Mimi on Tolstoy in Maureen Howard’s “The Rags of Time”

 Today, when I told my husband I was finishing up two books this month, he asked, “Is one of them War and Peace?”

I love Tolstoy so much that it is a family joke.  But, no, I haven’t been reading it.

I just finished Maureen Howard’s The Rags of Time, a kind of woman’s Ulysses, and the last in Howard’s quartet of novels on the seasons.  And there are a few references to War and Peace.

Howard’s double, Mimi, an 80-year-old writer who reflects on American history, personal history, and  the design of Central Park, recalls reading War and Peace as a girl one summer in her parents’ bedroom in Bridgeport, Connecticut. ( N.B.  This episode is also in Howard’s memoir, Facts of Life.)   And near the end of Rags, her husband picks up Mimi’s copy of War and Peace and reads the notes on her rereading . 

“She had read to page 733 in War and Peace, marking the confrontation between Napoleon and the Russian emissary as they moved ahead to their bloody war.  Girlish!!! in the margin next to the description of the emperor. . . a white waistcoat so long that it covered his round stomach, white doeskin breeches fitting tightly over the fat thighs of his stumpy legs, and Hessian boots.  His snuff box, his cologne!  Her notes, trailing down the side of the page, remarked upon the brilliant maneuvers of the scene, the slippery give-take of diplomacy, the rough talk of plain take.  He presumed she’d read the love story, though this time round, her second chance, notes in the margin revealed how closely she observed the lush setting of the Tsar’s palace, the slippery make-nice that preceded war.  Revise, reread, work ahead right up to the end.  He must tell her brother, who maintained that when she took up her post with the fat library book each long Summer day, then slept on a cot in his room–that she snored.”

The Rags of Time is a twenty-first century classic, in my view, but it is generally underappreciated (especially at Goodreads).  I wonder if women’s experimentations with literary form are still less acceptable than men’s.