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)


“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) 


“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) 

Thursday 12 May 2022

Rereading War and Peace: Vol.1, P.3 (switching translation)

1/ In the previous blog post, I said I was reading the Anthony Briggs translation (the same as the first time). As I’m not at all impulsive, I’ve now bought and switched to another version: translated by Aylmer and Louise Maude, and revised by Amy Mandelker.

It feels quite different.

Not knowing Russian, I can’t comment on accuracy, but I suppose it’s legitimate to say that the Briggs translation feels more modern. For example, look at the moment when Anna Pavlovna talks to Pierre about Hélène at one of her parties, some time after the Count’s death: 

“‘She is gorgeous, isn’t she?’ she said to Pierre, nodding after the majestic beauty as she floated away from them. ‘Look how she carries herself! For such a young girl, what sensitivity, what magnificent deportment! It comes from the heart, you know. It will be a happy man who wins her. A man with no social skills would occupy a brilliant place in society beside her, don’t you think? I just wanted to know what you think.’ And she let him go.

Pierre was speaking sincerely when he gave a positive response to her question about Hélène’s perfect deportment. If he ever gave a thought to Hélène it was to recall her beauty and that extraordinary way she had of maintaining an aloof and dignified silence in society.” (Vol.1, P.3, ch.1) 

This is the same passage in the version by the Maudes and Mandelker: 

“‘Isn’t she exquisite?’ she said to Pierre, pointing to the stately beauty as she glided away. ‘Et qu’elle tenue! For so young a girl, such tact, such masterly perfection of manner! It comes from her heart. Happy the man who wins her! With her the least worldly of men would occupy a most brilliant position in society. Don’t you think so? I only wanted to know your opinion,’ and Anna Pavlovna let Pierre go.

Pierre in reply sincerely agreed with her as to Hélène’s perfection of manner. If he ever thought of Hélène it was just of her beauty and her remarkable skill in appearing silently dignified in society.” 

You may have your own preferences. I enjoyed it when I was reading Briggs. But now when I place the two translations next to each other, “She is gorgeous” feels wrong and out of place. 

A few paragraphs later: 

“He half rose, meaning to go over, but the aunt passed him the snuff-box behind Hélène’s back. This caused Hélène to thrust forward to make room, and she looked round with another smile. She was wearing a fashionable evening dress cut very low at the front and back. Her bosom, which had always seemed like marble to Pierre, was so close to his short-sighted eyes that he could hardly miss the vibrant delights of her neck and shoulders, and so near his lips that he was only a few inches away from kissing it all. He could sense the warmth of her body, the aroma of her perfume, and he could hear the slight creaking of her corset as she breathed. What he saw was not marble beauty at one with her gown, what he saw and sensed was the sheer delight of her body, veiled from him only by her clothes.” (ibid.) 

That’s Anthony Briggs. Here’s the other translation: 

“He half rose, meaning to go round, but the aunt handed him the snuff-box, passing it across Hélène’s back. Hélène stooped forward to make room, and looked round with a smile. She was, as always at evening parties, wearing a dress such as was then fashionable, cut very low at front and back. Her bust, which had always seemed like marble to Pierre, was so close to him that his shortsighted eyes could not but perceive the living charm of her neck and shoulders, so near to his lips that he need only have bent his head a little to have touched them. He was conscious of the warmth of her body, the scent of perfume, and the creaking of her corset as she moved. He did not see her marble beauty forming a complete whole with her dress, but all the charm of her body only covered by her garments.” 

Judge for yourself. 

The Maude and Mandelker version also feels different because of the French passages. The various translations of Anna Karenina may not feel significantly different (for the first time, I read Aylmer and Louise Maude; for the second time, Rosamund Bartlett), but those of War and Peace do, because of what the translators decide to do with the French passages. Some of you may prefer the flow not to be interrupted, I myself enjoy seeing the French texts because they have meaning. Two things need to be said though: the Maude and Mandelker version is good to read in print but terrible for an e-reader, because of the constant jumps to the notes; and as expected, the physical copy of this one is thicker and heavier than the one by Briggs.

I’ve also read that Anthony Briggs adds contemporary colloquialisms and British idioms, and there are probably more marked differences in the army scenes, but I won’t talk about them for now. 

2/ In the scene discussed above, one simile jumps out at me.

“Pierre dropped his eyes, lifted them again, and wished once more to see her as a distant beauty far removed from him, as he had seen her every day until then, but he could no longer do it. He could not, any more than a man who has been looking at a tuft of steppe grass through the mist and taking it for a tree, can again take it for a tree after he has once recognized it to be a tuft of grass.” (ibid.) 

