Saturday, January 31, 2009

“War and Peace,” Part I: It’s the Little Things

A synopsis of Part I of Война и мир (War and Peace): three parties, two partings.

What better than a party to introduce readers and characters? Tolstoy’s descriptions of interactions between characters give the scenes at Anna Pavlovna’s soirée (previous post), Pierre’s drinking party, and the Rostov name day party an almost voyeuristic immediacy.

Though 200 years have passed since the true and fictional events in the book (sort of) took place, and over 100 have elapsed since Tolstoy wrote, the textures of life haven’t changed much: marriages still strain, drinking games still exist, and children still ask improper questions at meals.

The combination of specifics from an era, the universality of the book’s themes, Tolstoy’s perspective looking back, and interactions between real people (e.g. General Kutuzov) and fictional characters, give me an almost pleasant feeling of vertigo. Even if Tolstoy’s narrative voice makes my head spin a little -- now hovering like a fly over characters as it describes faces, now pulling back to describe Big History -- I love the tension between truth and lies in the book because it applies to the text of the novel itself, too. But I digress… back to the parties…

Warning: The rest of this post refers to specific events in Part I of War and Peace.

Tying a sentry to a bear and tossing them into a canal is, thankfully, not be a common diversion, but it’s a vivid, unexpected bit of “exotica,” the kind of trouble that could happen that creates opportunities for showing how fictional characters could respond. Pierre Bezukhov is sent to Moscow for his participation, and his friend Dolokhov (who resurfaces in the first section of Part II), is demoted. Most telling, Pierre’s involvement with the bear caper wins him admiration from Count Rostov, who laughs at the story and calls it a “славная шутка” (“splendid joke”).

Count Rostov’s reaction typifies his personality: he’s a jolly man who enjoys dancing the Daniel Cooper and is rumored to be a gambler. (For kicks, here is the version of the Daniel Cooper danced at the Russian Nobility Ball in 2008.) The Rostovs’ name day dinner is an example of the importance of spontaneity and emotion in their household. Entrance into the dining room and seating are highly regimented, but Natasha, on a dare from her little brother, stands up to ask what’s for dessert. Natasha, who is affectionately called a Cossack by a friend of the family, asks and asks until she learns it will be pineapple ice cream.

I probably wouldn’t disagree that Natasha is bratty but, as the student called настоящая дочка Евы (“a true daughter of Eve”) in Russian class for being too curious, I’ve always admired her willingness to ask uncomfortable questions. She is also a loyal and emotional friend, as Tolstoy shows when she comforts Sonia, crying along with her after Sonia’s beloved Nikolai spends too much time with Julie Kuragina.

I also like watching Pierre eat. He speaks little, looks around, and tries absolutely everything, not sure which glasses to use for his drinks. Pierre is, of course, something of an outsider. Not only is he physically awkward, he’s also “незаконный” (literally, “illegal,” but used as “illegitimate”) (a related languagehat post), and unfamiliar with how he should behave in society. He wears glasses. Even as he eats and drinks at the Rostovs’, his father is dying. Undertakers are gathering outside the house. How’s that for parallel events that show both sides of the Dionysian?

Pierre sleeps in the carriage on the way home then, clueless (or perhaps still sleepy?) about how to react to his father’s dying, follows instructions from Anna Mikhailovna (mother of Natasha’s beloved Boris), a distant relative. Though Pierre knows his father’s room well, he is confused by a religious ceremony and decides everything that happens is “необходимо нужно” (roughly “necessarily needed”). Pierre’s father is referred to as “больной” (“the sick person” or “the patient”), giving even more feel of остранение (defamiliarization), as Pierre sees his father (and death) in a new, unfamiliar way. There is also an unseemly fight over Pierre’s father’s will.

When Anna Mikhailovna returns to the Rostovs’, she describes the deathbed scene as “трогательно” (“touching”) and says Bezukhov died as she would wish to die. This paragraph is one of many in the book where characters, as storytellers, produce very different accounts of events than does Tolstoy, our seemingly trustworthy narrator.

The other parting in Part I involves gloomy Prince Andrei, our soirée acquaintance who is about to go off to war, his father, the orderly Prince Nikolai Bolkonskii (a.k.a. The King of Prussia), and Andrei’s sister, heavy-stepped Princess Mar’ia. Prince Nikolai, first forced into exile, now remaining there voluntarily, is introduced as something of a tyrant, a lover of geometry who forces Mar’ia to follow a strict schedule.

The Bolkonskii family dinner on the eve of Prince Andrei’s departure shows, among other things, Prince Nikolai laughing with only his mouth, not his eyes, and then countering his son’s professional respect for Napoleon by listing Napoleon’s mistakes. This introduces a theme – the role of error in life and war – that pops up again in the first section of Part II.

I particularly like the episode when Prince Nikolai hugs his son, tells him he will be pained if Andrei dies at war, but ashamed if Andrei does not behave like the son of Nikolai Bolkonskii. A few paragraphs later, their eyes meet, and the lower part of the father’s face quivers. Having shown, involuntarily, his feelings, he then shouts, “Простились... ступай!” (Roughly: “We’ve said goodbye… out!”). Ah, families!

For me, characters’ involuntary physical motions – a quivering jaw, (un)smiling eyes, a barely perceptible smile – give War and Peace much of its immediacy. I know some readers find them irritating, and I wonder if that’s because they feel so real: we all know people whose muscles make similar moves that betray their feelings.

I’m curious about other readers’ opinions: Do you think Natasha’s impetuousness is positive or negative? Is Prince Nikolai kind at heart, just not very demonstrative? And what do you think of Pierre? 


  1. Only my second reading, albeit enhanced with the V and P translation, yet I remain struck with the Dolokhov epsiode and the wager in the window. Revisiting such last weekend I was rather enamored. I hope to larder the disucssion of Natasha in the near future. cheers

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jon!

    I agree about the window scene: there's something rather haunting about it, what with the bet, the bear, the bottle, and the possibility of falling. I don't understand how that scene didn't stick with me until I read the book for a third time.

    Yes, please do add your thoughts about Natasha later on!


  3. I find Natasha hard to take this time around (I liked her a lot better the first time I read the novel, in college 40 years ago). I admit part of it may be that she now reminds me of my first wife, an impulsive, free-spirited lass whom I first met when she was in her late teens, but I think it's mainly that I've grown to recognize the harm that such free-spiritedness can cause. Sure, it would lift your spirits to see her running around jumping into people's arms and batting her wide eyes, but living for the moment can really mess things up, as she and those who love her discover. She's a great character, but I'm glad she's neither my daughter nor my wife.

    Prince Nikolai may be "kind at heart," but otherwise he's pretty much a complete jerk. Hell, those close to all the famous dictators claimed that they loved a good joke and were good to their dogs or whatever, and of course we all think we're acting on the best of motives ("Tout le monde a ses raisons"), but (SPOILER for those who haven't read the novel yet!) his treatment of poor Marya, whom Tolstoy keeps telling us he loves, and his senseless refusal to let his son marry Natasha, which has such drastic consequences, are unforgivable in my view. I don't care if he loves them in his own special, unique, princely way; Stalin loved the Russian people so much he killed tens of millions of them to make their lives better and more radiant. The Prince represents everything that was reprehensible in the autocratic, patriarchal Russian system (and in patriarchy in general); he makes me want to bring Valerie Solanas back from the dead and let her run the world. In my view, if you "love" people but ruin their lives, you're not a gruff charmer, you're a poor excuse for a human being.

    Pierre, on the other hand, is a genuinely good person; sure, he screws up, does silly things, and is generally ineffectual, but he tries not to harm anyone and is a good friend. He's probably the W&P character I'd most like to hang out with.

    You read fast, by the way! You'll probably catch up with me in a couple of weeks.


  4. I'm glad to see your comments on the characters, Languagehat! First, I have to say that, if War and Peace characters were to show up, as real people, here in Portland, I would most want to invite Pierre over for dinner. Not just because he's obviously not a picky eater: I agree with you that Tolstoy draws him as a genuinely good person. And I would avoid Prince Nikolai for the same reasons as you would.

    That said, I think Tolstoy gives Prince Nikolai that slight glimmer of heart for plot/character development reasons that will become clearer later in the book. (I don't want to say too much because I don't know how far you've read or what you remember from your first reading.) In general, questions of regret, repentance, forgiveness, and his relationship with Mar'ia will come up. Though I will never like Prince Nikolai as a (fictional) person, I think he's an interesting fictional character -- the family tree dating back to Riurik is a nice touch -- who shows Tolstoy's ability to create characters with ambiguities and quirks that feel so oddly real we have visceral reactions to them.


    P.S. I'd forgotten who Valerie Solanas was!