill that I like to believe that I possess.

I often hear the advice that you should write what you know. I used to not believe in this advice because who can possibly know about unicorns and wizards and aliens. But as time has marched along I have realized that the reason that a person must write what they know is because the only way to be a great writer is to write truth. The only way to write truth is to write what you know. Perhaps this is why almost all fantasy and science fiction novels are terrible.

To know me is to know that my 2nd Favorite thing on the radio is the Writer’s Almanac. I’ve lifted a bit of Tuesday’s Writer’s Almanac on Tolstoy. Tolstoy is the email name of choice for my friend Derrick, but he also wrote the following great line:

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I don’t know that I believe that this statement is true or not, but it is a great line. When I heard Garrison Keillor read this line it occurred to me that if I ever was to write anything great or true, I should start by writing about my family and our convoluted history.

Don’t panic. I’m not going to do that, but it is an idea.

The Tolstoy story is kind of a mixture of sadness and beauty as well. I think that is the way most family stories are in actuality. Most families are not necessarily happy or unhappy, but a mixture of both. Joy and tragedy.

It’s the birthday of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy born on his family’s estate in the province of Tula, near Moscow (1828). He led a wild life as a young man. Then in his mid-30s, he decided that it was time to get married.

He began spending a lot of time with a friend who had three available daughters, and everyone expected him to propose to the oldest. But he found himself falling in love with the less attractive but more intelligent middle daughter, Sophia. The closer he got to making a proposal, however, the more panicked he felt. He could hardly think about anything else, and he wasn’t at all sure he wanted to go through with it. He wrote his marriage proposal in a letter, but he couldn’t bring himself to send it. He kept it in his pocket for 24 hours. He finally got up the courage to go to Sophia’s house, but he couldn’t even speak. So he just handed her the letter and walked away.

That night Tolstoy suddenly realized that what he really wanted in a wife was someone with whom he could share his most private thoughts, and he decided that if he was going to marry this girl, he would have to let her read his diary. So they set the date for the wedding a week later, and during that week Tolstoy gave Sophia his diary to read. She was excited at first, but by the time she finished reading she was in tears, horrified by his descriptions of brothels and his affairs with peasant girls. Tolstoy asked if she forgave him for his past, and she said she did. He said that she could call off the wedding if she wanted to, but it was impossible to do so because so many people already knew about the proposal.

The marriage was not particularly happy for Sophia. She’d grown up in a cosmopolitan, aristocratic world, and after marrying Tolstoy, she had to live on a rural estate where her husband lived almost like a peasant. His house was extraordinarily simple, with no upholstered furniture and no carpets on the floor. He even wore peasant clothes, when he wasn’t entertaining guests.

But for Tolstoy, the early years of his marriage were some of the happiest of his life. The regularity of married life let him settle down to work more steadily than ever before. And in the midst of that happiness, he wrote his first masterpiece, War and Peace (1863). It was the longest and most ambitious novel he’d ever written, and he was only willing to attempt it because he now had his wife to work as his secretary. When he would scribble corrections all over a rough draft, she was the only person who could decipher what his corrections said. Even he couldn’t read his own handwriting. She ultimately copied by hand the 1400-page manuscript for War and Peace (1863) four times.

While he was working on War and Peace, free love was becoming fashionable among the Russian upper classes, and everyone started to think of marriage as old-fashioned and silly. Tolstoy was disgusted. In 1872, he heard about a woman who had thrown herself in front of a train after the end of an affair, and he went to view the body at the train station. He never forgot what he saw that day, and it gave him an idea for a novel about a woman whose life is destroyed by adultery.

That novel was Anna Karenina (1877), in which the story of the romance between Konstantin Levin and a young woman named Kitty was based almost entirely on Tolstoy’s own marriage. When it was published, most critics said Anna Karenina was inferior to War and Peace, but it is now considered one of the greatest novels ever written. It begins, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The part about her copying War and Peace by hand four times just blows my mind. I hardly ever write by hand any longer and the last time I sat down to write somebody a letter, my hand starting cramping on the 2nd page. That was two years ago. I can’t imagine how bad it would be by now.

One thought on “Unhappy in Its Own Way or Happy Alike?”