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

Is it just me, or that’s so not sexy? For the first time Pierre is, to put it crudely, overwhelmed by Hélène’s tits, and can no longer see her the same way—yet Tolstoy compares that to trees and grass! 

That said, the whole sequence of Prince Vasili manoeuvring Pierre into marrying his daughter Hélène is brilliant. Look at the way the scheming Prince concludes the match for Pierre—who says Tolstoy isn’t funny? 

3/ Having successfully caught the rich Pierre, Prince Vasili then tries to get his son Anatole to marry the “rich and ugly heiress” Marya Bolkonskaya. This too is a brilliant sequence, as Tolstoy depicts many things at the same time: old Bolkonsky’s contempt for the Kuragins and annoyance at his daughter’s naïveté and foolishness; Prince Vasili’s affectation and confidence; Marya’s excitement, confusion, and low self-esteem; Mademoiselle Bourienne’s passion and daydreams; Lise’s gaiety after months of boredom and loneliness, her being away from her husband (Andrei) and away from society; and Anatole’s vanity, because of his power over the three women. Tolstoy especially captures very well the feeling of a young woman who is not attractive (Marya).

For those of you who haven’t read the novel, or who have read it but don’t remember, Mademoiselle Bourienne is Marya’s companion, and she is French. 

In this little scene, with a few strokes, Tolstoy depicts two things happening at the same time—the music-playing on the surface, and the flirting underneath—or three things, if you count the happenings in Marya’s mind:    

“After tea the company went into the sitting-room and Princess Marya was asked to play on the clavichord. Anatole laughing and in high spirits, came and leaned on his elbow, facing her and beside Mademoiselle Bourienne. Princess Marya felt his look with a painfully joyous emotion. Her favourite sonata bore her into a most intimately poetic world, and the look she felt upon her made that world still more poetic. But Anatole’s expression, though his eyes were fixed on her, referred not to her but to the movements of Mademoiselle Bourienne’s little foot, which he was then touching with his own under the clavichord. Mademoiselle Bourienne was also looking at Princess Marya, and in her lovely eyes there was a look of fearful joy and hope that was also new to the princess.

‘How she loves me!’ thought Princess Marya. ‘How happy I am now, and how happy I may be with such a friend and such a husband! Husband? Can it be possible?’ she thought, not daring to look at his face, but still feeling his eyes gazing at her.” (V.1, P.3, ch.4)

It’s a magnificent little scene. 

4/ The relationship between old Prince Bolkonsky and his daughter Marya reminds me of Dr Austin Sloper and Catherine in Washington Square, and Mr Osborne and Jane in Vanity Fair. I wrote a bit about the Osbornes in my blog post about “insignificant characters” in Vanity Fair and Tolstoy may have found some inspiration there, but that father-daughter relationship is not much developed. Thackeray sketches out their lives but doesn’t really let us know what Mr Osborne thinks about his spinster daughter—he writes more about her lonely, miserable life. 

The main difference between old Bolkonsky and the difficult father in Washington Square is that the old prince does genuinely love his daughter, even if he’s often cruel to her. Dr Sloper despises Catherine. 

Anatole Kuragin and his sister Hélène meanwhile make me think of Henry and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park. They’re all attractive but shallow, selfish, and callous; the Crawfords, however, are more intelligent, more sensitive to goodness. 

5/ Under my previous blog post, I got a comment saying that the similes (I mentioned) were domestic. That’s true. Here’s a metaphor that is not domestic:  

“Anna Pavlovna arranged the different groups in her drawing-room with her habitual skill. The large group, in which were Prince Vasili and the generals, had the benefit of the diplomat. Another group was at the tea table. Pierre wished to join the former, but Anna Pavlovna—who was in the excited condition of a commander on a battlefield to whom thousands of new and brilliant ideas occur which there is hardly time to put in action—seeing Pierre touched his sleeve with her finger, saying…” (Vol.1, P.3, ch.1) 

That’s a War image in a Peace scene. 

This is a Peace image in a War chapter, when the generals are discussing their plan of attack: 

“When the monotonous sound of Weyrother’s voice ceased, Kutuzov opened his eye as a miller wakes up when the soporific drone of the mill-wheel is interrupted. He listened to what Langeron said, as if remarking, ‘So you are still at that silly business!’ quickly closed his eye again and let his head sink still lower.” (Vol.1, P.3, ch.12) 


“… ‘He has forty thousand men at most,’ replied Weyrother with the smile of a doctor to whom an old wife wishes to explain the treatment of a case.” (ibid.)

