Thoughts on Book One, Part One of War and Peace (by Bethany)

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Pages read: 148 out of 1455

When I told Jill a while back that I planned to read War and Peace for PAT CONROY MONTH!!! this year, she said something to the effect that this endeavor might extend PAT CONROY MONTH!!! well into 2015. I failed to see why that would be such a bad thing, but I’ll be the first to admit that last year I took until February to write my review of The Lords of Discipline, which is perhaps a little problematic. So for a while I tossed aside the idea of reading War and Peace this year. Then I decided to go ahead and do it. Then I told myself I was crazy and put the book back on the shelf. And then on Friday, when I finished & Sons, I went to my book pile to pick up South of Broad but decided to pick up War and Peace instead – decisively, just like that. I don’t expect to finish it in September, but I don’t expect to take until next year either. As I often do when reading long books, I will probably take a break halfway through to read South of Broad and something by Anne Rivers Siddons and maybe an overdue Numbers Challenge book or two.

War and Peace is very easy to read and is very much a product of its era. If you’ve read books like Anna Karenina and Middlemarch and Portrait of a Lady, you will feel very much at home reading War and Peace. I don’t know why it’s sort of set apart as something different than other 19th-century novels and unusually challenging. It’s not that challenging at all – it’s actually quite accessible. I did learn by reading the introduction to my edition (Signet classics – translation by Ann Dunnigan) that Tolstoy did not consider War and Peace a novel, even though he did consider Anna Karenina a novel. The scholar who wrote the introduction seemed almost as perplexed by this as I am, although I suppose that since this novel concerns the actual events of the Napoleonic wars as well as the lives of a variety of fictional characters, Tolstoy might have hesitated to call it a novel, seeing it as a hybrid of fiction and history. Nowadays we see all kind of experimental novels: novels in verse, metafiction, and those sorts of things. To me, War and Peace s definitely a novel.

Book One, Part One, which is further subdivided into 25 chapters (Tolstoy’s books are very well organized. I like that.), involves a variety of French-speaking wealthy Russians who spend most of their time traveling back and forth between Moscow and St. Petersburg. The novel (a term that I will use, regardless of Tolstoy’s objections) opens at a party thrown by Anna Pavlovna Scherer. The first guest to arrive is Prince Vasily, and from the very first sentence of the novel the topic on everyone’s mind is the war, which is beginning to seem inevitable. The characters debate the overall worthiness of Napoleon – some find him an appalling upstart not fit to lead the French army; others may accept that he needs to be defeated but have a certain respect for him as a soldier and as a general, almost as if they sort of wished he was on their side. “One would think the whole world had lost its wits” (44) says Anna Pavlovna.

A notable outlier on the matter of Napoleon is a young man named Pierre, who pronounces Napoleon to have “grandeur of soul” (46). As far as Anna Pavlovna is concerned, this remark from Pierre ruins her party, and she spends a good bit of time micromanaging everyone and prescribing certain specific topics of conversation in an attempt to salvage her party. Prince Andrei doesn’t rush to defend Pierre, but he is sort of intrigued by his willingness to defend Napoleon. Prince Andrei himself can’t get off to the war fast enough, though at this point we’re not quite sure why.

Also introduced at the party are Prince Vasily’s sons, Anatol and Ippolit, who are both kind of out of control. Anna Pavlovna declares that Anatol will be fine once he has a wife, and she volunteers her services as a matchmaker (her sights are set on Prince Andrei’s sister Marya, who is pale and religious and gaunt and would be much more at home in Jane Eyre than in this novel). Ippolit, though, is hopeless, according to Anna Pavlovna.

When I read Portrait of a Lady, I remember noticing that Henry James structures some of his chapters almost as calls and responses, in that one chapter either directly or indirectly poses a question and then the next chapter answers it, usually not directly but in the actions of its characters. I think I caught Tolstoy doing something similar here. In chapter 6 of War and Peace, Prince Andrei’s wife (whose name, rather incongruously, is “Lisa”) goes off on a bit of a tirade about men and their stupid wars: “I don’t understand it, I simply do not understand why men can’t get along without war. How is it we women don’t want such a thing, have no need for it … You see what egotists men are” (54). Lisa is young and pregnant and obviously represents not only womanhood but motherhood and youth and naivete. Prince Andrei later gives Pierre some private advice: “Never, never marry, my friend! That is my advice to you: never marry till you can say to yourself that you have done all you are capable of doing, and till you have ceased loving the woman you have chosen and can see her clearly, or you will make a cruel and irrevocable mistake. Marry when you are old and no longer good for anything” (56).

In the next scene, which is also in chapter 6, we get our answer to the question of why men have to go to war. The second half of chapter 6 gives us a dozen or so raucous, drunken young men, all soldiers or planning soon to become soldiers, plus Pierre, who is not a soldier and for now is not planning to become one (though I suspect that may change). One of the young men (whose name is “Stevens” – there appears to be some kind of study-abroad program going on) has just bet another that he can drink an entire bottle of rum in one swallow while sitting on the edge of a third-story window. The others accept the wager, although they think the task is too easy if Stevens gets to sit on the actual window sill, so one of the young men seizes the window sill in his massive Russian arms and wrenches it free from the wall so that all that remains is a hole. Stevens sits on the edge of the hole, drinks an entire bottle of rum without removing the bottle from his mouth, without grabbing on to anything for support, and – amazingly – not plunging to his death. Next, the young men “[get] hold of a bear somewhere, and put it into a carriage, and set off with it to visit some actresses. When the police rushed in to restrain them, they tied one of the policemen back to back to the bear and threw them into the Moika Canal. And the bear swam off with the policeman on his back” (66-67).

In other words, the reason we have war, Lisa, is that otherwise men will run around doing things like THAT all the time.

I’ve told you most of the fun parts, except for the fact that there is a pair of lovers named Boris and Natasha – and by “lovers” I mean that Natasha is twelve years old and mostly acts as if she’s three, until, that is, she can catch Boris alone and shove her tongue down his throat – and Boris is the pampered son of Princess Anna Mikhailovna, who spent the entire party at the beginning of the novel harassing Prince Vasily to pull strings and get Boris a position in the Guards – which I think means that he will not have to go to battle. There’s also a character named “Shinshin” – you know, sort of like “Frou-Frou,” except not a horse. And Anna Mikhailovna gets into a girl-fight with a bunch of teenaged princesses over the will of Pierre’s father, who is dying in the very same room where they are pulling each other’s hair to get the will. I’m pretty sure there is a scene in Middlemarch that’s almost exactly the same. Those wacky 19th-century Europeans and their controversial wills.

So that’s where we are at the end of Book One, Part One. Prince Andrei is off to war, and his wife Lisa has just been relegated to live out the rest of her pregnancy and childbirth in the middle of nowhere at Prince Andrei’s family estate, with his creepy elderly father and the emaciated but pious Marya. Pierre has been berated by just about everyone over his part in the policeman/bear incident, but in spite of that his father legitimizes him on his deathbed (prior to that, he was a ‘bastard.’ Those wacky pre-20th-century Europeans and their bastards.) and now he’s a count. Boris and Natasha continue to make out behind the curtains, and there are a number of other budding romances beginning to crop up among the younger generation. Prince Andrei’s father may be about to die. And Anna Pavlovna – the one who threw the party at the beginning and was constantly present for the first five chapters or so? Who knows? She has kind of disappeared. She may well have died of embarrassment when Pierre sang the praises of Napoleon.

And that’s it. I’m enjoying the book and will tell you more about it soon!

P.S. If you’re wondering how War and Peace fits into PAT CONROY MONTH!!!, here’s your answer. Pat Conroy wrote a book a few years ago called My Reading Life. It’s a wonderful book about the pleasures of reading – Jill reviewed it here. We’ve decided that in order to sustain our tradition of focusing on Pat Conroy in September, we will read not only Conroy’s books but also the ones he writes about in My Reading Life – and War and Peace is one of them.

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This entry was posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Leo Tolstoy, PAT CONROY MONTH!, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

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