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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. 

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

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

1/ I can see more parallels between Tolstoy’s novel and Vanity Fair.

“The unsolved problem that tormented [Pierre] was caused by hints given by the princess, his cousin, at Moscow, concerning Dolokhov’s intimacy with his wife, and by an anonymous letter he had received that morning, which in the mean jocular way common to anonymous letters said that he saw badly through his spectacles, but that his wife’s connection with Dolokhov was a secret to no one but himself.” (Vol.2, P.1, ch.4)

(translated by Aylmer and Louise Maude, revised by Amy Mandelker) 

In Vanity Fair, Becky compromises herself by being too close to Lord Steyne, and it’s a secret to no one but her husband Rawdon Crawley. Things play out differently, but both are great. The sequence of Rawdon coming home and catching Becky with Lord Steyne is one of the best sequences in Vanity Fair, and it makes you see Rawdon differently—it makes him interesting, who before that point has been a shadow of a man (as he’s said to be). There’s no such moment in War and Peace, no discovery as such, and yet Tolstoy makes it so interesting as we watch Pierre, gloomy and distracted at the party of the Rostovs, torturing himself over his own suspicions and the mocking smile on Dolokhov’s face. 

There are some more similarities: like Becky, Hélène insists on her innocence and Pierre’s misunderstanding; like Rawdon, Pierre loses his temper and gets into a frenzy that shocks everyone present. However, whereas there’s no duel in Vanity Fair and Thackeray mostly stays with Rawdon after the discovery (and lets us see Becky a while after the event), there is a duel in War and Peace, and Tolstoy follows Pierre and Dolokhov afterwards, and these chapters are wonderful. Dolokhov is a fascinating character.   


2/ When I read the childbirth scene, I thought, yes, War and Peace and Anna Karenina are the two novels dearest to my heart. No other novelist makes me feel the way Tolstoy does. It is a haunting scene. 

Even when you have forgotten most of War and Peace, some images stay with you, like Andrei looking at the sky at Austerlitz, or the look on Lise’s face in those last moments.

Tolstoy’s depiction of their unhappy marriage is also brilliant: Lise is shallow, but she deserves pity; Andrei is a terrible husband, but his disillusionment is understandable, and he is tortured by guilt.  


3/ I know that there’s no evidence of Tolstoy having read Jane Austen, and I’m not suggesting that he did, but there are so far two things in War and Peace that remind me of Mansfield Park.

The first thing is that Anatole Kuragin and his sister Hélène are similar to Henry and Mary Crawford. In Mansfield Park, it is suggested though not depicted that the brother and sister lack some sort of moral guidance at home; in War and Peace, we can look at Prince Vasili and understand why his children turn out the way they do: they’re all selfish, immoral, and deceitful. But as I wrote in the earlier blog post, the Crawfords are more sensitive to goodness, by which I mean that they’re capable of recognising the qualities of Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, whereas Hélène is too much of an airhead to recognise Pierre’s intelligence and depth. Hélène fits perfectly in society, as society looks down on Pierre and meanwhile laughs at the stupid Ippolit’s attempts at jokes. 

(I like the Bolkonskys, all of whom despise society and its frivolities). 

The second thing is that Sonya’s position in the Rostov family, though not the same, is similar to Fanny’s place in the Bertram family: they’re both dependent and expected to be grateful; and Sonya loves her cousin Nikolai, like Fanny loves her cousin Edmund. In both cases, their feelings are not reciprocated (at least for most of Mansfield Park), though Nikolai does love Sonya like a sister. Like Fanny, Sonya gets a proposal that she’s expected to accept, and accused of ingratitude when she refuses. And Nikolai tells her to consider accepting Dolokhov, just as Edmund tells Fanny to accept Henry, though the difference is that Nikolai is free whereas Edmund is at that point infatuated with Mary. 

It’s interesting to note these similarities, and see the different endings. At first glance, it looks as though Tolstoy is the superior writer for refusing Sonya the happy ending that Jane Austen gives Fanny, but that’s not the case: Fanny is probably more like Marya Bolkonskaya (Nikolai’s later choice) than Sonya—Fanny and Marya are both deeper, more sensitive and intelligent than Sonya. 


4/ Speaking of society, look at the social climber, Boris Drubetskoy: 

“Boris smiled circumspectly, so that it might be taken as ironical or appreciative according to the way the joke was received. Everybody laughed.” (Vol.2, P.2, ch.7) 

This makes me think of Proust: 

“Dr Cottard was never quite certain of the tone in which he ought to reply to any observation, or whether the speaker was jesting or in earnest. And so by way of precaution he would embellish all his facial expressions with the offer of a conditional, a provisional smile whose expectant subtlety would exonerate him from the charge of being a simpleton, if the remark addressed to him should turn out to have been facetious. But as he must also be prepared to face the alternative, he dared not allow this smile to assert itself positively on his features, and you would see there a perpetually flickering uncertainty, in which could be deciphered the question that he never dared to ask: “Do you really mean that?”” (Vol.1, P.2) 

(translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright)

Proust can be so long-winded. 