Generally speaking, Tolstoy’s metaphors are not striking and unusual like Flaubert’s or Proust’s—his metaphors are clear and straight to the point, not drawing attention to themselves. More important are the overall effects, but it’s hard to write about what Tolstoy does to create those effects. 

For example, this is a scene of Nikolai and some hussars going in the mist to find out what’s happening in the enemy’s camp: 

“He felt both frightened and pleased to be riding alone with three hussars into that mysterious and dangerous misty distance where no one had been before him. Bagration called to him from the hill not to go beyond the stream, but Rostov pretended not to hear him and did not stop but rode on and on, continually mistaking bushes for trees and gullies for men, and continually discovering his mistakes. Descending the hill at a trot he no longer saw either our own or the enemy’s fires, but heard the shouting of the French more loudly and distinctly. In the valley he saw before him something like a river, but when he reached it he found it was a road.” (Vol.1, P.3, ch.13)

The writing appears very simple, and yet Tolstoy conveys perfectly the mist and darkness, and the confusion. 

Later on, when they’re marching: 

“The fog had grown so dense that though it was growing light they could not see ten paces ahead. Bushes looked like gigantic trees and level ground like cliffs and slopes. Anywhere, on any side, one might encounter an enemy invisible ten paces off. But the columns advanced for a long time, always in the same fog, descending and ascending hills, avoiding gardens and enclosures, going over new and unknown ground, and nowhere encountering the enemy.” (Vol.1, P.3, ch.14) 

This is the beginning of the battle of Austerlitz. 

“… the troops marched gaily, as they always do when going into action, especially to an attack. But when they had marched for about an hour in the dense fog, the greater part of the men had to halt, and an unpleasant consciousness of some dislocation and blunder spread through the ranks. How such a consciousness is communicated is very difficult to define, but it certainly is communicated very surely, and flows rapidly, imperceptibly, and irresponsibly, as water does in a creek.” (ibid.) 

Again, the writing appears simple, but you can visualise the scene, you can see what the soldiers are seeing and experiencing. 

“The fog lay unbroken like a sea down below, but higher up at the village of Schlappanitz where Napoleon stood with his marshals around him, it was quite light. Above him was a clear blue sky, and the sun’s vast orb quivered like a huge, hollow, crimson float on the surface of that milky sea of mist.” (ibid.) 

That is a beautiful image. 

6/ The scene where Andrei is injured at Austerlitz and looking at the sky is sublime. It is one of the greatest scenes in literature. Tolstoy can convey that sense of transcendence that I don’t really see in (most) other writers. 

That moment is visionary. 

War and Peace is getting better and better. 

Monday 9 May 2022

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

1/ I’m rereading the same translation I read last time: by Anthony Briggs.

Not knowing Russian, I can’t compare the translations I have looked at, but can comment on the superficial differences: 

- Aylmer and Louise Maude translate everything and Anglicise the names, so we have Prince Andrew (ew), Nicholas, etc.

- The revision by Amy Mandelker restores the Russian names and restores the French passages, with translation in footnotes.

- Ann Dunnigan retains a few French phrases or sentences without translation, and keeps the names as they are, though Hélène is called Ellen by the narrator (and Hélène by other characters), which feels weird. 

- Anthony Briggs translates everything, retaining (almost) no French, and gets rid of the feminine endings in last names (e.g. Natasha Rostova becomes Natasha Rostov), perhaps to make the novel more accessible.

- I don’t know about the choices made by Constance Garnett, and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, but I generally avoid them (except Constance Garnett’s translation of Chekhov).  

2/ I reread a few scenes in Swann’s Way, because the party scenes in War and Peace made me think of Proust’s parties.

As with Tolstoy, nothing escapes Proust: both of them capture the subtlest expressions and gestures, the slightest changes in tone. Proust absorbed Tolstoy. 

3/ There are some interesting similes in the novel. 

“Anna Pavlovna was clearly showing him off to her guests. Just as a skilful head waiter can pass off as a supreme delicacy a cut of beef that would be inedible if you’d seen it in the filthy kitchen, Anna Pavlovna served up to her guests that evening first the viscount and then the abbé as if they were supreme delicacies.” (Vol.1, P.1, ch.3) 


“‘The viscount was a personal friend of the duke,’ she whispered to one of them, and murmured to someone else, ‘The viscount is such a good raconteur.’ To a third person she said, ‘You see – what a man of quality!’, and the viscount was presented in the most refined and advantageous light, served up like a joint of beef garnished with salad on a hot platter.” (ibid.) 

His similes are generally straightforward.

“Her tone was plaintive now, and her lip curled into a sneer, which made her look anything but happy, rather like a wild animal, squirrel-like and nasty.” (Vol.1, P.1, ch.6)

That is Lise, when she can contain it no longer and has an outburst before her husband Andrey and his close friend Pierre.  

