Saturday, February 14, 2009

“War and Peace,” Book 1, Part 3 & Book 2, Part 1: So Much Reading, So Little Time

War and Peace has drilled so deeply into my psyche that it – specifically, Pierre’s ongoing search for meaning – was my first thought when I woke up this morning. Scary, isn’t it? I’m not exactly surprised, though, given the momentum I’ve picked up in my reading and Tolstoy’s many mentions of characters (e.g. Nikolai Rostov and Prince Andrei at Austerlitz) being in sleepy or fuzzy mental states.

Tolstoy loads War and Peace with so many gestures, speeches, and actions that form a big picture of life that everything feels oddly significant. Or not. Here are some favorite moments from my last 150 or so pages… Be warned: I mention plot turns!

-Pierre & Hélène’s Betrothal: I’m not sure why, but I’ve always found strange humor in Pierre’s pseudo-courtship of the lovely Hélène, inspired more by observers’ nudges than his own feelings. Somehow, the juxtaposition of Pierre’s near-sighted eyes and Hélène’s marble-like бюст (bust) seems very apt. Soon after, Pierre blurts out “Je vous aime” to Hélène after the sly Prince Vasilii congratulates the pair on a nonexistent proposal. Which turns into a real (and disastrous) marriage because Pierre is willing to accept it as inevitable. All of this seems very typical of the impressionable and indecisive Pierre, whose last name Безухов (Bezukhov) means, literally, “without ears.”

-Prince Anatol’ Visits Princess Mar’ia: I also find humor in Tolstoy’s descriptions of Prince Anatol’, a calm, self-assured nonthinker. I almost feel sorry for poor Princess Mar’ia, described as “дурна” (ugly) by Tolstoy and “laide” (ugly) by Anatol’, though I read Mar’ia as a rather schematic character, physically unattractive but with beautiful eyes and, correspondingly, temperament. Prince Anatol’s appearance turns the Bolkonskii household upside down, and I enjoyed Tolstoy’s observation that the single women of the house (Princess Mar’ia, Mademoiselle Bourienne, and Lisa, the little princess) felt that “жизнь их была не жизнью” (“their life hadn’t been life”) before his visit.

Tolstoy often makes these general, global observations about human behavior, and this time he follows by delving into each woman’s impressions of Prince Anatol’. Scarcely a page later, the gathering breaks up, and we see the reflections of each woman, plus Prince Nikolai, on meeting Anatol’. (Of course I wanted to kick Princess Mar’ia’s for thinking Anatol’ was a nice guy...) I loved Tolstoy’s instantaneous narrowing of focus and methodical examination of each character’s thoughts: I think it’s a wonderfully effective way to combine multiple perspectives that piece together to form an account of a situation.

Nikolai Rostov’s War Stories: I have always loved the scene where Nikolai Rostov describes how he was wounded: he gets carried away and simply can’t tell the truth. Tolstoy again generalizes about human nature: “Рассказать правду очень трудно, и молодые люди редко на это способны.” (“To tell the truth is very hard, and young people are rarely capable of it.”) A little later, Prince Andrei mentions that there are many stories about the “дело” (here, “battle”), and Nikolai agrees, saying the stories come from those who were there, so they carry weight. Individual accounts piece together to form mosaic-like pictures of events, much as individual soldiers join together to make a full army, which Tolstoy compares with a clock, also composed of numerous varied pieces.

I also empathize with Nikolai’s anger at himself for not having a better response to Prince Andrei. This presages his experience a little later, when he spends the battle of Austerlitz as a messenger charged with finding either his beloved tsar or general Kutuzov. But when he finds the tsar alone and looking sad on an empty field, Nikolai chickens out and can’t find a way to interrupt the tsar and use all the speeches he’s prepared. Doesn’t that happen to everyone, albeit with a family member or co-worker? The theme of best-laid plans and expectations gone astray has to be one of my favorites in the book… perhaps because I thought of it so many times when I lived in Russia during the chaotic 1990s.

Dolokhov: I’d never paid much attention to Dolokhov until this reading but this time he fascinates me. Dolokhov feels almost like a refugee from Dostoevsky, thanks to the blend of a mean streak – e.g. shooting a coachman’s horse – and his kindness to his elderly mother and hunchback sister. His poker game revenge on the once-trusting Nikolai, a true Rostov who accentuates the positive, is just plain spiteful and nasty.

Etc.: Languagehat and many commenters on his blog covered other aspects of Austerlitz, including Prince Andrei’s wound and Tolstoy’s take on history, here. One other bit on Austerlitz, though: this time around I particularly admired Tolstoy’s description of Prince Andrei’s wound and his meeting with Napoleon. Prince Andrei’s hazy combination of spiritualism, on seeing the endless sky, and lack of religious faith felt truer than ever. Today’s New York Times contained a “Beliefs” column by Peter Steinfels that discusses André Comte-Sponville’s The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, which evidently contains very similar ideas.

Image from xymonau, via stock.xchng

The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality on Amazon

War and Peace on Amazon


  1. Dolokhov is not the only Dostoevskian Tolstoy character. One of Levin's brothers comes straight out of Dostoevsky (the other is from Turgenev). I wonder is there are more. It's clearly (clear to me!) intentional.

    Enjoying these installments, by the way.

  2. Thank you so much for this! I really enjoy reading it, it's almost like reading 'War & Peace' all over again, except for one tiny little detail - not really having to do it again! It was the first Russian novel I ever read, back when I was 17, and while I was reading it I had one of the greatest love affairs of my life... with Pierre! My God, I really loved that man. For all the right reasons. Too bad he ends up being a "подкаблучник"... Keep up the good work! I'll keep reading :) and be taken back into that lovely world of Tolstoy. He's no Dostoevsky, and that might - in some regards - actually be a good thing.

  3. Thank you for the comments, Josefina and Amateur Reader! I'm glad you're enjoying the War and Peace posts.

    AR, I'll have to pay more attention to those Levin brothers next time I read Anna Karenina... though that won't be for a few years!

    Josefina, I'm not sure how I'll see Pierre this time around, but his transformation into a подкаблучник* in the past felt like just another phase in his ongoing evolution. I've always liked Pierre, too, despite how impressionable he is!

    Speaking of the Tolstoy/Dostoevsky question, one of these days I need to actually read George Steiner's Tolstoy or Dostoevsky in order, in its entirety!

    *a noun for a henpecked husband that derives from the words for "under" and "heel"... so, a man under the heel of a woman.

  4. Dolokhov feels almost like a refugee from Dostoevsky

    I love this, and it's very true. It's not true, however, that (as AR suggests) it's an intentional borrowing; at the time Tolstoy was writing the first part of W&P, Dostoyevsky hadn't published anything Tolstoy would have wanted to borrow. It's just a matter of human types, in this case one that normally appealed more to D's writerly instincts than to T's.

  5. Thank you for your comment, Language Hat.

    Indeed, questions of literary influence, intention, and borrowing are extremely tricky. I tend toward pointing out commonalities.

    Dolokhov feels fascinatingly subversive to me this time, as if he lives in a dark corner of the War and Peace world.