5/ Pierre can sometimes be insufferable, such as in this scene at a station, when he’s having some spiritual crisis (after the duel with Dolokhov and the break with Hélène): 

“The Torzhok pedlar woman in a whining voice went on offering her wares, especially a pair of goat-skin slippers. ‘I have hundreds of rubles I don’t know what to do with, and she stands in her tattered cloak looking timidly at me,’ he thought. ‘And what does she want the money for? As if that money could add a hair’s breadth to her happiness or peace of mind. […]’ And again he twisted the screw with the stripped thread, and again it turned uselessly in the same place.” (Vol.2, P.2, ch.1) 

I can’t help thinking that here Tolstoy is exposing and judging his own idealism and egotism. Interestingly later on, when Pierre is talking to a mason (who gets him to join the Freemasonry), Tolstoy picks this metaphor: 

“The mason looked intently at Pierre and smiled as a rich man with millions in hand might smile at a poor fellow who told him that he, poor man, had not the five rubles that would make him happy.” (ibid.) 

A bit forced, perhaps? But interesting nevertheless. 


6/ The scene of Pierre visiting Andrei on his estate (Vol.2, P.2, ch.11-12) is one of the greatest scenes in the novel. Like Shakespeare’s characters, Tolstoy’s characters feel so real, so alive because they think and feel deeply; because they’re multifaceted and they change over time whilst remaining recognisably themselves; because they seem to have their own thoughts and their own worldviews independent of the author. Pierre and Andrei talk about how to live, and Tolstoy lets us understand why they think the way they do and what they have gone through to have come to their apparently opposite conclusions. He raises questions and presents arguments from both sides, without judgment, inviting us to think seriously about the subject ourselves, whilst showing us at the same time that different people, such as Andrei and Pierre, have different ideas about the meaning of life because they have had different circumstances and led different lives, and had different experiences. 

The moment when Andrei alludes to his guilt about Lise is especially wonderful.

In my first reading, I liked Andrei and for some reason didn’t care much for Pierre. This time, I like them both. And for some reason, I’ve always felt closer to characters in War and Peace than those in Anna Karenina, even though Anna Karenina is stylistically better and perhaps psychologically deeper.   


7/ It’s interesting that Tolstoy picks Nikolai, who adores and worships the Tsar, to be present at the Tilsit treaty and watch Alexander I and Napoleon give honours to each other’s soldiers. 

“Terrible doubts rose in his soul. Now he remembered Denisov with his changed expression, his submission, and the whole hospital, with arms and legs torn off and its dirt and disease. So vividly did he recall that hospital stench of dead flesh that he looked round to see where the smell came from. Next he thought of that self-satisfied Bonaparte with his small white hand, who was now an Emperor, liked and respected by Alexander. Then why those severed arms and legs and those dead men? … Then again he thought of Lazarev rewarded and Denisov punished and unpardoned. He caught himself harbouring such strange thoughts that he was frightened.” (Vol.2, P.2, ch.21) 

Nikolai is a decent young man, but he’s not Pierre or Andrei. He’s afraid of thoughts. 

“The process in his mind went on tormenting him without reaching a conclusion. He feared to give way to his thoughts yet he could not get rid of them.” (ibid.)

But when the thoughts that have been troubling him are voiced by others, he reacts strongly and says their job is to fight, not to think. He’s a simple soldier, like many other simple soldiers. I wrote earlier that Tolstoy’s characters, such as Andrei and Pierre, feel so alive because they think and feel deeply, but here Tolstoy depicts vividly and convincingly a character who is not a thinking man.

Nikolai isn’t particularly deep or thoughtful about Sonya either, but I should probably get back to this later. 

Sunday, 15 May 2022

Proust on reading

Whilst rereading War and Peace, I thought of a passage in Proust’s Swann’s Way about reading, so I want to share it: 

“... Next to this central belief which, while I was reading, would be constantly reaching out from my inner self to the outer world, towards the discovery of truth, came the emotions aroused in me by the action in which I was taking part, for these afternoons were crammed with more dramatic events than occur, often, in a whole lifetime. These were the events taking place in the book I was reading. It is true that the people concerned in them were not what Françoise would have called “real people.” But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a real person arouse in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the image was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of real people would be a decided improvement. A real person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion; indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either. The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for those opaque sections, impenetrable to the human soul, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which one’s soul can assimilate. After which it matters not that the actions, the feelings of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth, since we have made them our own, since it is in ourselves that they are happening, that they are holding in thrall, as we feverishly turn over the pages of the book, our quickened breath and staring eyes. And once the novelist has brought us to this state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every emotion is multiplied ten-fold, into which his book comes to disturb us as might a dream, but a dream more lucid and more abiding than those which come to us in sleep, why then, for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which only we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us because the slow course of their development prevents us from perceiving them. It is the same in life; the heart changes, and it is our worst sorrow; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change.”

(translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright)