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 complex feelings and thoughts.
Thank you! I think when the language is too complicated, it distracts from the complexity of thoughts and feelings.
This is an aggressive question perhaps, but are there writers who you've been turned off to because their writing distracted from the content of their stories?
I admire Nabokov greatly. I teach him in several of my classes. But I never really enjoyed his books.
Which is your least favorite?
Ada. But it's unfair to say, because I could never make it past page 1.
His later work, I think, suffered more from its language. Pale Fire I would have never finished if it hadn't been for a class. Who else have you not been able to read?
Pale Fire is one of those novel that I teach every year. And struggle every time to finish it.
God bless you. In the course of teaching, you must encounter a wide variety of writers, some who write with your sparsity, some who seek a more maximalist voice. Do you try to put aside your own habits when guiding others, or do you think a teacher's job is to offer their point of view and let the students decide?
I encourage all the different voices and methods! But I always say the worst thing an aspiring writer can do is to hide the emptiness behind the convoluted language. Nabokov earned his!
How often is War and Peace on your syllabus?
What level do you teach?
An MFA program.
How would you summarize the response to it?
If I had to choose one word, it would be "awe". Another reaction is surprise that it's so entertaining. And not that hard.
Well it's understandable that there would be some fear there. Entertaining how?
There’s an amazing plot with all those unexpected twists that seem inevitable after they happen.
Like any well-earned plot turn. How do you recognize your own relationship with plot? It seems to me—and I'm half-expecting you to tell me that I'm wrong—that you don't seek it out, that you trust the truth of your characters and have them move through their world under their own volition.
I do seek it out, it just escapes me.
How much hand-wringing goes into your work? It's usually more work to make things simple, and your writing is, if nothing else, straightforward.
It's very easy when you're in the right mood. The problem is that the right mood almost never comes. And when it'd not there hand-wringing doesn't help.
What does help?
A walk in the woods or reading a really good book
Do you try to read something that's similar in tone and plot to what you're writing, or the opposite?
Usually, yes. I mean yes, I read something similar
Who do you consider similar in style to you—either contemporary or historical?
Not in style, but in spirit. Jane Austen and Jenny Offill.
That's funny that you say Offill. To me she seems so American, her style. To think you've two have ended in similar spots having come from very different places, not to mention Austen's own path, and time, and reputation. The facts of a story from the present are never the same as the past, but today's writers are working on the same spectrum their ancestors have, and in that way it's now making a bit more sense to me that you've been so influenced by Tolstoy. How do you think if you've never read him your writing would be different?
I think my life would be very different. I might have never discovered mortality. I would've thought I'd live forever. And that's really bad for a writer.
Well, that's as good as an ending point as there can possibly be, and we're nearly out of time either way. Thanks so much for your words, Lara, they were greatly appreciated.
Thank you, Andrew!