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Saturday, 25 June 2022

Rereading War and Peace: Epilogue

1/ Tolstoy starts the epilogue by talking about historians’ criticisms of Alexander I. 

“In what does the substance of those reproaches lie?

It lies in the fact that an historic character like Alexander I, standing on the highest possible pinnacle of human power with the blinding light of history focused upon him […] had not the same conception of the welfare of humanity fifty years ago as a present-day professor who from his youth upwards has been occupied with learning—that is with books and lectures and with taking notes from them.” (Epilogue 1, ch.1) 

This is interesting. He goes on: 

“But even if we assume that fifty years ago Alexander I was mistaken in his view of what was good for the people, we must inevitably assume that the historian who judges Alexander will also, after the lapse of some time, turn out to be mistaken in his view of what is good for humanity. This assumption is all the more natural and inevitable because, watching the movement of history, we see that every year, and with each new writer, opinion as to what is good for mankind changes; so that what once seemed good, ten years later seems bad, and vice versa. And what is more, we find at one and the same time quite contradictory views as to what is bad and what is good in history: some people regard giving a constitution to Poland and forming the Holy Alliance as praiseworthy in Alexander, while others regard it as blameworthy.” (ibid.) 

Not hard to see what Tolstoy would have thought about the idiots today who mock others as being “on the wrong side of history”. 


2/ In the epilogue, a few images reappear. 

We see the theatre metaphor again: 

“This man is still needed to justify the final collective act.

That act is performed.

The last role is played. The actor is bidden to disrobe and wash off his powder and paint: he will not be wanted any more.

And some years pass during which he plays a pitiful comedy to himself in solitude on his island, justifying his actions by intrigues and lies when the justification is no longer needed, and displaying to the whole world what it was that people had mistaken for strength as long as an unseen hand directed his actions.

The manager, having brought the drama to a close and stripped the actor, shows him to us.” (Epilogue 1, ch.4) 

“This man” is Napoleon, in case you’re not sure. 

The bee image, earlier seen in the analogy between an abandoned Moscow and a queenless hive, appears again as Tolstoy talks about the unknowability of purpose.

The comparison of Sonya to a cat, which I noted in Vol.1 P.1, also recurs: 

“She seemed to be fond not so much of individuals as of the family as a whole. Like a cat, she had attached herself not to the people but to the home.” (Epilogue 1, ch.8) 

Because of its smaller scope, Tolstoy can later build a neater, more consistent network of motifs in Anna Karenina. War and Peace has its own qualities, but Anna Karenina is more artful. 


3/ In the epilogue, Tolstoy condenses years into a few chapters and shows the changes of characters.

I like the maturity and sacrifice of Nikolai after his father’s death. I like the pride of both Nikolai and Marya, and the sequence of them meeting each other again is wonderful. But the interesting thing I want to note is that in the epilogue, Nikolai seems very much like Levin, and thus like the author himself. His reading, his work on the farm, his relationship with the serfs, his temper, and his relationship with his wife are very much like Levin’s. 

“Countess Marya was jealous of this passion of her husband’s and regretted that she could not share it; but she could not understand the joys and vexations he derived from that world, to her so remote and alien.” (Epilogue 1, ch.7)

That sounds like Kitty and Levin and, from what I know, Sonya and Tolstoy.

I personally feel sorry for Sonya in War and Peace. Compared to Marya, she may not be so deep, she’s also small-minded, and very conscious of her own sacrifice, but I still feel sorry for her. 


4/ People tend to complain about what Tolstoy did to Natasha in the epilogue. So did I, when I read the book for the first time 8 years ago.

It is certainly disappointing to see a charming, vivacious girl like Natasha turn out the way she does at the end—fat, boring, her whole life revolving around her husband and children—especially when she’s only 28 in those chapters. But I no longer see it as a failure on Tolstoy’s part, nor something incredible and incomprehensible.

I’m copying here Himadri’s reading of the epilogue, as I can’t express it anywhere near as well: 

“What comes out of that epilogue is that *all* human dreams and aspirations end in disappointment. Pierre had thought he had attained great wisdom: we see him again eight years later, and find that he hasn’t. The Countess Rostova, whom we had seen as a dominant figure in the family, is now a pathetic nobody, possibly going senile. Nikolai is effective as landowner, but nothing special. Maria too seems to have inherited little of her father’s brilliance. That’s how all human aspirations end. There’s a marvellous moment where Andrei’s son, who had never known his father but idolises the image he has of him, says to his Uncle Pierre that his father, Andrei, had he been alive, would have agreed with him, and Pierre turns away embarrassed, for he knows Andrei wouldn’t. None of this is betrayal as such of our former selves: it is simply the dying of the flame that comes with the years. That is the overriding mood of this epilogue, and it is superb. This is what the passing years do to us.” 

The dying of the flame over the years is the subject of Chekhov’s fiction a few times, such as in “Ionych”. 

On a side note, it’s wonderful to read Tolstoy (and Shakespeare) with a great, insightful reader such as Himadri. 


5/ Lots of readers complain about the second epilogue, call it unnecessary and superfluous, and tell others to skip it.

Before getting into details, I’m going to say that it’s not superfluous: whatever you think about Tolstoy’s ideas, War and Peace is intended to be more than a novel and these philosophical essays have been part of the book since the third volume; outside the essay chapters, Tolstoy continues arguing with historians about war, history, and Napoleon in the history chapters and even in the fictional battle scenes; these ideas run through the book and therefore he closes the book with them. More importantly, whether or not you agree with Tolstoy, he raises interesting questions about history, war, the concept of genius or a great man, causes, purposes, free will, necessity, and so on. 

“We learn that Luther had a hot temper and said such and such things; we learn that Rousseau was suspicious and wrote such and such books; but we do not learn why after the Reformation the peoples massacred one another, nor why during the French Revolution they guillotined one another.” (Epilogue 2, ch.4) 

Is this not an interesting question? About why people go to war and kill each other? 

Tolstoy opposes the Great Man theory of history, and people tend to argue against him by saying that the 20th century would have been different without Hitler, Lenin, or Mao Zedong, but my (limited) understanding is that Tolstoy doesn’t really say that history would have been exactly the same whether or not Napoleon existed. My understanding is that Tolstoy mainly opposes two things: one, the concept of military genius, and two, historians’ attribution of every victory and defeat to one man.

“The activity of a commander-in-chief does not at all resemble the activity we imagine to ourselves when we sit at ease in our studies examining some campaign on the map, with a certain number of troops on this and that side in a certain known locality, and begin our plans from some given moment. A commander-in-chief is never dealing with the beginning of any event—the position from which we always contemplate it. The commander-in-chief is always in the midst of a series of shifting events and so he never can at any moment consider the whole import of an event that is occurring.” (Vol.3, P.3, ch.2) 

Tolstoy argues, and shows in the novel that the concept of military genius doesn’t make sense when the enemy’s movements cannot be predicted and things don’t go according to plan: things may go wrong, there may be delays, people may not be where they are meant to be and cannot get a command in time, troops may take longer to arrive at a certain point, some officers may disobey, and so on and so forth. 

“When, for instance, we say that Napoleon ordered armies to go to war, we combine in one simultaneous expression a whole series of consecutive commands dependent one on another. 

[…] For a command to be certainly executed it is necessary that a man should command what can be executed. But to know what can and what cannot be executed is impossible, not only in the case of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, in which millions participated, but even in the simplest event, for in either case millions of obstacles may arise to prevent its execution.” (Epilogue 2, ch.6) 

There are a million different factors, that’s what Tolstoy’s saying. 

“I do not know why a certain event occurs; I think that I cannot know it; so I do not try to know it and I talk about chance. I see a force producing effects beyond the scope of ordinary human agencies; I do not understand why this occurs and I talk of genius.” (Epilogue 1, ch.1) 

The other thing to which Tolstoy objects is the way historians attribute victory or defeat or a change of events in a war to one man.  

