Sunday, January 25, 2009

“War and Peace”: The Soirée

I’d never truly enjoyed the first 20 or so pages of Lev Tolstoy’s Война и мир (War and Peace) until this, my fourth, reading. With its mix of French and Russian, introductions to many characters, and numerous references to French history, the beginning of the book can feel pretty overwhelming.

One strategy for handling the first pages is to choose a thread or two to follow. If French history is your thing, focus on those references. If you prefer character development and relationships, watch those. And don’t panic if you don’t love the soirée scenes: I never have, either, but I’ve always engaged with the book quite nicely after the party breaks up.

That said, I found myself enjoying the soirée this time around, perhaps because I focused on many of the themes Tolstoy weaves into the book. They include:

Naturalness and Artificiality – Throughout the novel, Tolstoy contrasts stage-like and natural behaviors. In the first chapter he presents a nervous, party-managing hostess, Anna Pavlovna, with the awkward, outspoken Pierre. Smiles tell a lot about the people: the lovely Ellen, for example, never stops smiling but Pierre alone, making his debut in society, has a genuine smile that is childlike and kind.

Making and Interpreting History – Anna Pavlovna speaks in the first section of the book about Russia’s potential as a savior of Europe. Tolstoy writes a great deal in War and Peace about history, its participants, and its interpretations. The book includes essays on history, and War and Peace’s fictional chapters echo many of the essays’ themes, particularly the roles of generals, soldiers, and chance. One telling little episode related to history: in Part I, section V, Pierre plops himself on a couch at Prince Andrei’s, takes Caesar’s Commentaries off a shelf, and begins reading the book in the middle.

The NarratorWar and Peace’s narrator includes a few comments that look back in time, placing events within the context of history: Anna Pavlovna’s use of the word грипп (grippe) was new at the time, Prince Vasilii speaks in the French that наши деды (our grandfathers) spoke and thought in, and the lovely Ellen is dressed in accordance with the fashion of the time. The narrator’s voice will, of course, become particularly forceful in the essays on history.

Further Reading on War and Peace:

I’ll occasionally include a link or suggestion on other readings related to War and Peace. I’ll start with a link to a favorite blog, languagehat. Languagehat has been reading War and Peace in Russian and has written some excellent posts about vocabulary and Tolstoy’s use of language.

All languagehat posts with key term “war and peace”

My favorite of the posts (thus far!), about Tolstoy’s use of repetition

War and Peace on Amazon


  1. Interesting...
    War and Peace is my all time favourite book and I LOVE the opening soiree. It feels like I'm whirled around, trying to make sense of all the "sophisticated" talk, trying to find my place... getting irritated with the guests. That's the reason, I think, that I love Tolstoy; his writing is an experience.

    I might re-read the book now, I haven't done so for a while.

  2. It's funny, cat, but only on this fourth reading have I been able to fully appreciate the whirl of the soirée that you love so much! I think I'd always let the historical details disorient me, but this time I looked more at the people.

    I couldn't agree more about the experience of Tolstoy's writing: the vividness and immediacy make it a real treat to read.

    I hope you enjoy your rereading!