Influenced is an interview series featuring authors talking about the works that influenced them.
See our complete list of conversations, including:
Thick Skin, where authors talk about negative reviews, from both critics and readers
Pixelated, the digital, double-blind, lit-inclined author chat
A Bit Contrived, interviews with real authors about improvised books
The Art of Commerce, exploring the intersection of literature and the marketplace
Episode VIII: "I want my words to fall like raindrops"
In this installment, Lara Vapnyar talks about the influence of Tolstoy's War and Peace.
Today I’m with Lara Vapnyar, a Russian writer with words in The New Yorker and Harper’s and other magazines, as well as a few novels. I read “Waiting for the Miracle”, her story in The New Yorker earlier this year, on one protracted subway ride, and felt galvanized in that way the rare story achieves, taking you back in time to your first wash in New York. It’s the story of a Russian émigré’s night with a random woman, and all of the complications, hopes, desires and letdowns such a connection can bring. It made it so easy to reimagine being a newcomer in a city where the rule is to not be one, seeing the bits that form our everyday habits with completely fresh eyes.
For this series, Lara’s chosen to talk about War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, a work so canonical it can appear, at times, like it’s only that—used as a proxy for any book that’s long and great—and not what it actually is: a book. When did you first read the Russian classic?
I was 15. When I first read it (that was at a ramshackle summer cottage we rented a couple of hours away from Moscow), the most shocking discovery was that I was going to die. For some reason, I never pondered my mortality before.
What part of the book set that realization in motion?
The scene where Prince Andrei dies (I apologize for spoilers!) Tolstoy uses this trick. He eases the reader into the scene. He shows us Princess Maria who comes to visit her gravely injured brother at the house of his fiancée Natasha. It’s easy to identify with Maria, and with Natasha, both about to lose a person most dear to them. Tolstoy leads into the room, when Prince Andrei is dying, and we see everything through the eyes of Natasha and Maria, and we grieve with them, but there is nothing shocking or scary about this. But then Tolstoy makes Maria and Natasha leave the room. And shuts the door behind them. And we’re left in a room with a dying man. And we can’t help but enter his mind, but feel exactly what a dying man is feeling. And that’s a shattering experience!
That privatization of the human experience runs throughout Tolstoy, and much of Russian literature. How much of your own work, do you think, considers such a point of view?
I'll privatize the human experience any day! The scariest part is to write about what you don't know. Tolstoy didn't really know what death feels like, but he was able to make the scene seem incredibly authentic.
And to what does he owe that? His own literary influences perhaps?
I think it’s his ability to create a truly omniscient point of view. He's Godlike. I don't think any other writer is quite capable of that.
How many times have you read War and Peace?
It would sound crazy, but about twenty. Often I won’t reread the entire book, but my favorite chapters, or the scenes that I find especially relevant to my life. Every time I reread it, I find that I reading a completely different novel from what I remember. I actually think that War and Peace contains several novels, but they won’t reveal themselves to a reader until a reader has the necessary life experience to “get them.” When I was 15 I was reading a completely different novel from the one I read at 30.
And to pick up War and Peace probably says something about your upbringing, or your own curiosity. Did you come from an especially literary family?
It was on every high school's curriculum in the Soviet Union. It wasn't my choice to read it at 15. It was a summer reading assignment.
Meanwhile I was thankful for The Great Gatsby because it was so short. Have you found most of the influential books in your life have been Russian?
I happen to love Great Gatsby! Not all Russian, but a lot of them.
I was a bit surprised when you said you wanted to discuss War and Peace for this interview, mostly because of the impression your short story made on me. It was so...realistic, and granular, and surreal in that way first-person stories can be, where the mundane becomes the point of entry into another's life. That feels very un-War and Peace to me, but I know that's possibly more of a matter of the time each was written. Stylistically, do you consider yourself a Russian author?
I have a very dark mind as a writer—that's definitely Russian. But stylistically, I try to be as simple as possible. Clear, simple, transparent. Is that something American?
Depends whom you ask, but I'd say that's something any decent writer aims for. It's Russian, for sure. Have you always written that way, or did you go through the embarrassing overwrought phase of so many?
It helped that my English was still developing when I started out. So I couldn't possibly create overwrought prose. It was more "underwrought", but then I started consciously cultivating that style—I mean simple and transparent.
What does that look like on the sentence level, 'cultivating' a style.
I have this strange trick that helps me. I want my words to fall like raindrops. I'm looking for a certain rhythm, if one of them makes too much of a splash, I delete it.
Here's a passage from 'Waiting for the Miracle' that illustrates that I think, not that this is any different from any passage in there; your writing throughout is constantly, as you say, falling like raindrops.
"The color of the sky had changed to a gloomy indigo, and it was really cold. The slush on the sidewalks was now cakey ice. Vadik offered Rachel his hand, and they walked like that: holding hands, but at a distance. Vadik noticed that he was much taller than Rachel. Her head was on a level with his shoulders."
It's simplicity is disarming, especially when that simplicity carries such co