Saturday, February 28, 2009

“War and Peace,” Book 2, Parts 4 & 5: Art and Artifice

Performance and masks were the common themes in this past week’s War and Peace reading: Natasha dancing to balalaika music, Rostov household members in disguise during the winter holidays, a night at the opera, and a would-be elopement/kidnapping. Some highlights:

The Rostov family’s day of wolf hunting ends for Natasha, Nikolai, and Petya at the home of a country neighbor they call “uncle”:  in this not-so-tidy house with animal skins hanging on the walls, Natasha spontaneously dances to balalaika music. Tolstoy wonders how Natasha, educated like a French émigré, manages to breathe Russian air to catch the “дух” (“spirit”) of the dance. (Orlando Figes analyzes this passage in the introduction to his book Natasha’s Dance, linked to this previous post.)

Tolstoy’s musing about Natasha’s identity felt a little false to me, particularly since he consistently depicts her as more Dionysian than Apollonian thanks to her intuition, contradictoriness, and emotions. A few paragraphs later, Tolstoy reinforces this, as Natasha wonders about the whereabouts of Prince Andrei for about a second and then decides “Не думать, не сметь думать об этом.” (“Don’t think, don’t dare think about that.”) She asks for more music, soon decides to abandon the harp in favor of the guitar, and tells Nikolai on the way home that she will never be as happy and calm as she is now.

All this behavior is very Rostovian. We soon learn that the Rostovs continue to have money problems – Papa Rostov is a terrible money manager and can’t seem to refuse anyone. Natasha, Nikolai, and Sonya talk about life, death, and memories from childhood. The winter holidays soon bring masks: the serfs of the household are the first to dress up, and the younger Rostovs follow, changing gender with costumes and then taking a troika ride to see a neighbor.

I especially love the carnival aspect of these святки (sviatki) scenes – the mix of serfs and nobility, fortune telling, and masking and gender-changing costumes – that accentuates the atmosphere of the Rostovs’ Dionysian household. These scenes also give Nikolai and Sonya a chance to see each other very differently in their costumes, making for some extreme остранение (defamiliarization) for the characters.

And what could contrast more with these carnivalesque country scenes than a trip to the Moscow opera for some higher culture? Natasha’s evening out is significant for several reasons. Though she first sees the opera as artificial, thanks to its painted cardboard trees and hand-waving characters, she eventually warms to it. Her reaction to opera parallels her experience meeting the lovely and nearly bare-breasted Hélène Bezukhova, sitting in the next box. The consequences of sitting in Hélène’s stage-like box and meeting her equally attractive but treacherous brother Anatol’ become far more dramatic for Natasha than the opera itself. 

Tolstoy bares devices of all types at the opera house. He reveals the flimsiness of the art itself, reinforcing again the peculiarities of storytelling, and shows the naked shamelessness and shallowness of Hélène and society. Natasha is flattered by the attention of the older woman and is easily seduced (not quite literally) by Anatol’, whom she thinks she must love because of the strong feelings she experiences for him.

Of course Anatol’ is rather feeble-minded, so Dolokhov, newly returned from Persia with an exotic persona and a continued yen for gambling, writes Anatol’s love letter to Natasha and even handles the logistics for Anatol’s elopement. The wedding, like so much else we see in these scenes, would have also been fake because Anatol’ is already married.

All these false identities and twisted narratives join the embellished war stories from previous chapters, reinforcing the mixture of truth and lies, characters real and imagined, that populate War and Peace...

As always, I could go on and on but won’t, though there’s a lot from these pages that I didn’t cover here, including the mental deterioration of Prince Nikolai, Prince Andrei’s return, Pierre’s growing feelings for Natasha, and Nikolai Rostov’s leadership during the hunt. Please feel free to add comments about favorite passages! 

Saturday, February 21, 2009

“War and Peace,” Book 2, Parts 2 and 3: Characters’ Development

My last stretch of War and Peace has been so loaded with fun and famous passages that I decided to write about them from the angle of character development. Pierre, Prince Andrei, and Natasha all experience big changes in this small chunk of the book:

Pierre the Freemason: Book 2, Part 2, begins with Pierre at a post station, dreamily contemplating big, existential questions – life, death, good, bad – when he meets a freemason. Though Pierre ‘fesses up to being an atheist, he conquers his doubts to join up, adapting, at least on the surface, to fit a way of life he finds by chance, literally, as part of his travels.

Of course the new, virtuous life Pierre expects doesn’t materialize – laziness, for one, is a weakness – and he finds many of the same weak society people he already knows are involved with the masons. He even helps the insincere Boris join. Still, masonhood is part of Pierre’s continuing journey, and he even becomes head of the lodge, albeit somewhat unwillingly. Ah, Pierre!