“Many historians say that the French did not win the battle of Borodino because Napoleon had a cold, and that if he had not had a cold the orders he gave before and during the battle would have been still more full of genius and Russia would have been lost and la face du monde eût été changée.” (Vol.3, P.2, ch.28) 

Or: 

“Napoleon’s historians describe to us his skilled manoeuvres at Tarutino and Malo-Yaroslavets, and make conjectures as to what would have happened had Napoleon been in time to penetrate into the rich southern provinces.” (Vol.4, P.2, ch.18) 

Tolstoy also talks about the way historians select facts that fit a narrative: 

“… all these hints at what happened, both from the French side and the Russian, are advanced only because they fit in with the event. Had that event not occurred these hints would have been forgotten, as we have forgotten the thousands and millions of hints and expectations to the contrary which were current then but have now been forgotten because the event falsified them.” (Vol.3, P.2, ch.1) 

Tolstoy hates Napoleon and seems to want to reduce him to something small, but I think these essays are more like his reaction to the historians of his day. 

“‘Greatness’, it seems, excludes the standards of right and wrong. For the ‘great’ man nothing is wrong; there is no atrocity for which a ‘great’ man can be blamed.

‘C’est grand!’ say the historians, and there no longer exists either good or evil, but only ‘grand’ and ‘not grand’.” (Vol.4, P.3, ch.18) 


6/ I started rereading War and Peace on 3/5, so it’s been over 7 weeks, and apart from a couple of days I was rereading Jane Austen’s Sanditon when I was at Filey beach for my birthday, I’ve been reading the same book.

This rereading confirms that Anna Karenina and War and Peace are the two novels dearest to my heart. I would say that Anna Karenina is stylistically a greater novel—it is perfect—but I like Andrei, Pierre, and Nikolai more than Levin, Vronsky, or Karenin, and like Natasha and Marya more than Anna or Kitty, and some moments of War and Peace would stay with me forever. Like Andrei looking at the sky at Austerlitz, or Natasha doing a folk dance in the peasants’ house, or Pierre watching his dying father. 

I love both novels, in different ways. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Rereading War and Peace: Vol.4, P.3-4

1/ In Part 3 of Volume 4, we meet again Petya, the youngest of the Rostovs. His naïve enthusiasm is reminiscent of the naïveté in the young Nikolai (his brother) but it’s more reckless and childish—in War and Peace, as in Hong lou meng, some characters may have similarities but they are all distinct. 

In an earlier blog post, I wrote that there’s a sense of enchantment in the scene of Nikolai and Natasha reminiscing about their childhood and in the scene of the Rostovs in the troikas.

Again, Tolstoy conveys a sense of enchantment when Petya is dreaming before a battle:

“The big dark blotch might really be the watchman’s hut or it might be a cavern leading to the very depths of the earth. Perhaps the red spot was a fire, or it might be the eye of an enormous monster. Perhaps he was really sitting on a wagon but it might very well be that he was not sitting on a wagon but on a terribly high tower from which, if he fell, he would have to fall for a whole day or a whole month, or go on falling and never reach the bottom. Perhaps it was just the Cossack, Likhachov, who was sitting under the wagon, but it might be the kindest, bravest, most wonderful, most splendid man in the world, whom no one knew of. It might really have been that a hussar came for water and went back into the hollow, but perhaps he had simply vanished—disappeared altogether and dissolved into nothingness.

Nothing Petya could have seen now would have surprised him. He was in a fairy kingdom where everything was possible.” (Vol.4, P.3, ch.10)

It is magical. And that makes his death more heartbreaking.

This is a character who for a large part of the book has been minor, who has always been in the background, known mostly as the youngest Rostov. Tolstoy makes him come alive mostly through two sequences: first, when he wants to enter the army and tries to petition to the Tsar; and second, when he is in the army and attaches himself to Denisov’s regiment, and insists on always putting himself forward and always tries to be heroic. Petya feels vividly real, and his death is shocking in its suddenness. 

And when the news reaches the Rostov family, the scene is heart-rending. 


2/ This is Pierre after his imprisonment and the influence of Karataev: 

“While imprisoned in the shed Pierre had learned, not with his intellect but with his whole being, by life itself, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfaction of simple human needs, and that all unhappiness arises not from privation but from superfluity. And now during these last three weeks of the march he had learned still another new, consolatory truth—that there is nothing in the world that is terrible. He had learned that, as there is no condition in which man can be happy and entirely free, so there is no condition in which he need be unhappy and not free. He learned that suffering and freedom have their limits and that those limits are very near together; that the person in a bed of roses with one crumpled petal suffered as keenly as he now, sleeping on the bare damp earth with one side growing chilled while the other was warming; and that when he had put on tight dancing shoes he had suffered just as he did now when he walked with bare feet that were covered with sores—his footgear having long since fallen to pieces...” (Vol.4, P.3, ch.12) 

This is one of those passages in War and Peace that I imagine Chekhov reading and mumbling to himself “Lev Nikolayevich writes some shit sometimes”. 

(If you haven’t read “Ward No.6”, you should). 

I like this though: 

“There was a new feature in Pierre’s relations with Willarski, with the princess, with the doctor, and with all the people he now met, which gained for him the general goodwill. This was his acknowledgement of the impossibility of changing a man’s convictions by words, and his recognition of the possibility of everyone thinking, feeling, and seeing things each from his own point of view. This legitimate peculiarity of each individual, which used to excite and irritate Pierre, now became a basis of the sympathy he felt for, and the interest he took in, other people.” (Vol.4, P.4, ch.13) 


3/ I have said that Tolstoy’s metaphors/ similes tend to be direct (there are exceptions, as I’ve pointed out on this blog), but sometimes I’m still surprised at how commonplace an image is. 

“… All the profound plans about cutting off and capturing Napoleon and his army were like the plan of a market-gardener who, when driving out of his garden a cow that had trampled down the beds he had planted, should run to the gate and hit the cow on the head. The only thing to be said in excuse of that gardener would be that he was very angry. But not even that could be said for those who drew up this project, for it was not they who had suffered from the trampled beds.” (Vol.4, P.3, ch.19) 

His metaphors are straight-to-the point: 

“The Russian army had to act like a whip to a running animal. And the experienced driver knew it was better to hold the whip raised as a menace than to strike the running animal on the head.” (ibid.)

The French army is again compared to an animal. 


4/ There is, let’s say, a gentleness in Tolstoy. 

I like that the old Bolkonsky, as he’s dying, has the chance to say to Marya some words of tenderness he never said to her. 

I also like that Natasha and Andrei have some sort of reconciliation before he dies, that she has the chance to make up for wronging him, and that Andrei dies having near himself his sister Marya and the girl he loves. 


5/ The last sequence of War and Peace (before the Epilogues) is so good, especially the first meeting of Pierre with Marya and Natasha after the war. Tolstoy is good at both conversations between two characters and group scenes; and he’s also good at scenes of three people. One example is at the beginning of the book, when Lise has an outburst with Andrei in Pierre’s presence. The scene of Pierre, Natasha, and Marya is magnificent as there are many things happening at the same time and Tolstoy lets us see all three points of view: we see Natasha talking, for example, and at the same time see Pierre listening to her and thinking about her, and we also see Marya watching both of them. It is especially moving when Natasha, for the very first time, talks about her few weeks nursing Andrei.

I personally find it interesting that Tolstoy chooses to have Natasha and Pierre reunite and rekindle their feelings whilst Marya is present. Imagine a different scenario, without Marya: it’s perfectly possible. But Tolstoy brings in another perspective and adds some “complications” to the happiness of Pierre and Natasha. 

“The change that took place in Natasha at first surprised Princess Marya; but when she understood its meaning it grieved her. ‘Can she have loved my brother so little as to be able to forget him so soon?’ she thought when she reflected on the change. But when she was with Natasha she was not vexed with her and did not reproach her. The reawakened power of life that had seized Natasha was so evidently irrepressible and unexpected by her, that in her presence Princess Marya felt that she had no right to reproach her even in her heart.” (Vol.4, P.4, ch.20) 

The narrator says Marya doesn’t reproach Natasha, but I can’t look at it without thinking of Hamlet’s “Frailty, thy name is woman” speech. 

What do you think? 


I have now finished reading the main text of War and Peace, having the epilogues left. 

Monday, 20 June 2022

Rereading War and Peace: Vol.4, P.1-2

1/ In the previous blog post, I wrote that there’s a problem in Tolstoy’s portrayal of Hélène, and wondered if there would be anything different when she’s dying. There’s not. And Hélène doesn’t die in the arms of the author, though I don’t know if Tolstoy doesn’t want to write about it or it’s because of the censor. 