  1. I know what you mean about writing from truth. Let me recount the following personal incident to you:

    I started on my walk late that day. The sun had crept below the canopy, blinding me at random intervals through spokes of branches as I made my way down the ravine’s winding path. The air grew thicker and cooler toward the bottom, and the trees grew taller. The path broadened and I could hear stream water playing over stones. I fancied myself a drink.

    I kneeled and made a large bowl with my two hands. In scooping the water I carelessly let my sleeves get wet, and while squeezing them out I noticed a shadowed figure moving quickly behind a large tree on the other side of the stream.

    “Hello there, good stranger!” I called – before realizing that I was likely attempting to converse with a wild animal.

    I stood and watched the tree for a moment longer. I was about to leave when I noticed a bright-red horse tail dangling from behind the tree. I was tempted to yell “Hello there!” once again, but was able to restrain myself.

    Being a horse, the animal had probably come from the nearby academy, but as to how it came to wandering or why it had such a garishly dyed tail was a bit of mystery. I had no interest in taking the animal back to the academy as it was a good quarter-day walk, and attempting to ride an unknown animal, was, of course, out of the question. I settled on trying to guide the beast back to my home; many students visited both coming from and going to the academy, and any one of them could handle the chore.

    I left my sandals on the bank and hopped across the stream upon the largest stones, one of which was particularly mossy. The tail, and presumably the rest of the creature, had not moved from behind the tree, and I approached as cautiously as I could, my bare feet hardly making a patter upon the damp earth.

    My surprise was palatable when I met the whole of the beast, for not only was her tail dyed red as blood, but her hooves as well. Her body was white as winter, however, and lacked the defined musculature of a healthy horse. “Chubby” would not have been an exaggeration. Next I met her eyes and figured her blind, for though her eyes were abnormally large and wet, they were also black as the loneliest patch of moonless night sky. Yet, her dispirited gaze followed mine and I knew she could see. Indeed, I felt she could read my very thoughts and what was below them.

    But in my cursory examination I missed the most obvious and startling fact – that the top center of her head had been impaled with a gruesome and twisted rod of some type. I couldn’t even begin to conjecture what series of events would lead to such an accident or why a horse would still be alive after the fact.

    When I moved to examine the wound the animal snorted and reared – nearly kicking me in the chest. I reassured her that I wanted to help, and though I felt foolish for speaking I felt she understood me, but because she had read my thoughts and not listened to my words. She lowered her head and I looked before touching her. There was no bleeding and the rod met flush with her skull with naught a bruise or tear in the flesh. The rod itself was broken, however. It was the color of mahogany and polished smooth, carved in the shape of an elegantly twisting spire that narrowed subtly as it came away from her head. It looked as if it would have ended in a point, but had been snapped jagged at about a forearm’s length.

    Before attempting to remove the object I looked in her eyes again to get permission. She didn’t seem to give her approval or disapproval so I gently touched the broken part of the rod with a single finger. It was hot, not a burning hot but feverish. I slowly moved my finger down the length of it, and the heat increased as I went. It was then I felt a pang of fear and the creature bolted.

    Instinctively I tried to summon fire, but my wet sleeves interfered with the spell. The creature was faster than any horse and had nearly disappeared into the forest, its red tail now almost black in the darkness. In my panic I summoned fire again, but too strongly and sloppily, and ignited the left arm of my robe. I focused what fire I could and channeled it toward the creature. My control was poor and much of the fire escaped the ball, lashing out at trees or spilling onto the ground. When the flames had spread to my hood I had to give up the channel. The ball crashed far into the trees with an explosion as I ran to the stream while tearing the robe from my body.

    Fortunately for me the general dampness meant that I’d scorched little of the forest – the explosion having killed but one tree by splitting it in two. I had little clean up to do, save the creature itself. I found her crumpled at the base of a young oak, her entire body burned except for her broken horn, which was otherwise pristine. The explosion had thrown her into the oak, which splintered her ribs and impaled the fragments throughout her chest; it was this aspect of the spell that killed her, luck that it was.

    I had no magic to assist with burial. It would be many long hours of labor to conceal the creature. This work kept my mind off the chaos that would ensue should the rest of the wizarding race discover this potential incursion. Better to wish it was a fluke not to be repeated or discovered.

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