Prince Andrei and the Oak Tree: I began to appreciate Prince Andrei more than ever in this reading. Yes, he’s still a bit prickly, but after having a ball with Natasha (sorry), I was happy to see him leave the stultifying falsity of the party at Speransky’s house and realize he doesn’t enjoy writing laws. I enjoyed watching Prince Andrei’s rebirth, too, beginning with his injury at Austerlitz, where he sees the boundless sky and continuing when he receives the message “Весна, и любовь, и счастие!” (“Spring, and love, and happiness!”) from a big oak tree. Indeed, life is not over at 31!

Natasha’s love for life also has an effect, and the scene where Prince Andrei hears her telling Sonya to wake up and look out the window at the night sky has always been a favorite. Incidentally, there is a nice little word play in this passage: “соня” (sonya) also means sleepyhead, and its root, сон (son) means sleep and dream. Natasha’s desire to fly into the night sky makes me think of Master and Margarita.

Natasha and the Mirrors: Natasha gets a lot of ink in these passages of the book, and my favorite has to be her day at home, the day when Prince Andrei comes to propose marriage. Natasha has overcome her sadness at Prince Andrei’s absence – he had visited her regularly after the ball, then, unbeknownst to Natasha, gone to visit his father to discuss marriage – and she is wearing an old dress and singing solfeggi, which Tolstoy-as-narrator steps in to tell us are voice exercises.

Natasha here seems to be working on her voice both literally and figuratively, training herself in notes but also defining her identity as she moves toward adulthood. She looks at herself in the mirror, too, telling herself she doesn’t need anyone else. When she realizes Prince Andrei has arrived, she looks in the mirror again and, at first, doesn’t see herself. She then sees a pale version of herself. Tolstoy combines her inner thoughts with her actions, and this scene contrasts beautifully with her entrance to the ball, where she looks in a mirror and cannot separate herself from the masses of faces she sees.

Other Interesting Developments: Princess Mar’ia and her religious pilgrims… the unromantic but practical Berg’s bargain with Papa Rostov, asking for more dowry in his marriage to Vera… Berg and Vera’s party, which they model after others’… Nikolai’s latest glimpses of the tsar…

What are your thoughts about these developments in plot and character? 

Oak leaves from Thoursie, through stock.xchng

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

Saturday, February 7, 2009

“War and Peace”: Book One, Part Two: First War Scenes

Russian high school students read Война и мир (War and Peace) in the tenth grade, and many people joke that the girls read Peace and the boys read War.

With a strong preference for Peace over War, I can’t deny fitting the stereotype. But I enjoy the war scenes of War and Peace more with each reading, despite continuing difficulties following troop movements. There’s so much chaos, fog, and interaction among characters that my attention doesn’t get much chance to wander.

Tolstoy ends Book One, Part One, with Prince Nikolai Bolkonskii slamming a door. He opens Book One, Part Two, with Russian troops moving into Austria. Tolstoy’s point of view changes dramatically, moving away from inner thoughts and intimate family portraits toward statements describing the history of nations: “In October of 1805 Russian troops were occupying the villages and cities of the Austrian archduchy…”

Even more jarring for me, he occasionally uses the word “наши” (ours”) to refer to Russian troops. This shift join other elements of the novel – e.g. those neutral-sounding mentions of troop movements and close-up descriptions of characters – that Tolstoy patches together to create a narrative that demonstrates the innumerable factors, people, and perspectives that contribute to history and our lives. Tolstoy’s ability to show this jumble so beautifully, both stylistically and through plot and characters’ actions, is why War and Peace has endeared itself to me so much.

Troops are described several times as “массы” (“masses”) and at least once as ants. The individual people who makes up those living masses sometimes know their places and jobs, but they are also prone to making mistakes and forgetting to convey commands. After battle, they don’t always remember what happened – witness Prince Andrei not remembering his encounter with Tushin – or might twist the truth to make themselves look better. These, and related themes, will reappear many times.

A few other elements I especially like:

-Many armies have drummers to keep soldiers in step, but how many have spoon players? My Война и мир book, a Soviet-era edition for school kids, even includes an endnote defining the word ложечник as a wooden spoon player.

-Nikolai Rostov’s battlefield expectations, then his horrifying realization that he could be killed, despite how much his family loves him.

-Price Bagration’s intuitive leadership and calming effect on his troops.

I’m interested in other opinions… Do you have a strong preference for either War or Peace? What do you think of Tolstoy’s first battle scenes?