2/ There’s a memorable moment in the book that many people talk about when they talk about War and Peace—when Pierre is watching an execution: 

“… Like the others this fifth man seemed calm; he wrapped his loose cloak closer and rubbed one bare foot with the other.

When they began to blindfold him he himself adjusted the knot which hurt the back of his head; then when they propped him against the bloodstained post, he leaned back and, not being comfortable in that position, straightened himself, adjusted his feet, and leaned back again more comfortably. Pierre did not take his eyes from him and did not miss his slightest movement.” (Vol.4, P.1, ch.11) 

It is a haunting scene, especially that detail.

James Wood writes: 

“What strikes us nowadays is the mysterious pointlessness of the man fiddling with his blindfold just before death. It was surely with the help of Tolstoy’s instruction that George Orwell watched a condemned Burmese man, in his essay “A Hanging,” walk toward the gallows and swerve to avoid a puddle on the way. Both Tolstoy and Orwell are making a point about uniqueness and typicality. The human animal will tend to look after its own interests, even when the gesture is so useless that it looks like a decision not typical but radically individual.” (The Fun Stuff and Other Essays

The more fascinating thing I find is that such an image has been used by the narrator earlier:  

“As a criminal who is being led to execution knows that he must die immediately, but yet looks about him and straightens the cap that is awry on his head, so Moscow involuntarily continued its wonted life, though it knew that the time of its destruction was near when the conditions of life to which its people were accustomed to submit would be completely upset.” (Vol.3, P.3, ch.12) 


3/ Nikolai meets Marya again and falls more deeply in love with her:  

“When he met her again in Voronezh the impression she made on him was not merely pleasing but powerful. Nikolai had been struck by the peculiar moral beauty he observed in her at this time. He was however preparing to go away and it had not entered his head to regret that he was thus depriving himself of chances of meeting her. But that day’s encounter in church had, he felt, sunk deeper than was desirable for his peace of mind. That pale, sad, refined face, that radiant look, those gentle graceful gestures, and especially the deep and tender sorrow expressed in all her features, agitated him and evoked his sympathy. In men Rostov could not bear to see the expression of a higher spiritual life (that was why he did not like Prince Andrei) and he referred to it contemptuously as philosophy and dreaminess, but in Princess Marya that very sorrow which revealed the depth of a whole spiritual world foreign to him, was an irresistible attraction.” (Vol.4, P.1, ch.7) 

I don’t think there’s anything false in the way Nikolai and Marya fall in love, albeit rather quickly, almost at first sight. The scene of them meeting by chance again is also fine. But there’s something in the phrase “moral beauty” that gets on my nerves. The passage above comes from the translation by Aylmer and Louise Maude, revised by Amy Mandelker. Anthony Briggs also translates it as “moral beauty” (“Nikolay was deeply affected by the singular moral beauty that he could now see in her”). 

There’s also something false in the line “In men Rostov could not bear to see the expression of a higher spiritual life (that was why he did not like Prince Andrei) and he referred to it contemptuously as philosophy and dreaminess”. Nikolai and Andrei have only met once (not counting Nikolai seeing Andrei from afar when they’re watching the Tsar), and I’ve always thought that Nikolai dislikes Andrei because the latter happens to walk in on the former recounting his military exploits, with some embellishments, to Boris and he (Andrei) seems contemptuous. Nikolai feels exposed and embarrassed, then insulted when Andrei asks him about the battle. It’s a short meeting. I don’t buy the idea that Nikolai dislikes “the expression of a higher spiritual life” in Andrei, whatever that means. 


4/ I wrote before that one major difference between War and Peace and Vanity Fair, which is also about the Napoleonic Wars, was that Thackeray stayed behind and didn’t follow the characters going to war. Another difference is that Thackeray doesn’t really write about death: the only death that has a strong impact is George Osborne’s, the other deaths generally happen off-stage and barely ruffle the emotional lives of other characters. In War and Peace, there are several deaths, most of them get Tolstoy’s and therefore our attention, and they are arguably some of the greatest death scenes in literature, especially Lise’s and Andrei’s deaths. 

It is for powerful scenes like these that one puts up with certain frustrations from reading War and Peace. And the scene of Natasha and Marya watching Andrei die is particularly powerful and moving when the reader has watched someone close to them die (in my case, my grandma).  


5/ In the previous blog post, I mentioned this comparison: 

“As a hungry herd of cattle keeps well together when crossing a barren field, but gets out of hand and at once disperses uncontrollably as soon as it reaches rich pastures, so did the army disperse all over the wealthy city.” (Vol.3, P.3, ch.26)

The French army is later again compared to cattle: 

“That army, like a herd of cattle run wild and trampling underfoot the provender which might have saved it from starvation, disintegrated and perished with each additional day it remained in Moscow. But it did not go away.” (Vol.4, P.2, ch.10) 

Tolstoy also compares it to a beast: 

“The beast wounded at Borodino was lying where the fleeing hunter had left him; but whether he was still alive, whether he was strong and merely lying low, the hunter did not know. Suddenly the beast was heard to moan.

The moan of that wounded beast (the French army) which betrayed its calamitous condition, was the sending of Lauriston to Kutuzov’s camp with overtures for peace.” (Vol.4, P.2, ch.2) 

And “a wounded animal” and “wild beast”: 

“The plight of the whole army resembled that of a wounded animal which feels it is perishing and does not know what it is doing. To study the skilful tactics and aims of Napoleon and his army from the time it entered Moscow till it was destroyed, is like studying the dying leaps and shudders of a mortally wounded animal. Very often a wounded animal, hearing a rustle, rushes straight at the hunter’s gun, runs forward and back again, and hastens its own end. Napoleon, under pressure from his whole army, did the same thing. The rustle of the battle of Tarutino frightened the beast, and it rushed forward onto the hunter’s gun, reached him, turned back, and finally—like any wild beast—ran back along the most disadvantageous and dangerous path, where the old scent was familiar.” (ibid.)

The image of the wounded beast reappears later, but I want to draw attention to the following paragraph: 

“During the whole of that period Napoleon, who seems to us to have been the leader of all those movements—as the figurehead of a ship may seem to a savage to guide the vessel—acted like a child who, holding a couple of strings inside a carriage, thinks he is driving it.” (ibid.)

Tolstoy combines 2 similes in the same sentence, and repeats the comparison of Napoleon to a child from earlier in the same chapter: 

“The mining of the Kremlin only helped towards fulfilling Napoleon’s wish that it should be blown up when he left Moscow—as a child wants the floor on which he has hurt himself to be beaten.” (ibid.) 


6/ I’m probably talking rubbish, in which case ignore me, but I can’t help wondering if Pierre keeps looking for spiritual guidance, first from Bazdeev (the Mason) then from Karataev (the old soldier), because he was an illegitimate child and needs some sort of father figure. Levin from Anna Karenina also searches for the meaning of life, but he doesn’t seek a guide or a mentor. 

“[Pierre] had long sought in different ways that tranquillity of mind, that inner harmony, which had so impressed him in the soldiers at the battle of Borodino. He had sought it in philanthropy, in Freemasonry, in the dissipations of town life, in wine, in heroic feats of self-sacrifice, and in romantic love for Natasha; he had sought it by reasoning—and all these quests and experiments had failed him. And now without thinking about it, he had found that peace and inner harmony only through the horror of death, through privation, and through what he recognized in Karataev.” (Vol.4, P.2, ch.12)

We know that’s temporary and Pierre is never fully satisfied with any answer, just as Levin never is, but it’s interesting to follow Pierre and think with him as he searches for meaning. 

Saturday, 18 June 2022

Rereading War and Peace: Vol.3, P.2-3

1/ In an earlier blog post, I wrote that Tolstoy a few times compared things to the stage. The theatre metaphors reappear in this part. 

“The actors of 1812 have long since left the stage, their personal interests have vanished leaving no trace, and nothing remains of that time but its historic results.” (Vol.3, P.2, ch.1) 

More:

“In this letter Prince Andrei pointed out to his father the danger of staying at Bald Hills, so near the theatre of war and on the army’s direct line of march, and advised him to move to Moscow.” (Vol.3, P.2, ch.2) 

The phrase “the theatre of war” appears 3 more times in the same chapter.

