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Progress columnist debates Tolstoy on happiness

A laugh for your week

The essential bad attitude By Alan Gibson

Moscow, 1884. It was obvious from the first vodka that Alexi Tolstoy had little truck with happiness in the American sense. “If you want to be happy, be,” he shrugged in that annoying way fatalists have.

Seeking to enliven the intellectual climate, I smashed my glass on the hearth in what I assumed was a symbolic rite.

Tolstoy groused peevishly that it was his best stemware and how happy would I be if he came to my house and smashed things?

“Gimme a break, Alex,” I told him. “A Russian – the original gloom culture – lecturing an American on happiness. Listen pal, Americans are happy because we know how. It’s a trait we cultivate.”

Alex pointed out that a bowl of potato soup could make a Russian happy, so who was better at it? I told him belligerently that I was 10 times happier than he could ever hope to be and how did he like that! He yawned and said it was fine with him, then, to spite me, told a joke – some vapid bêtise about a walrus from Murmansk.

I responded imprudently that his Uncle Leo’s novel War and Peace was interminable and had too many characters.

“You’ve read it?” he asked.

“Skimmed it. Got the gist.”

“Which is?”

Actually I had no idea. “Don’t invade Russia in the winter?” I looked around for more vodka only to find that Tolstoy’s wife had hidden the glassware forcing me to swig from the bottle. “And one more thing: War and Peace needs a happier ending. Tell your uncle to read Chuck Dickens’ Christmas Carol – now there’s a happy ending.”

Tolstoy shrugged again. “If you want to be happy, be.”

Back on the train, I sulked most of the way to Warsaw. What would make me genuinely happy is to win just one argument with a fatalist.

Gibson contributes each week to the Progress and hosts a weekly discussion group. He can be contacted at 770-893-2578.

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