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. 


  1. I laughed at "a scheming, oily, opportunistic bastard like Boris." He's also cuckolding Pierre, who has to restrain himself from running Boris through with the ceremonial masonic sword. Later, Pierre threatens to bash in Anatol's head with a paper weight and shakes him back and forth by the lapel. Pierre's violent rages are always gratifying, because they generally only happen when he (and we) are morally outraged. One more comes later, during the French invasion of Moscow.

    The funniest part of Boris' attempted courtship of Marya is that she literally fails to notice it. She is so thoroughly preoccupied with her father's emotional abuse that she can think of nothing else. It is also interesting that for all of his venality and superficiality, Boris is capable of recognizing that Marya is more desirable than Julie (he prefers Marya, despite her homeliness, but gets no encouragement from her), and he also recognizes that Natasha is worth far more than Helene (despite that fact that he's one of Helene's lovers, and she is so beautiful). But he's still utterly materialistic, and settles for Julie's fortune (and not having to spend too much time with her).

    I wouldn't call old Count Rostov terrible. Yes, he is childlike and catastrophically bad with money, but he's a wonderful father in many other ways -- the warmth and loving atmosphere of the Rostov house is primarily due to him. He's like Dickens' Micawber. As for the old Prince Bolkonsky, I don't think he was always a terrible father, but he becomes so with age and creeping senility.

    I think without Sonya and Marya Dmitrievna, Natasha would certainly have gone off with Anatol and destroyed her life. The whole situation was a perfect storm for her. After a year of loyally waiting for and missing Andrei, she is crushed and humiliated by her horrible reception at the Bolkonsky's (Princess Marya's unconscious hostility, followed by the father's overtly hostile appearance in his bed clothes). Most importantly, I think Natasha is furious at Andrei (as well she might be), without herself being aware of it. This leaves her vulnerable to Anatol's advances and Helene's machinations. All without the benefit of having her mother nearby to talk with -- as the Count correctly observes, it's bad for girls to be without their mothers. But Natasha was very lucky to have Sonya nearby. Otherwise her end would have been tragic.

    The scene with the comet is magnificent, one of those great moments in Tolstoy.

    1. I think old Count Rostov is a loving father and good in that way, but he is not very responsible and, as you say, catastrophically bad with money. He himself knows he ruins his own children's future. It's just lucky that later on Nikolai ends up with Marya and Natasha gets Pierre.
      When he returns from a trip and notices that Natasha pretends to be unwell, and Sonya and Marya Dmitrievna look shamefaced, he knows something has happened but chooses not to ask, so as not to let it disturb his own mind. I understand it, but at the same time that's not very good for a father. He always buries his head in the sand.

    2. True. And his children are more impressive than he is, in that way. If you'll recall, it is not merely that Nikolai marries an heiress, but he also transforms himself into a responsible man of business, exactly so as to prevent his children from experiencing what he did.

    3. Ah that bit I don't remember.

    4. That's right, Nikolai at the end of the novel, discussing revolution with Pierre, coming down solidly on the side of the tsar. He's a dedicated member of the establishment. While Pierre goes off to become a Decembrist in the unwritten sequel.

  2. Reading the famous scene in the theater I found myself—long before I had occasion to think of Tolstoy's dislike of Shakespeare—powerfully struck by how distasteful Tolstoy seemed to find the kind of theatrical performance of which he was writing, as a trivial, silly, artificial thing, such as he was to flatly declare it in his critique of Shakespeare. (Indeed, in laying out his theory of "defamiliarization"--what has since often been called "alienation"--the critic Viktor Shklovsky specifically discussed that scene at length as an example.) And while Natasha's response reflected her suffering through her personal crisis I couldn't help wondering if it wasn't also that he would have expected a character like her (whom so many have interpreted as a "natural," or "ideal" woman from Tolstoy's standpoint; the same character who performed as she did during the folk dance) to share his dislike of the artificial, trivial theater of the big city.

    1. When reading that scene, I did wonder if Tolstoy shared the same thoughts as Natasha.
      I know though, that he also tried to write plays himself, and apparently they weren't very good. I want to check out his plays.


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