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! 


  1. Can you tell the name of the opera?

  2. Thank you for your question, anonymous, but the opera's name isn't given, and I'm not knowledgeable enough about opera to know if it is real or invented.

    Some cursory Google searches didn't turn up much of use, though it seems the 1967 Soviet film adaptation used an anachronistic opera:

    IMDb -- 1967 Soviet adaptation

  3. Margo Rosen有一篇文章:Natasha Rostova at Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable

  4. Thanks very much for the research, anonymous!

    Here's a link to the abstract of the paper by Margo Rosen:

    abstract of Margo Rosen's "Natasha Rostova at Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable"

    It's particularly interesting that Tolstoy used an anachronistic opera.