This is interesting: 

“Amid the powder-smoke slowly dispersing over the whole space through which Napoleon rode, horses and men were lying in pools of blood, singly or in heaps. Neither Napoleon nor any of his generals had ever before seen such horrors or so many slain in such a small area. The roar of guns, that had not ceased for ten hours, wearied the ear and gave a peculiar significance to the spectacle, as music does to tableaux vivants.” (Vol.3, P.2, ch.34) 

I like that. There’s something strange and striking I can’t quite explain about the comparison to tableaux vivants.

The theatre metaphor comes up again later, when Napoleon is in a deserted Moscow. The narrator ends the chapter with: 

“Le coup de théâtre avait raté.” (Vol.3, P.3, ch.20) 

Translation: “The coup de théâtre had not come off.”

There are some other interesting similes in War and Peace

“Once more something whistled, but this time quite close, swooping downwards like a little bird; a flame flashed in the middle of the street, something exploded, and the street was shrouded in smoke.” (Vol.3, P.2, ch.4)

The comparison to little birds has appeared before: 

“… at that instant, as if to punish him for those words, bullets flew hissing across the regiment and across Kutuzov’s suite like a flock of little birds.” (Vol.1, P.3, ch.16) 

And it appears again: 

“‘Look out!’ came a frightened cry from a soldier and, like a bird whirring in rapid flight and alighting on the ground, a shell dropped with little noise within two steps of Prince Andrei and close to the battalion commander’s horse.” (Vol.3, P.2, ch.36) 

People don’t often talk about Tolstoy’s metaphors and generally focus more on his characters or his ideas, but once in a while there is something unusual. 

“The old man was still sitting in the ornamental garden, like a fly on the face of a loved one who is dead…” (Vol.3, P.2, ch.5) 

This is Alpatych, the old servant staying at Bald Hills after everyone else has left. He is now talking to Andrei. 

This is an even stranger metaphor:

“[Natasha] was also happy because she had someone to adore her: the adoration of others was a lubricant the wheels of her machine needed to make them run freely—and Petya adored her.” (Vol.3, P.3, ch.12)

Isn’t that such a dry, mechanical metaphor for someone like Natasha? 


2/ Tolstoy’s depiction of the relationship between old Bolkonsky and Marya is magnificent, especially in the last moments. It is a moving scene, and his depiction of the frailty of an old man makes me think of Lear (especially the reunion with Cordelia), and of Sir Leicester from Bleak House

One of the things I love about War and Peace is how similar the children are to their parents: Boris is a social climber and opportunist like his mother Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskaya; Hélène and Anatole are base, unprincipled, and deceitful like their father Vasili Kuragin; Nikolai and Natasha have the love and warmth and simplicity of old Rostov; Andrei and Marya are also like the old Bolkonsky, even though they themselves find him difficult.  

Andrei has the pride of a Bolkonsky, and the contempt for frivolous society. More importantly, there’s something hard and cruel about him sometimes, as in his father. Look at the scene where Pierre meets Andrei for the first time after the engagement is broken off: 

“‘I much regret her illness,’ said Prince Andrei; and he smiled like his father, coldly, maliciously, and unpleasantly.

‘So Monsieur Kuragin has not honoured Countess Rostova with his hand?’ said Prince Andrei, and he snorted several times.

‘He could not marry, for he was married already,’ said Pierre.

Prince Andrei laughed disagreeably, again reminding one of his father.” (Vol.2, P.5, ch.21) 

Andrei’s coldness to Natasha and his earlier coldness to Lise are not different from the coldness we have seen in his father.

Marya also inherits something from the old prince: 

“To her consternation she detected in herself in relation to Nikolushka some symptoms of her father’s irritability. However often she told herself that she must not get irritable when teaching her nephew, almost every time that, pointer in hand, she sat down to show him the French alphabet, she so longed to pour her own knowledge quickly and easily into the child—who was already afraid that Auntie might at any moment get angry—that at his slightest inattention she trembled, became flustered and heated, raised her voice, and sometimes pulled him by the arm and put him in the corner. Having put him in the corner she would herself begin to cry over her cruel, evil nature…” (Vol.2, P.5, ch.2) 

She also has the Bolkonsky pride: 

“Princess Marya was the same as always, but beneath her sympathy for her brother Pierre noticed her satisfaction that the engagement had been broken off. Looking at them Pierre realized what contempt and animosity they all felt for the Rostovs, and that it was impossible in their presence even to mention the name of her who could give up Prince Andrei for anyone else.” 

The difference is that she’s more religious, and more understanding. I wonder what the mother was like. 


3/ One of the advantages War and Peace has over history books is that Tolstoy shows the war as seen through different eyes: the perspective of the inexperienced, idealistic Nikolai is contrasted with the experience of Andrei, who feels more at home in the army than in society; Nikolai’s idealism and his adoration, bordering on worship, of the Tsar (“He felt that at a single word from that man all this vast mass (and he himself an insignificant atom in it) would go through fire and water, commit crimes, die, or perform deeds of highest heroism, and so he could not but tremble and his heart stand still at the imminence of that word”—Vol.1, P.3, ch8) are contrasted with the pragmatic, opportunistic way Boris looks at the war and the military (“He was conscious that here he was in contact with the springs that set in motion the enormous movements of the mass of which in his regiment he felt himself a tiny, obedient, and insignificant atom”—Vol.1, P.3, ch.9); we see the difference between the young, naïve, and boastful Nikolai when he first joins the army and the older, more experienced Nikolai in the war of 1812; the young Nikolai’s feeling is mirrored by the childish enthusiasm of Petya; Tolstoy shows the perspectives of simple soldiers such as Nikolai, higher-up officers such as Andrei, and leaders such as Napoleon; he also depicts the war through the eyes of a non-military man, like Pierre.

It’s a rich, colourful account of the war. Pierre may be a stand-in for Tolstoy in many ways (as Levin later is in Anna Karenina), but Andrei is a mouthpiece for Tolstoy’s thoughts about the Great Man theory of history. Both Pierre and Andrei (and many other characters in War and Peace) are still more vividly real and complex than almost any other writer’s characters however—even when they share some similarities with the author, they seem to have a will of their own. 

To go back to Tolstoy’s descriptions of the war, sometimes there’s a beautiful image like this: 

“Above the Kolocha, in Borodino and on both sides of it, especially to the left where the Voina flowing between its marshy banks falls into the Kolocha, a mist had spread which seemed to melt, to dissolve and to become translucent when the brilliant sun appeared and magically coloured and outlined everything. The smoke of the guns mingled with this mist, and over the whole expanse and through that mist the rays of the morning sun were reflected, flashing back like lightning from the water, from the dew, and from the bayonets of the troops crowded together by the river banks and in Borodino.” (Vol.3, P.2, ch.30) 


4/ The scene of Pierre meeting Andrei before the Battle of Borodino and the scene of Andrei feeling compassion for Anatole are wonderful moments. But I want to draw your attention to something else less talked about.

The philosophy chapters and the history chapters, when we don’t see the major characters—the characters we know and care about, can be quite dry. But sometimes Tolstoy does something interesting. For example, in the scene where the Council of War discuss whether or not to abandon Moscow (Vol.3, P.3, ch.4), he depicts it from the perspectives of various military leaders but also writes the point of view of Malasha, the six-year-old granddaughter of a peasant named Andrei Savostyanov, who in her mind calls Kutuzov “Grandad”. Strictly speaking, Malasha’s perspective of the discussion adds nothing to the plot, but it’s a nice touch. It’s unexpected and refreshing.


5/ I can’t help thinking that there’s something lacking in the characterisation of Hélène. I don’t mean depth—she’s a nasty airhead—she’s not Becky Sharp. 

But something seems to be lacking, and I suppose it’s because Tolstoy seems to be harsher, much harsher on her than on Dolokhov or Anatole or Prince Vasili, almost as hostile as towards Napoleon. In War and Peace, Tolstoy seems able to understand everyone, to see things from their point of view, and to depict a vast range of characters without judgment. An exception is Napoleon—we can all see Tolstoy’s hatred and contempt for the man—but I think Hélène is another exception. With Prince Vasili and Anatole, Tolstoy enters their minds and depicts their points of view and presents them as they are, but when he writes Hélène, who is exactly the same as Anatole in callousness and depravity, he seems to be looking at her from the outside and not the inside. 

“Had Hélène herself shown the least sign of hesitation, shame, or secrecy, her cause would certainly have been lost; but not only did she show no signs of secrecy or shame, on the contrary, with good-natured naïveté she told her intimate friends (and these were all Petersburg) that both the prince and the magnate had proposed to her, and that she loved both and was afraid of grieving either.

A rumour immediately spread in Petersburg, not that Hélène wanted to be divorced from her husband (had such a report spread many would have opposed so illegal an intention) but simply that the unfortunate and interesting Hélène was in doubt which of the two men she should marry. The question was no longer whether this was possible, but only which was the better match and how the matter would be regarded at court. There were, it is true, some rigid individuals unable to rise to the height of such a question, who saw in the project a desecration of the sacrament of marriage, but there were not many such and they remained silent, while the majority were interested in Hélène’s good fortune and in the question which match would be the more advantageous. Whether it was right or wrong to re-marry while one had a husband living they did not discuss, for that question had evidently been settled by people ‘wiser than you or me’, as they said, and to doubt the correctness of that decision would be to risk exposing one’s stupidity and incapacity to live in society.” (Vol.3, P.3, ch.7) 

Tolstoy is very clearly and very strongly condemning Hélène. I went back and reread: Tolstoy seems softer on Anatole when the guy seduces Natasha, despite knowing about her engagement and despite being married himself. 

Perhaps it’d be different when Hélène is dying. I suppose we’ll see. 


6/ I love Tolstoy’s comparison of an abandoned Moscow to a queenless hive. 

“The bees circle round a queenless hive in the hot beams of the midday sun as gaily as around the living hives; from a distance it smells of honey like the others, and bees fly in and out in the same way. But one has only to observe that hive to realize that there is no longer any life in it. […] From the alighting-board, instead of the former spirituous fragrant smell of honey and venom, and the warm whiffs of crowded life, comes an odour of emptiness and decay mingling with the smell of honey.” (Vol.3, P.3, ch.20)

This extended metaphor is much longer than anything I’ve seen so far in War and Peace: Tolstoy spends nearly 2 pages talking about Moscow as a queenless hive.

“All is neglected and foul. Black robber-bees are swiftly and stealthily prowling about the combs, and the short home-bees, shrivelled and listless as if they were old, creep slowly about without trying to hinder the robbers, having lost all desire and all sense of life. Drones, bumble-bees, wasps, and butterflies, knock awkwardly against the wall of the hive in their flight. Here and there among the cells containing dead brood and honey an angry buzzing can sometimes be heard.” (ibid.) 

This reminds me of the “digressions” in Moby Dick. Tolstoy himself kept bees, so he spent nearly 2 pages talking about bees. It’s an apt metaphor though, that I can’t deny. 

There are more comparisons to animals: 

“Like a monkey which puts its paw into the narrow neck of a jug, and having seized a handful of nuts will not open its fist for fear of losing what it holds, and therefore perishes, the French when they left Moscow had inevitably to perish because they carried their loot with them, yet to abandon what they had stolen was as impossible for them as it is for the monkey to open its paw and let go of its nuts.” (Vol.3, P.3, ch.26) 

And:

“As a hungry herd of cattle keeps well together when crossing a barren field, but gets out of hand and at once disperses uncontrollably as soon as it reaches rich pastures, so did the army disperse all over the wealthy city.” (ibid.) 


7/ I like this: 

“While the sea of history remains calm the ruler-administrator in his frail bark, holding on with a boat-hook to the ship of the people, and himself moving, naturally imagines that his efforts move the ship he is holding on to. But as soon as a storm arises and the sea begins to heave and the ship to move, such a delusion is no longer possible. The ship moves independently with its own enormous motion, the boat-hook no longer reaches the moving vessel, and suddenly the administrator, instead of appearing a ruler and a source of power, becomes an insignificant, useless, feeble man.” (Vol.3, P.3, ch.25) 

“The sea of history”, “the ship of the people”—this reminds me of the ship motif that scatters throughout Bleak House.

Later Tolstoy uses the ship image again when Count Rastopchin gets the crowd worked up and tells them to do whatever they want with the traitor Vereshchagin:  

“The barrier of human feeling, strained to the utmost, that had held the crowd in check, suddenly broke. The crime had begun and must now be completed. The plaintive moan of reproach was drowned by the threatening and angry roar of the crowd. Like the seventh and last wave that shatters a ship, that last irresistible wave burst from the rear and reached the front ranks, carrying them off their feet and engulfing them all.” (ibid.) 

That’s a powerful image for a terrifying scene. The madness, the savagery of the mob. How strange that I didn’t remember this scene from my last reading. 

Strictly speaking, the episode doesn’t advance the plot and doesn’t involve any of the major characters. Some readers may find it irrelevant. But I love these “superfluous” scenes; I love that War and Peace has a massive scope and paints a rich, colourful picture of Russia; and I love that Tolstoy adds to the picture something savage, something not flattering to Russian people. A North Vietnamese writer (or Vietnamese after 1975) wouldn’t, or wouldn’t be allowed to, write such a scene in such a way. 


I have some thoughts about the philosophy parts of the book, but I’m saving them for now. 

Thursday, 16 June 2022

Best Jane Austen adaptations

My picks. In chronological order. In bold are the ones I like the most. 


Pride and Prejudice (1995) with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth

Sense and Sensibility (1995) with Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet 

Clueless (1995) with Alicia Silverstone

Persuasion (1995) with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds

Emma (1996) with Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong 

Northanger Abbey (2007) with Felicity Jones 

Love & Friendship (2016) with Kate Beckinsale 

Wednesday, 15 June 2022

My 1-minute film: 1973: The End of the Affair

1973: The End of the Affair is a film I made in May 2022 for The Associated Press 1-Minute Archive Film Competition.

Participants had low-res downloads of archive footage from The Associated Press, and the three finalists would be provided with clean, high-resolution, and non-watermarked footage in order to create a clean version for the festival screening.

My film was not selected, it is therefore shared in its original state. Please ignore the timecode at the bottom of the video. The years in the bottom right however were done by me. 



Saturday, 4 June 2022

Rereading War and Peace: Vol.3, P.1

1/ It is in this part that Tolstoy the philosopher appears for the first time, as he starts talking about the French invasion of Russia in 1812.

It’s interesting to read these chapters whilst trying to understand the current war in Ukraine. 

“… to us, to posterity who view the thing that happened in all its magnitude and perceive its plain and terrible meaning, these causes seem insufficient. To us it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other either because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England’s policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: why because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolensk and Moscow and were killed by them.” (Vol.2, P.1, ch.1)

Some readers object to these chapters but I don’t. Tolstoy has always been interested in the causes and motivations of human behaviour—it makes perfect sense that he wants to examine the roots of something on a much larger scale, something incomprehensible such as war. 


2/ The first chapters of Volume 3 are the history chapters, the supposedly dry chapters. But there are some beautiful details, like this: 

“The sun was only just appearing from behind the clouds, the air was fresh and dewy. A herd of cattle was being driven along the road from the village, and over the fields the larks rose trilling, one after another, like bubbles rising in water.” (Vol.3, P.1, ch.4) 

Or: 

“They had hardly ridden up a hill, past a tavern, before they saw a group of horsemen coming towards them. In front of the group, on a black horse with trappings that glittered in the sun, rode a tall man with plumes in his hat and black hair curling down to his shoulders. He wore a red mantle, and stretched his long legs forward in French fashion. The man rode towards Balashov at a gallop, his plumes flowing and his gems and gold lace glittering in the bright June sunshine.” (ibid.) 

Later, when Tolstoy writes about Nikolai Rostov in the battlefield, he also adds some beautiful details: 

“Tattered, blue-purple clouds, reddening in the east, were scudding before the wind.” (Vol.3, P.1, ch.14) 

And: 

“As soon as the sun appeared in a clear strip of sky beneath the clouds, the wind fell, as if it dared not spoil the beauty of the summer morning after the storm; drops continued to fall, but vertically now, and all was still. The whole sun appeared on the horizon and disappeared behind a long, narrow cloud that hung above it. A few minutes later it reappeared brighter still from behind the top of the cloud, tearing its edge. Everything grew bright and glittered.” (ibid.) 

Isn’t that so beautiful? I’m still reading the translation by Aylmer and Louise Maude, revised by Amy Mandelker, in case anyone’s wondering. 


3/ If we go back a bit to the year Natasha and Andrei are staying apart at the old Bolkonsky’s “request”, I note that Tolstoy stays entirely with Natasha’s perspective and doesn’t follow Andrei—not even for a brief moment—until he’s back in Moscow. We know Natasha’s thoughts, we know Sonya’s, we know the old man’s, we know Marya’s, but what does Andrei think about the engagement and the separation? What does he think about his father’s objection to the marriage? How often does he think about Natasha? Does he have doubt? Does he compare Natasha and Lise in his head? What does he think when he gets the letters from Natasha, and does he notice the slight change in tone? 

And when he’s back in Moscow and talking to Pierre, we can see his reaction to the news that Natasha “has been at death’s door”, but the point of view is Pierre’s—we don’t know what Andrei is thinking at that moment.

This is not a complaint, I’m just pointing out Tolstoy’s decision. We do know Andrei’s thoughts afterwards and his pain, and I can also see that he never realises his own part in Natasha’s misery and lapse of judgment. 

The chapter of Andrei at Bald Hills, visiting his family before going off to war, is magnificent. 

“… it struck him as strange and unexpected to find the way of life there unchanged and still the same in every detail. He entered through the gates with their stone pillars, and drove up the avenue leading to the house as if he were entering an enchanted, sleeping castle. The same old stateliness, the same cleanliness, the same stillness reigned there, and inside there was the same furniture, the same walls, sounds, and smell, and the same timid faces, only somewhat older.” (Vol.3, P.1, ch.8) 

This is like my boyfriend returning to his hometown and going to the old pub to find everything exactly the same: time passes and lives change, but in the pub, everything looks exactly the same and everyone looks the same, just a bit older. 

“Little Nikolai alone had changed. He had grown, become rosier, had curly dark hair, and when merry and laughing quite unconsciously lifted the upper lip of his pretty little mouth just as the little princess used to do. He alone did not obey the law of immutability in the enchanted sleeping castle. But though externally all remained as of old, the inner relations of all these people had changed since Prince Andrei had seen them last.” (ibid)

This reminds me of the two moments of Andrei with the oak, though the difference is that earlier the oak appears to change because Andrei has changed inside (having fallen in love with Natasha), whereas now there is change in the relations of people at Bald Hills.

The chapter also makes me think of Vanity Fair: George Osborne also leaves for war without being reconciled to his father, though of course the conflict between him and old Osborne is much more serious than between Andrei and old Bolkonsky. 

“He sought in himself either remorse for having angered his father, or regret at leaving home for the first time in his life on bad terms with him, and was horrified to find neither. What meant still more to him was, that he sought and did not find in himself the former tenderness for his son which he had hoped to reawaken by caressing the boy and taking him on his knee.” (ibid.) 

That is so good. Tolstoy is not sentimental. 


4/ This is an interesting quote:

“Pfuel was one of those theoreticians who so love their theory that they lose sight of the theory’s object—its practical application. His love of theory made him hate everything practical, and he would not listen to it. He was even pleased by failure, for failures resulting from deviations in practice from the theory, only proved to him the accuracy of his theory.” (Vol.3, P.1, ch.10) 

I see this a lot. 


5/ In an earlier blog post, I wrote that Tolstoy often picked a detail or image for a character, and repeated it many times. In War and Peace, because of the scope and the large canvas, he doesn’t repeat them all throughout the book as he later does in Anna Karenina, but there’s still some repetition. And he also does it with the historical characters. 

For example, Napoleon: 

“Napoleon noticed Balashov’s embarrassment when uttering these last words: his face twitched and the calf of his left leg began to quiver rhythmically. Without moving from where he stood he began speaking in a louder tone and more hurriedly than before. During the speech that followed Balashov, who more than once lowered his eyes, involuntarily noticed the quivering of Napoleon’s left leg which increased the more, the more Napoleon raised his voice.” (Vol.3, P.1, ch.6) 

And later: 

“He went in silence from one corner of the room to the other and again stopped in front of Balashov. Balashov noticed that his left leg was quivering faster than before and his face seemed petrified in its stern expression. This quivering of his left leg was a thing Napoleon was conscious of.” (ibid.)

Here’s Pfuel of Prussia: 

“Pfuel was short and very thin but broad-boned, of coarse, robust build, broad in the hips and with prominent shoulder-blades. His face was much wrinkled and his eyes deep set. His hair had evidently been hastily brushed smooth in front on the temples, but stuck up behind in quaint little tufts.” (Vol.3, P.1, ch.10) 

Later we see him again, and see the tufts of hair again: 

“He said a few words to Prince Andrei and Chernyshov about the present war, with the air of a man who knows beforehand that all will go wrong, and who is not displeased that it should be so. The unbrushed tufts of hair sticking up behind and the hastily brushed hair on his temples expressed this most eloquently.” (ibid.) 

And again: 

“From the tone in which the courtiers addressed him, and the way Paulucci had allowed himself to speak of him to the Emperor, but above all from a certain desperation in Pfuel’s own expressions, it was clear that the others knew, and Pfuel himself felt, that his fall was at hand. And despite his self-confidence and grumpy German sarcasm he was pitiable, with his hair smoothly brushed on the temples and sticking up in tufts behind.” (Vol.3, P.1, ch.11) 

By pinning down a physical detail and repeating it, Tolstoy makes a character more real, more memorable.

Sunday, 29 May 2022

Rereading War and Peace: Vol.2, P.5

1/ The opening chapter of this part is brilliant and uncomfortably, if not painfully, relatable. 

“How horrified [Pierre] would have been seven years before, when he first arrived from abroad, had he been told that there was no need for him to seek or plan anything, that his rut had long been shaped, eternally predetermined, and that wriggle as he might, he would be what all in his position were. He could not have believed it! Had he not at one time longed with all his heart to establish a republic in Russia; then himself to be a Napoleon; then to be a philosopher; and then a strategist and the conqueror of Napoleon? Had he not seen the possibility of, and passionately desired, the regeneration of the sinful human race, and his own progress to the highest degree of perfection? Had he not established schools and hospitals and liberated his serfs?

But instead of all that—here he was, the wealthy husband of an unfaithful wife, a retired gentleman-in-waiting, fond of eating and drinking and, as he unbuttoned his waistcoat, of abusing the government a bit, a member of the Moscow English Club and a universal favourite in Moscow society. For a long time he could not reconcile himself to the idea that he was one of those same retired Moscow gentlemen-in-waiting he had so despised seven years before.” (Vol.2, P.5, ch.1)

He has lost his spark, as people generally do—this is one of the common themes in Chekhov, like “Ionych” for instance.

I won’t copy here the following passages from the book, but it’s wonderful, as Pierre sometimes looks beyond himself and realises that other people—people he despises—perhaps also struggle within themselves as he does. It’s a great moment. 


2/ It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a large inheritance, must be in want of a husband. 

In War and Peace, the richest heiresses are Marya Bolkonskaya and Julie Karagina, and naturally the poor men try to catch them—the opposite of what we see in Jane Austen. The interesting thing is that Tolstoy shows the hesitation and struggle in such a man, Boris Drubetskoy: 

“Julie had long been expecting a proposal from her melancholy adorer and was ready to accept it; but some secret feeling of repulsion for her, for her passionate desire to get married, for her artificiality, and a feeling of horror at renouncing the possibility of real love, still restrained Boris. His leave was expiring. He spent every day and whole days at the Karagins’, and every day on thinking the matter over told himself that he would propose tomorrow. But in Julie’s presence, looking at her red face and chin (nearly always powdered), her moist eyes, and her expression of continual readiness to pass at once from melancholy to an unnatural rapture of married bliss, Boris could not utter the decisive words...” (Vol.2, P.5, ch.7) 

The thing I love about Tolstoy is that he can enter the mind of anybody, and can get us to sympathise, even for a brief moment, with a scheming, oily, opportunistic bastard like Boris. And he shows that even someone like Boris, who always knows what he wants and whose tongue never slips, has his weaknesses. 

