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TOLSTOY, DOSTOYEVSKY AND UNITED
By Martin B. Deutsch
March 22, 2012 -- I usually confine my book reviews to columns that run during the summer doldrums and during the year-end holidays. But the time commitment I made to the weighty classics below requires that I share my thoughts with you now. Besides, since we're facing extended holds waiting to talk to United Airlines, these books might be worthy diversions while you bang the telephone receiver upside your frequent-flying noggin.

I recently indulged a lifelong ambition, namely to read Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. Reading this seemingly endless novel of a Russia engulfed by the Napoleonic Wars, and an authoritarian Czarist system, was often a chore. But it was never dull.

In all, it took 41 hours of my life to complete. I'm not sure that I would want to do it again. Of course, with holds to reach United to solve the simplest ticketing matters exceeding two hours, I could quickly be finished with a re-read.

War and Peace was published in 1869 and it's often referred to as the greatest novel ever written. That's a claim I cannot substantiate, but I do appreciate Tolstoy's insights into the complicated love lives led by the Russian aristocracy burdened, as it was, with magnificent estates, villages staffed by serfs and grand residences in both Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The main characters are drawn in great detail. I often found them interesting, but they were rarely compelling. They did not always seem quite real to me. Tolstoy occasionally has a chapter, sort of an essay, that describes military strategies. He considers Napoleon and his generals, Czar Alexander I and his staff officers, as well as the psychological motivations that lead nations and their citizenry into war. There is also a great deal of descriptive material about how Napoleon came to occupy Moscow without a battle and the subsequent deterioration of the French army as it retreated from Russian soil.

If you're a history or military buff, or you're waiting on hold to reach United for help clearing a 1K upgrade, War and Peace could be a worthwhile project.

Let me say, parenthetically, that I am a great admirer of several other Russian novelists, particularly Dostoyevsky with his Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot, as well as Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls. I even appreciated Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. But I just don't think War and Peace quite measures up to the other books I cite here.

I am keenly aware of the fact that I may have become acquainted with War and Peace by way of an older or clumsier translation. (Consider that the equivalent of finally reaching United and having been routed to an overseas call center, where English is regrettably a second language.) That said, I realized that the only fair thing to do would be to read a novel by Dostoyevsky, namely the monumental Crime and Punishment, with which I first became acquainted some 50 years ago.

I took pains to make sure that I partook the most recent translation of Crime and Punishment--and I did find the going much easier. Still, this book is no walk in the park, either. In terms of the hours that have to be dedicated to its perusal, it's the equivalent of several marathons in the park. (Or two really long holds to reach the United MileagePlus help line.) But Crime and Punishment is, undoubtedly, a gripping psychological thriller.

Crime and Punishment was first serialized in 1866 and was immediately considered the Russian literary sensation of its time. It involves a destitute college student, Raskolnikov, who drops out of university without informing his adoring mother and sister. They have sacrificed almost everything to fund his education. Prior to a much-anticipated visit to St. Petersburg, Raskolnikov's sister becomes engaged to a successful businessman who is quite a bit older and not a particularly nice guy. It is obvious that the sister has agreed to this match in order to keep the family financially afloat.

While all this is going on, a desperate Raskolnikov takes economic survival into his own hands. He murders an elderly pawnbroker and her sister with an axe and loots their flat. Despite some nail-biting incidents, he manages to get away and it looks like he's home free.

At about this time, Raskolnikov meets a drunken, middle-aged civil servant in a kabak (pub), whose drinking has destroyed his career and landed his family in the lap of poverty. Nevertheless, he invites Raskolnikov to visit and meet the woman he loves and their emaciated children. A teenage daughter has taken up prostitution to help support her family. Then the alcoholic father dies and Raskolnikov leaves the last of the rubles he received from his mother and sister with the grief-stricken and seriously ill new widow.

Believe me, dear reader, this is just the tip of the 19th-century Russian iceberg. We meet a police detective who likes to play mind games with suspected criminals. We become acquainted with a womanizing widower who has designs on Raskolnikov's recently engaged sister. Then there is Raskolnikov's close friend from the university, a decent chap who never stops talking. He also develops an affection for Raskolnikov's sister.

The plot continues to thicken, but I leave you to follow its twists and turns on your own. Some of what happens is predictable, some of it somewhat surprising, but Dostoyevsky always manages to hold our interest with his psychological insights at a time when Freud had yet to appear. (Freud's first published work, Studies on Hysteria, didn't appear until almost 30 years later.)

If you've never dipped into Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment is probably a good entry. And if you have feasted on his other works, do consider this deeply torturous foray into the Russian psyche.

A note to readers: Both gigantic works are available in a wide variety of print and electronic formats, including a free Kindle edition of Crime and Punishment and a 99-cent version of War and Peace. However, there is no truth to the rumor that United Airlines is reciting chapters to you as you hold endlessly to speak to someone who can help you change your seat assignment for tomorrow's flight.

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ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.

This column is Copyright 2012 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.