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. 


  1. As always I enjoyed the piece--while I certainly think a Rostov-Kuragin contrast very worthwhile (the more in as Tolstoy seems to me to have given the Kuragins a lot less time than he might have).
    As you raise the issue of Tolstoy and Shakespeare--any thoughts on Tolstoy's reputation as a "Bardoclast?"

    1. Thanks haha.
      I think Tolstoy is wrong about Shakespeare, but my memory of reading the essay a few years ago is that he made some interesting or even good points (just wrong approach), and that it's understandable that he disliked Shakespeare, as they had different aesthetic visions.
      I think it's understandable when a great artist is so immersed in their own vision that they can't get along with someone else's that is so different.

  2. Very nice analysis. I never noticed Tolstoy's fixation on hands, but this is certainly true that he focuses on them. Hands are extremely expressive, and Tolstoy uses the observation of hands as an expressive device.

    Do you think the old prince is correct that Natasha is wrong for Andrei? I'm not sure Natasha would have been wrong for him. Natasha has a lot more to her than Lisa did, a lot more depth (even if she isn't an intellectual), so I'm not at all sure Andrei would have fallen out of love with her had their relationship worked out. Although I'm certain they would not have been as happy as Natasha and Pierre -- because Andrei would have reverted to the difficult sides of his character, becoming more like his father.

    Rather, it always seemed to me that the old prince manipulated Andrei into delaying the marriage by hinting that she's too young and flighty (hitting Andrei in his weak spots -- his pride and tendency for jealousy), and then did all he could to destroy the relationship once Andrei had done so (and succeeded in so doing, with the unwitting help of Marya). In this, I don't think he was particularly perspicacious about Andrei -- he was just giving way to his senile selfish irritability and his desire that no one marry while he lives. The old prince becomes less just and more cruel and unreasonable to those he loves as he approaches the end of life -- an unfortunate thing that sometimes does happen to people, particularly people who are already difficult.

    Vera is beautifully described, but she's also a kind of comic relief. She's like one of those unimpressive sisters of impressive heroines that Jane Austen is so good describing. How did both of these people come out of the same womb and same family?? And yet, it happens all the time.

    1. I think Ingmar Bergman also focuses on hands.
      Natasha certainly has a lot more to her than Lise did, but I think Natasha and Andrei are still very different people. And the Bolkonskys, even Marya, still have contempt for the Rostovs.
      Vera is more like a kind of comic relief later on, when she's married to Berg, I don't think she's meant to be at the beginning of the book.


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