“After his first visit Boris said to himself that Natasha attracted him just as much as ever, but that he must not yield to that feeling, because to marry her, a girl almost without fortune, would mean ruin to his career, while to renew their former relations without intending to marry her would be dishonourable. Boris made up his mind to avoid meeting Natasha, but despite that resolution he called again a few days later, and began calling often and spending whole days at the Rostovs’. […] every day he went away in a fog, without having said what he meant to, and not knowing what he was doing or why he came, or how it would all end. He left off visiting Hélène and received reproachful notes from her every day, and yet he continued to spend whole days with the Rostovs.” (Vol.2, P.3, ch.12) 

In the courtship chapters, the depiction of Julie is also brilliant, and Tolstoy brings life to a character who up to that point was only in the background, nothing but Marya’s friend. 


3/ For a man who hates Shakespeare, Tolstoy compares things to theatre quite a few times in War and Peace

“Prince Vasili always spoke languidly, like an actor repeating a stale part.” (Vol.1, P.1, ch.1)

Pierre: 

“He entered his wife’s drawing-room as one enters a theatre, was acquainted with everybody, equally pleased to see everyone and equally indifferent to them all.” (Vol.2, P.3, ch.9) 

Andrei: 

“While still in the ante-room, Prince Andrei heard loud voices and a ringing staccato laugh—a laugh such as one hears on the stage.” (Vol.2, P.3, ch.18)

One of the central scenes of this part takes place at a theatre, when Natasha and the others are watching an opera.

“After her life in the country, and in her present serious mood, all this seemed grotesque and amazing to Natasha. She could not follow the opera nor even listen to the music, she saw only the painted cardboard and the queerly dressed men and women who moved, spoke, and sang so strangely in that brilliant light. She knew what it was all meant to represent, but it was so pretentiously false and unnatural that she first felt ashamed for the actors and then amused at them.” (Vol.2, P.5, ch.9) 

A bit later on, Natasha cannot concentrate on the opera because she’s distracted by real life—her sexual attraction to Anatole—she doesn’t realise that he too is acting a part, he too is putting on a performance. 


4/ The more I see of the Kuragin siblings, the more similar to the Crawfords they appear. 

“Anatole had asked her to bring him and Natasha together, and she was calling on the Rostovs for that purpose. The idea of throwing her brother and Natasha together amused her.” (Vol.2, P.5, ch.12) 

In this aspect, Hélène sounds very much like Jane Austen’s Mary Crawford. 

In my previous blog post, I compared the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys—the old count is an ineffectual husband and father, lacking authority, and the Rostovs don’t have the seriousness, the principles and strong moral sense that we see in Andrei Bolkonsky and Marya—but they still have a sense of honour, a sense of right and wrong that the Kuragins completely lack. The Kuragin family, from prince Vasili to Hélène and Anatole, care about nothing but themselves and their own pleasures. Even scoundrels like Boris and Dolokhov know better than Anatole right from wrong. 

The fathers in War and Peace are all terrible: old Rostov is weak, ineffectual, and bad with money; prince Vasili is self-serving, mercenary, and hypocritical; old Bolkonsky loves his children but he is tyrannical, demanding, ill-tempered, and often cruel; and I think the late count Bezukhov barely knew his illegitimate son Pierre.  

Speaking of which, I like this comparison: 

“Princess Marya well knew this mood of quiet absorbed querulousness, which generally culminated in a burst of rage, and she went about all that morning as though facing a cocked and loaded gun and awaited the inevitable explosion.” (Vol.2, P.5, ch.3) 

Again a War image in a Peace scene. 


5/ I do ponder what Natasha would have done if she hadn’t been stopped by Sonya and Marya Dmitrievna, a sort of mother figure to Natasha who is blunter and firmer than Natasha’s own mother. 

Interestingly, I note that Marya Dmitrievna, when she finds out, calls Natasha a slut in the Maudes-Mandelker translation. The word “slut” appears twice—“shameless slut” and “horrid girl, slut”—and it’s Amy Mandelker’s choice because in the original, Aylmer and Louise Maude write “shameless good-for-nothing” and then “horrid girl, hussy”. 

Anthony Briggs also goes for “hussy”.

The various articles I’ve read about the etymology don’t seem to agree with each other about when “slut” first got the sense of a sexually promiscuous woman, but it does look quite modern. But I don’t know the original word in Russian—perhaps Amy Mandelker picks “slut” to convey how strong Marya Dmitrievna’s word is, something that we don’t get from the word “hussy”?

These chapters are magnificent. Tolstoy has compassion for Natasha and depicts her without judgment: especially good are the passages about Natasha’s sexual desire for Anatole, her torn, confused feelings, and her struggle between Anatole and Andrei. In real life, we can never truly understand another person’s thoughts and feelings, just as Pierre and Andrei cannot know what goes on in Natasha’s mind. 

(I have some thoughts about Andrei, but won’t write anything for now).  


6/ After my first reading of War and Peace 8 years ago, I remembered the scene of the injured Andrei looking at the sky at Austerlitz, but forgot the moment of another character looking at the sky: Pierre witnessing the comet.

It’s sublime. 

Perhaps I should write less about characters. 

Thursday, 26 May 2022

Rereading War and Peace: Vol.2, P.3-4

I’m still reading the translation by Aylmer and Louise Maude, revised by Amy Mandelker. 

1/ Often Tolstoy picks a feature or an image for a character, and repeats it many times. For example, note Andrei’s impression of Speransky, the Secretary of State:

“In the society in which Prince Andrei lived […] he had never seen such delicate whiteness of face or hands—hands which were broad, but very plump, soft, and white. Such whiteness and softness Prince Andrei had only seen on the faces of soldiers who had been long in hospital.” (Vol.2, P.3, ch.5) 

We see the hands again later: 

“Prince Andrei without joining in the conversation watched every movement of Speransky’s: this man, not long since an insignificant divinity student, who now, Bolkonsky thought, held in his hands—those plump white hands—the fate of Russia.” 

And again: 

“Everything was right and everything was as it should be: only one thing disconcerted Prince Andrei. This was Speransky’s cold, mirror-like look, which did not allow one to penetrate to his soul, and his delicate white hands, which Prince Andrei involuntarily watched as one does watch the hands of those who possess power. This mirror-like gaze and those delicate hands irritated Prince Andrei, he knew not why.” (Vol.2, P.3, ch.6)

It’s not just Andrei—Tolstoy also seems fixated on hands—I note that Andrei has “small white hands”, Pierre has “huge red hands”, the mason has “shrivelled old hands”, Denisov has “sinewy hairy hand and stumpy fingers”, Anna Pavlovna has “shrivelled hands” and “shrivelled fingers”, and so on. Most of the times they’re descriptions to help you visualise the characters, but once in a while Tolstoy writes about hands to convey something more penetrating—something about the person who is looking. Andrei’s incomprehensible dislike of the hands of someone he likes and admires is one example. 

Another example is Nikolai’s fixation on Dolokhov’s hands, when they’re playing cards together and Nikolai’s losing big: 

“… he emptied the glass of warm champagne that was handed him, smiled at Dolokhov’s words, and with a sinking heart, waiting for a seven to turn up, gazed at Dolokhov’s hands which held the pack.” (Vol.2, P.1, ch.13) 

Tolstoy’s novels feel so real, so alive because of images such as this: 

“He could not conceive that a stupid chance, letting the seven be dealt to the right rather than to the left, might deprive him of all this happiness, newly appreciated and newly illumined, and plunge him into the depths of unknown and undefined misery. That could not be, yet he awaited with a sinking heart the movement of Dolokhov’s hands. Those broad, reddish hands, with hairy wrists visible from under the shirt-cuffs, laid down the pack and took up a glass and a pipe that were handed him.” (ibid.) 