“All at once the princess’s lovely little face changed its angry squirrel-like expression into a look of fear that made her seem both beautiful and sympathetic. She frowned and glared, directing her lovely eyes at her husband, but her face wore the timid, apologetic look of a dog wagging its drooping tail quickly but without much confidence.” (ibid.)

That is a magnificent scene, as we get to see the perspectives of three characters at once: Pierre feels awkwardly dragged into his friend’s marriage troubles and is surprised to see the self-assured Andrey now weary and disillusioned, whilst Lise is unhappy knowing that her husband joined the war to run away from her, but she doesn’t understand in what way she has fallen short. 

To return to Tolstoy’s similes, I forgot Sonya was compared to a cat: 

“There was a smoothness in the way she moved, a gentle suppleness in her little limbs and a kind of wary aloofness that suggested a pretty half-grown kitten that would one day turn into a lovely cat. […] Her girlish passion bordering on adoration was so obvious that her smile didn’t fool anyone; it was clear that the kitten had crouched down only to pounce faster than ever on her cousin and tease him the moment they could get out of the drawing-room like Boris and Natasha.” (Vol.1, P.1, ch.9) 

Tolstoy repeats the metaphor a few pages later: 

“The kitten, with her eyes glued on him, seemed likely at any second to pounce like a real cat and start teasing him.” (ibid.)

The kitten image reappears a few chapters later, when Natasha comforts Sonya about her love for Natasha’s brother Nikolay: 

“Sonya half-rose, and the kitten in her revived, its eyes gleaming; it seemed ready to flick its tail, pounce about on its soft paws and start playing with a ball, as good kittens do.” (Vol.1, P.1, ch.17) 

4/ Every page gives me pleasure, but sometimes something still stands out, like this passage about Marya looking at herself in the mirror: 

“The ever-gloomy eyes looked at themselves more hopelessly than ever. ‘She’s flattering me,’ thought the princess as she turned back to read on. But Julie was not flattering her friend; her eyes were large, deep and radiant (sometimes a warm light seemed to pour out of them), really so winsome that very often, in spite of the plainness of the face as a whole, her eyes held a greater appeal than mere beauty. But the princess had never seen the beautiful expression in her own eyes, an expression they assumed only when she wasn’t thinking about herself. Like everyone else’s, her face took on a strained, artificial and disagreeable expression the moment she looked at herself in the mirror.” (Vol.1, P.1, ch.22) 

That is written with love. 

The description of Marya makes me think of Kitty: when Tolstoy writes about Anna Karenina, he writes about the beauty of her whole figure, her neck, her arms, her graceful movements; when he writes about Kitty, he mostly focuses on her eyes and smile, and the effect they have on Levin.  

When I first read War and Peace 8 years ago, I didn’t particularly like Marya because she’s a bit too religious for me. But now I do like her, especially after the scene where Andrey’s preparing to go to war and Marya tells him to try to understand Lise’s point of view, to put himself in other people’s places. It’s a George Eliot moment. 

5/ I like the way Tolstoy contrasts Andrey and Nikolay in battle. 

“Although it was not long since Prince Andrey had left Russia, he had changed a great deal during that time. His facial expression and the way he moved and walked showed barely a trace of his former affectation and languid boredom. He had the air of a man too absorbed in enjoyable and fascinating work to think about making an impression on other people. His face showed greater contentment – with himself and those around him. His smile was easier; a warmer charm shone in his eyes.” (Vol.1, P.2, ch.3) 

Experienced, and running away from his wife and high society, Andrey feels more at home in the army.

Nikolay is different. 

“Rostov, preoccupied by his relations with Bogdanych, had stepped on to the bridge without knowing what to do. There was no one to slash at with his sword, which was how he had always imagined a battle would go, and he couldn’t contribute to the bridge-burning because, unlike the other soldiers, he had forgotten to bring any straw. He was just standing there looking around when suddenly there was a great rattling sound on the bridge, like a scattering of nuts, and one of the hussars standing right next to him fell with a groan against the railing. […] Nikolay Rostov turned away and began staring into the distance, at the waters of the Danube, at the sky, at the sun, as if he were looking for something. How lovely that sky looked, how blue and calm and deep! Oh, the brightness and magnificence of that setting sun! The warm glow of the water on the far Danube! Even lovelier were the distant hills that shone so blue beyond the Danube, the convent, the mysterious gorges, the pine woods misted over to their tops … everything so calm and happy …” (Vol.1, P.2, ch.8) 

The level of detail in War and Peace is astonishing. 

