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. 


  1. Some day I'll read Vanity Fair and come back to these posts. For now, some scattered thoughts:

    Nikolai is such a child and one tires of his childishness, but his death scene, where he finally gets to charge the enemy and is killed immediately, is really moving. That Tolstoy knew his business.

    I was disappointed when Dolokhov survived his duel, but I guess that's real life, with villains not really getting vanquished.

    The last time I read War and Peace was after I'd read Proust, so all of the big party scenes were much more interesting to me. The party scenes are really lively, and are structured similarly to the battle scenes.

    1. I think you're thinking of Petya, the youngest Rostov, rather than Nikolai?
      Dolokhov is a fascinating character though. A scoundrel, but fascinating. I completely forgot the story of the bear, that was hilarious.
      I know what you mean about Proust. I've been thinking about Proust too, he clearly absorbed Tolstoy.

    2. Yes, Petya, that's it. Nikolai is the one who's in the charge on the bridge, right? He later runs away from the French and gets hooked up with a cannon brigade, or something? Petya is so alive, so full, so endearing, and then he's dead. Amazing.

      A lot of readers hate the party scenes in Tolstoy and Proust. When I first read W&P I was sixteen and I just wanted the parties to end so I could get back to the war. This time around I thought they were great. I absolutely loved the parties on Proust. So much happens in them, and the evolution of the merchants during the decline of the nobility is perfectly charted through the parties: who attends, where they take place, what they talk about.

    3. Yeah that's Nikolai. He runs away and hurts his arm, and when he's boasting about it with Boris, Andrei enters the room.
      I've heard complaints about party scenes in Proust, but never about the ones in Tolstoy. I generally hear from readers that they skip the philosophical sections or even the battle scenes from War and Peace.
      With Proust, apart from the party scenes, I've heard complaints about the first part of Swann's Way, especially the long descriptions, and again I don't get it, because I love those. It's when he goes on and on about Swann's obsession and jealousy and acts as though everyone is like that that he gets on my nerves, but it's just a clash of sensibilities. Proust's great.

    4. Proust's party or gathering scenes are sumptuous set pieces. I remember mentally rubbing my hands when one would start. They're just so good, and so rich. Like the gathering or battle scenes in Tolstoy, or the long intense dialogues in Dostoyevsky.

    5. I've been told that the party scenes in Volume 3 have defeated lots of readers. Let's see if they're gonna defeat me.

    6. Oh, they're wonderful. Don't listen to the naysayers.

  2. I've heard it said that Nikolai, Andrei, and Pierre are all, in different respects, avatars of Tolstoy himself. Certainly that is true of Andrei and Pierre, both of whom are deep thinkers, contemplative men, as Tolstoy surely was. Nikolai is, as you note, not a thinker. Nor is he particularly quick -- but he has a deep moral sense, and he is (like his sister Natasha) musical, poetic, and intuitive. As is Petya whom we really only get to know towards the end of the main action in the book.

    Nikolai's depth is shown (among other ways) in the fact that he can ultimately distinguish between Sonya and Marya. The women have a superficial similarity of being obviously virtuous -- Sonya in her (really self-conscious) self-sacrifice, Marya in her genuine religious and spiritual concerns. But Marya is just so much more of an impressive person -- a far deeper person. And when he meets her, Nikolai recognizes it instantly. Which makes it all the more interesting that Nikolai never likes Andrei (and never likes Andrei's young son, although because he is a fair and good person, he always treats him well). As Tolstoy explains, the evidence of deep spiritual life that Nikolai finds so attractive in women he dislikes in men.

    As you say, Tolstoy's characters are as deep as those of Shakespeare, and it is amazing to see them grow over time. I also love the scene of the reunion of Pierre and Andrei. I also love the fact that all of the Bolkonskys, even the old Prince and the little baby, love him. Because how can you not love Pierre?

    1. I'm going to get back to the Nikolai thing later on, and perhaps discuss it in a blog post. Same with Sonya and Marya.
      Right now I'm getting a bit allergic to Marya, because of her religiousness. Her belief that life on earth is temporary and the eternal souls are more important blah blah blah is very much against my own view of life, and it's getting on my nerves.
      I think I have seen some readers complain about Pierre, though not as much as people complain about Levin, I think.

    2. Tolstoy's wife once characterized Levin as Tolstoy without talent. :-) I still love Levin, though. And I'll repeat -- how any anyone not love Pierre? As for Marya, what can one say? I don't share any of her religious beliefs -- or any religious beliefs at all. But I don't mind; she's such a beautiful character. I can better understand not liking Andrei. There is much to admire in his character, but he's such a difficult person. He's proud like Darcy, but lacks Darcy's ultimate capacity for self-reflection and self-correction. And I don't think Andrei ever really recognizes how he's at fault for the failure of the relationship with Natasha.

    3. Hahahhaha.
      Yeah I like Levin. I don't understand readers who complain about either strand in Anna Karenina, both are great and they complement each other.
      I expect to like Marya more later on, as that happened last time.
      As for Andrei, I'll address that in a later blog post.

  3. "Proust can be so long-winded."

    That's like observing that Mahler wrote long symphonies. :-)


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