As Nikolai becomes more desperate and keeps hoping to win back his money, he fixes his gaze on Dolokhov’s hands and then concentrates his hatred on those hands, as though the hands alone are the cause of his misery:  

“Rostov, leaning his head on both hands, sat at the table which was scrawled over with figures, wet with spilt wine, and littered with cards. One tormenting impression did not leave him: that those broad-boned reddish hands with hairy wrists visible from under the shirtsleeves, those hands which he loved and hated, held him in their power.” (Vol.2, P.1, ch.14)

Tolstoy is so subtle, so psychologically astute—whatever I read after War and Peace is going to appear so crude in comparison. 

The most striking hand—or rather, arm—image in War and Peace is probably the moment when Pierre is watching his dying father:

“While the count was being turned over, one of his arms fell back helplessly and he made a fruitless effort to pull it forward. Whether he noticed the look of terror with which Pierre regarded that lifeless arm, or whether some other thought flitted across his dying brain, at any rate he glanced at the refractory arm, at Pierre’s terror-stricken face, and again at the arm, and on his face a feeble, piteous smile appeared, quite out of keeping with his features, that seemed to deride his own helplessness. At sight of this smile Pierre felt an unexpected quivering in his breast and a tickling in his nose, and tears dimmed his eyes. The sick man was turned onto his side with his face to the wall. He sighed.” (Vol.1, P.1, ch.20) 

That is haunting. 


2/ When people think about female characters in War and Peace, people usually think about Natasha, Marya, and Sonya—not Vera. Even in the Rostov family, nobody particularly likes or cares about Vera. She’s not the type who creates a strong impression, and doesn’t appear much, but once in a while Tolstoy comes close to her, the black sheep of the family, and I love those moments.

“‘Vera,’ [Countess Rostova] said to her eldest daughter who was evidently not a favourite, ‘how is it you have so little tact? Don’t you see you are not wanted here? Go to the other girls, or …’

The handsome Vera smiled contemptuously but did not seem at all hurt.

‘If you had only told me sooner, Mamenka, I would have gone at once,’ she replied as she rose to go to her own room.

But as she passed the sitting-room she noticed two couples sitting, one pair at each window. She stopped and smiled scornfully.” (Vol.1, P.1, ch.11)

Seeing Sonya with Nikolai, and Natasha with Boris, Vera spoils their fun and ruins it for everybody. She doesn’t seem at all hurt, but is it really true that she isn’t?  

“The handsome Vera, who produced such an irritating and unpleasant effect on everyone, smiled, and evidently unmoved by what had been said to her, went to the looking-glass and arranged her hair and scarf. Looking at her own handsome face she seemed to become still colder and calmer.” (ibid.)

It’s not hard to see why nobody in the family—even a loving family such as the Rostovs—likes Vera, but at the same time I feel sorry for her. Tolstoy gets one to care about his characters as though they’re real people. 

I suppose Vera lacks the quick instinct and sensitivity of her sister Natasha to read a situation and people’s feelings, and at the same time also has the disadvantage of not being close to her family and not being told things. When Nikolai’s back from the army, for example, she notices that he and Sonya change pronouns and seem like strangers, but isn’t perceptive enough to know why. 

“Vera’s remark was correct as her remarks always were, but like most of her observations it made everyone feel uncomfortable, not only Sonya, Nikolai, and Natasha, but even the old countess, who—dreading this love affair which might hinder Nikolai from making a brilliant match—blushed like a girl.” (Vol.2, P.2, ch.1) 

I especially like the chapter when Berg proposes to Vera and gets accepted: 

“After the first feeling of perplexity aroused in the parents by Berg’s proposal, the holiday tone of joyousness usual at such times took possession of the family, but the rejoicing was external and insincere. In the family’s feeling towards this wedding a certain awkwardness and constraint was evident: as if they were ashamed of not having loved Vera sufficiently and of being so ready to get her off their hands. The old count felt this most.” (Vol.2, P.3, ch.11) 

Tolstoy’s so good. 

A few chapters later, we see more of Vera when she and Berg, now married, host a party. She has no tact and little self-awareness, and almost none of the goodness that we see in Natasha or Marya—Vera is not likable—but she is very realistic. 


3/ Natasha has been delightful since her first appearance, but it is in Volume 2 Part 3 where she becomes particularly endearing—how could anyone not, like Andrei, fall in love with her? 

I suppose all women reading chapters 14-17 must have the same thoughts: how does Tolstoy know what a girl at 16 thinks? How does he know so much about dresses, and about how girls prepare for a ball? How does he know what restless excitement and anxiety a 16-year-old girl experiences at her first grand ball? And later on, when Tolstoy writes more about Natasha in love, I’m in awe. 

I like that Tolstoy depicts the ball almost entirely from Natasha’s point of view, the same technique he later uses for the ball scene in Anna Karenina, seen from Kitty’s perspective. He however doesn’t repeat himself: the two ball scenes are different, the way the childbirth in War and Peace is different from the two in Anna Karenina

As I watch again Andrei fall in love with Natasha, I already know this time how things turn out, I already know that Andrei repeats his mistake and has a habit of falling in love with women incompatible with him, and yet it’s still lovely to watch, and there’s still a feeling that of course Andrei would fall in love with Natasha. 


4/ I love the scene of Natasha’s folk dance, but forgot that it followed the scene of the hunt (in which Natasha also takes part). 

“What was passing in that receptive childlike soul that so eagerly caught and assimilated all the diverse impressions of life? How did they all find place in her?” (Vol.2, P.4, ch.7) 

I would say that that line is also true for Tolstoy: that’s why in Tolstoy, one can find many types of people and a vast range of subjects and all kinds of human experiences. 


5/ I say Anna Karenina and War and Peace are the two novels dearest to my heart—you can’t make me choose between them—they do different things. 

To put it simply, Anna Karenina is about love and marriage, and Tolstoy contrasts 3 marriages: Karenin-Anna-Vronsky, Levin-Kitty, and Oblonsky-Dolly. The Peace of War and Peace is about courtship and about family, and the book has 5 main families though Tolstoy mostly focuses on 3: the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, and the Kuragins (the other 2 are the Bezukhovs and the Drubetskoys).

I like the way Tolstoy contrasts the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys. In the Rostov household, the old count (Ilya Rostov) has no authority and little control over his affairs, bringing his family to ruin, but there is always lots of love and warmth and joy in the family. There’s a sense of enchantment in the scene where Natasha and Nikolai talk about their childhood memories and their dreams, and in the scene of the young Rostovs (including Sonya) in the troikas.  

“Nikolai set off following the first sledge: behind him the others moved noisily, their runners squeaking. At first they drove at a steady trot along the narrow road. While they drove past the garden, the shadows of the bare trees fell across the road and hid the brilliant moonlight, but as soon as they were past the fence, the snowy plain, bathed in moonlight and motionless, spread out before them glittering like diamonds and dappled with bluish shadows. Bang, bang! went the first sledge over a cradle-hole in the snow of the road, and each of the other sledges jolted in the same way, and rudely breaking the frost-bound stillness the troikas began to speed along the road one after the other.” (Vol.2, P.4, ch.10)

There’s something lovely and magical in the scene. 

“‘But here was a fairy forest with black moving shadows, and a glitter of diamonds and a flight of marble steps and the silver roofs of fairy buildings and the shrill yells of some animals. And if this is really Melyukovka it is still stranger that we drove heaven knows where and have come to Melyukovka,’ thought Nikolai.” (ibid.)

It is no wonder that Andrei, despite earlier prejudice, feels drawn to the warmth of the Rostovs.

In contrast, in the Bolkonsky household, the old prince is a tyrant, everything has to be exactly as he wants, and everyone is afraid of him. In the Bolkonskys, we feel a sense of order lacking in the Rostovs but don’t find the warmth and exuberance that we see in the Rostovs, but they do love each other, just in a different way. Old Bolkonsky is hard on Marya, especially when she falls for Anatole, but he is right. He is difficult when Andrei wants to marry Natasha, but again he is right. It is a hard love, and sometimes feels as though there’s contempt and something like hate mixed in the love—it’s fascinating. 

I myself can’t help liking the Bolkonskys, just as I can’t help liking the Rostovs. 

I probably should contrast the Rostovs and the Kuragins later on. 


6/ You know in Shakespeare there are a few courtships in which the women are cross-dressing? 

In War and Peace, the turning point for Nikolai and Sonya happens when both of them are cross-dressing. It’s as though Tolstoy wants to out-Shakespeare Shakespeare.