“Just then the sun disappeared behind the clouds, and more stretcher-bearers came into view ahead of Rostov. And the dread of death and of the stretchers, and the loss of all sunshine and life, everything fused into a single sensation of sickening horror.” (ibid.) 

A moment later: 

“‘Anyway, nobody seems to have noticed,’ Rostov thought to himself. And nobody had. All of them knew the feeling that this ensign, never before under fire, was now experiencing for the first time.” (ibid.)

Tolstoy depicts war from different perspectives, and here we can see the difference between the youthful, inexperienced Nikolay and the mature Andrey. 

Here is Andrey, after a victory: 

“His feelings were those of a man who has found the beginnings of a long-sought happiness. The moment he closed his eyelids, his ears rang with the rattle of muskets and the boom of cannon-fire, sounds that blended with the rumble of the wheels and the sensation of victory. […] The dark, starry night was followed by a bright and sunny morning. The snow was thawing in the sunshine, the horses were running well and on either side of the road new and different kinds of forest, fields and trees flew by.” (Vol.1, P.2, ch.9)

Andrey has to dispatch the news to the Austrian court, and he’s in that excited, jubilant state of mind the entire way—till he enters the court. 

“The adjutant seemed to be using this exaggerated courtesy to protect himself from any attempt at familiarity on the part of the Russian aide. Prince Andrey’s joyful enthusiasm was considerably dampened as he walked to the door of the minister’s room. He felt humiliated, and the sense of humiliation soon transformed itself imperceptibly into a quite unjustified belief that they were treating him with contempt. His fertile mind immediately hit on the right attitude for him to adopt to be able to treat them, the adjutant and the minister of war, with equal contempt. ‘They’ve never smelled powder. I’m sure they think winning victories is the easiest thing in the world!’ he thought. His eyes narrowed with scorn; he walked very slowly into the war minister’s room.” (ibid.)

Interestingly, it’s when he meets these officials that he returns to being the scornful Andrey we have seen in high society. 

“Prince Andrey left the palace with the feeling that all the excitement and pleasure that had been his following the victory had now drained away into the uncaring hands of the minister and his unctuous adjutant. His entire cast of mind had changed in an instant. The battle figured in his memory as something far away and long ago.” (ibid.) 

This is a magnificent scene. Then in the following chapter, Andrey’s perspective changes again when he talks to Bilibin, a Russian diplomat he knows, and realises that what he saw as contempt was all in his head: the Austrian minister couldn’t be so happy over the news, when Vienna meanwhile had been captured.

Tolstoy’s ability to inhabit his characters’ minds is just better than any other novelist’s. 

6/ Rereading War and Peace feels like coming home. I still remember the major characters. I still recognise some important moments, such as Pierre at his father’s deathbed, or Nikolay’s confusion and terror in battle—“‘Who are they? Why are they running? They’re not after me! They can’t be after me! Why? They can’t want to kill me! Me. Everybody loves me!’ He remembered all the love he had had from his mother, from his family and his friends, and the idea of the enemy wanting to kill him seemed absurd.” (Vol.1, P.2, ch.19) 

Whilst lots of books have faded in my memory over time, sometimes as though I’d never read them, Anna Karenina and War and Peace have always been part of my mind, part of my mental furniture since I first read them 9 and 8 years ago. But rereading War and Peace still feels fresh, and it’s still powerful. I didn’t remember, for example, the scene where Nikolay addresses Telyanin for stealing Denisov’s purse. 

“… But the words sounded pathetic, almost desperate, a plea for forgiveness. The moment Rostov heard that tone of voice, a great boulder of doubt seemed to fall from him and roll away. He felt a thrill of delight, mixed immediately with some pity for the miserable creature standing before him, but this was something that had to be taken all the way.” (Vol.1, P.2, ch.4)

Nikolay has never liked Telyanin, and Denisov desperately needs the money. And yet: 

“Telyanin’s terrified face, drained of all colour, now twitched in every muscle, and his eyes darted about everywhere, but only downwards, never coming to the level of Rostov’s face. His sobs were pitiful to hear.

[…] Rostov took the money, avoiding Telyanin’s eyes, and left the room without a word. But he stopped in the doorway and looked back.

‘My God!’ he said, with tears in his eyes, ‘how could you have done that?’” (ibid.) 

Almost in spite of himself, Nikolay feels pity for this “miserable creature” and flings the purse back at him. It’s not the same, but it makes me think of a moment later on in the book when Andrey sees that a man who has been his enemy is sobbing and having his leg amputated, and all anger and hatred are gone—Andrey feels compassion. 

Wonderful, wonderful scenes.