Literary daybook, Dec. 17

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published December 17, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction
On Dec. 17, 1875, Quiet One accidentally uses arsenic instead of baking soda in her bread.
-- "One Thousand White Women" (1998)
By Jim Fergus

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1867, the Moscow News made this announcement of the book that would almost immediately and permanently make most "great novels" lists: "War and Peace. By Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy. Four volumes (80 sheets). Price: 7 rubles. Weight parcel post: 5 pounds. The first three volumes delivered with a coupon for the fourth." Readers found that several more volumes/pounds/rubles were needed over the next two years, but in the estimate of one of the leading Russian critics of the day, there should be no complaint:

"The picture of human life is complete.
The picture of the Russia of those days is complete.
The picture of what we call history and the struggle of nations is complete.
The picture of everything that people consider to be their happiness and greatness, their sorrow and their humiliation, is complete. That is what 'War and Peace' is.

Nor, as one biographer describes it, was there any complaining: "Readers swept bare the bookshelves, gave the book to their friends, and wrote letters from one end of Russia to the other defending their opinions of the characters."

Tolstoy said that the book was "five years of unremitting and single-minded labor," something "not simply imagined by me but torn out of my cringing entrails." His wife, Sonya, must have felt the same way. When Tolstoy began his epic in 1863, she was newly married, 20 (he, 34), pregnant with the first of 13 children, overseer of their 1,800-acre estate, and determined that her passionate but easily distracted husband would deliver the book that he had promised himself. She spent every evening deciphering and transcribing Tolstoy's tortured handwriting by candlelight, stirred to tears yet determined to "think over, feel, weigh and judge every one of Lyovochka's ideas." As Tolstoy was a compulsive rewriter, Sonya transcribed "War and Peace" seven times over, in one son's estimate.

Such devotion was not always the case. One of Sonya's journal entries near the beginning of Tolstoy's writing reads, "He is writing about Countess So-and-So, who has been talking to Princess Whosit. Insignificant." Later, so engrossed in his fiction that he could "feel the crime of killing in war," Tolstoy might smash his tea china at Sonya's feet or throw his wall thermometer at her head. Their marriage was volatile for much of its 48 years; the rest of the time it was outright war.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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