William Maxwell was an appreciative reader, one who read for pleasure and solace, and was always grateful for the books our forebears left us. In a 1997 essay, “Nearing Ninety,” he expressed his only regret associated with death: “[W]hen people are dead they don’t read books. This I find unbearable. No Tolstoy, no Chekhov, no Elizabeth Bowen, no Keats, no Rilke.” The last book he read, in the final months of his life, was War and Peace. When he had read a third of the book his eyesight began to fail, and the novelist Annabel Davis-Goff read the remainder of Tolstoy’s novel to him aloud She recounts the experience in an essay collected in A William Maxwell Portrait (2004):
“Reading War and Peace with Bill allowed me a rare and privileged view of how a great writer reads. I had, I suppose, known that anyone who writes above a certain level must read differently from most of us. Nabokov, in the introduction to his Lectures on Literature, asks what a reader needs in order to read a book properly. . . . His four correct answers: imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense.”
I suggest finding the book and reading Davis-Goff’s entire essay. It’s too piercing and beautiful to paraphrase. As she writes:
“There are sequences in War and Peace so affecting that one can hardly bear to read them. Petya’s death; Natasha sacrificing Prince Andrei as she falls in love with the worthless Kuragin; Nikolai Rostov losing a fortune playing faro with Dolohov. These scenes horrify me every time I think about them. To read them aloud to someone of Bill’s sensibility made it possible for me to appreciate their full power.”
Maxwell was strongly affected by the death of Prince Bolkonsky. David-Goff tells us he admired most of all the scenes set at Bald Hills. They finished reading the novel though not the epilogue. Maxwell died on July 31, 2000, at age ninety-one. Tolstoy died, after much family melodrama, on this date, November 20, in 1910. On his bedside in the stationmaster’s house at Astapovo, Tolstoy left two books at the time of his death: The Brothers Karamazov and Montaigne’s Essais.