That book

There’s a scene in Anna Karenina where Levin’s brother, who is always referred to by his last name, Koznyshev, finishes a book he’s been working on for a long time. He is acknowledged as something of a public intellectual figure in the two capitals, a prominent person, so the book he’s writing seems to be an event of sorts that people are waiting for, or at least that is the impression that Kozynshev has. Tolstoy gives the impression that Koznyshev’s long-awaited book will be the definitive word on some subject or other — it doesn’t really matter what, because this part of AK is not at all about what Koznyshev has supposedly been writing about, it’s about this type of situation and this type of character.

A person has focused on something, and it has come to occupy a lot of his time, to the point of crowding out other aspects of life. But it’s not a question of devotion. It’s a social situation, where you’ve basically said, “I’m working on this,” for many years, and people have heard you, acknowledged this work of yours somehow, maybe by listening, maybe by asking questions or offering their own opinions (which they hope might be reflected in your book and attributed to them), maybe even by paying you money to continue on the path you’ve been following.

Then the book comes out, and what happens? In AK, not much. Koznyshev waits for the response to his (it turns out, rather subtle) provocations and historical interventions for a day, a week, two weeks. I think he gets a review or two. It’s not the drama he anticipated, and Tolstoy is clearly skeptical of the value of the whole enterprise. Oh, and there’s probably something anti-academic in his portrayal of the specialist Koznyshev too wrapped up in his work to be able to relate to the world, real life — that is a Tolstoyan bias. Fine.

But I’ve been working on a book, telling people for some time I’ve been working on it, being paid in effect to continue along the particular path that should, in principle, lead to its completion, and this for some twelve years. It’s mostly an academic book, too. Mostly, though one hopes, Koznyshev-style, that the things that have interested one for all this time will also be of interest to others, that one’s subtle interventions and clever readings will be recognized in all their detail if not as ground-breaking, then at least as, well, subtle and clever. I’m now remembering a panelist at the Melbourne NonfictioNow conference in 2012 mocking such wishful thinking, which is usually accompanied by references to the “general readers” who are likely to be interested. “You can count,” he said, “the general readers likely to be interested in that with the fingers on one hand of a leper.”

So there is still doubt, but doubt can, in the best of cases, lead to depth. I am hopeful that my own doubt has given greater depth to my project. It took me a long time to come to this understanding. I hope the book reflects it and invites readers to share something of it, too.

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