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It's a Tolstoy thing: Please don't talk to the masked reader

Leo Tolstoy, author of "War and Peace".

Leo Tolstoy, author of "War and Peace". Credit:

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“That’s a big book,” said yet another passerby as I socially distanced at my favorite outdoor coffee shop.

I bent farther over “War and Peace,” Leo Tolstoy’s episodic novel about the Napoleonic Wars. If I hid my face, already obscured with a cloth mask, oversized sunglasses, and a broad-brimmed straw hat, maybe I could finally reach the end.

I was on page 1,212, so close to completing a bucket list item. With only three pages to go, my pulse quickened. Adrenaline coursed through my bloodstream. So did oxytocin that made me feel tender toward the characters, even prickly Prince Andrei.

In this last episode, which could be described as a Russian “Game of Thrones,” the author was his most profound here in his epilogue, a study of power as “the sum total of wills transferred to one person.” I was on the verge of tears.

Yet now that people felt confident gathering in small crowds, no one would leave me alone.

Admittedly, I ventured out of my apartment because I wanted company as I reached the literary finish line. But my quarantine project had become a street game. I was the single nerdy competitor.

“Is it good?” a spectator asked from the sidewalk.

“Uh-huh,” I said, and dove so close to the pages I could smell the fine print.

“Ooooh,” a friend and his wife cooed. With their facial coverings, I didn’t recognize them until they teased me. “Look at the smart girl reading ‘War and Peace.’”

I laughed. Then we talked about job security and the economy amid a pandemic. As they continued on their walk, I noted the appropriateness of their fear and their jokes.

Tolstoy is as dark as he is funny. His sketches on Napoleon reveal a small man who wanted to commune with the grandiose painting of his son, “the King of Rome.” With one gesture, all of Napoleon’s staff left the tent on tiptoe, “leaving the great man alone with his feelings.”

At the moment, I felt envious of Napoleon’s ability to wave the world away. Clearly, I didn’t possess an emperor’s ability to petrify peers into submission.

“Are you really that far into the book?” a woman yelled in my direction. “You should try reading it in Russian.”

Frustrated, I headed home to complete “War and Peace” — in quiet. When I came to the last paragraph, I immediately missed awkward Pierre, vivacious Natasha, and religious Marya, a character whose soul Tolstoy described as always striving toward “the infinite, eternal, and perfect, and therefore could ever be at peace.”

I began reading this massive tome in late April after I heard a radio interview with author Yiyun Li, host of a virtual book club “Tolstoy Together.” Li praised “War and Peace” as a great work “with a bad reputation.” If listeners could commit to 12 pages a day, they could finish a masterpiece in two months during a global pandemic.

During COVID-19, Tolstoy’s characters became my brothers and sisters. So had the people who frequented my coffee shop in intervals of six feet or more.

Ann Votaw is a freelance writer in New York City.

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