An Update on War and Peace (by Bethany)

war and peace cover image


Pages read: 325 out of 1455

Anyone who has read Russian novels knows that it is almost impossible to keep all the names straight, as each character has a family name that is only mentioned once every three hundred pages or so (but when it’s mentioned, you’re supposed to know immediately to whom it refers), a first name and patronymic (i.e. “Pyotr Kirilovich” or “Anna Mikhailovna”), which functions most of the time as a formal full name, and then a wide variety of nicknames, some of which are in French. My copy of War and Peace contains a list of the key families in the novel – the Bezukhovs, the Kuragins, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, and the Drubetskoys – and I refer to it often. This edition lacks, however, a similar cheat-sheet to cover the military characters, and Book One, Part Two, which takes place entirely on the battlefield, left me wishing it did.

I sailed through Book One, Part One (which I wrote about here) and finished it thinking I had a solid grasp of who was who and what the central conflicts in the novel were. But then only TWO of the major characters from Part One appear in Part Two (a few minor characters make appearances there as well). These two are Nikolai Rostov – a young man in his early twenties who is experiencing war for the first time and pretty much bungles the whole affair – and Prince Andrei. In Part One, I didn’t pick up on just how much of a jerk Prince Andrei is – but the battlefield seems to bring out his nastiness more than the home front does (In Part Three, we spend some serious quality time with Prince Andrei’s deeply dysfunctional family, who would get along well with the Heathcliffs in Wuthering Heights, and possibly we gain a bit of sympathy for Prince Andrei, who had to grow up among all that insanity – I don’t know. The jury is still out on Andrei.)

In Part I, Nikolai appeared only briefly as the oldest son of the Count and Countess Rostov. He’s close in age to Boris, whose annoying mother spent the first fifty or so pages of the novel harassing people until they gave Boris a position in the Guards, where he will presumably be safer than he would if he were an infantry soldier. Among the younger soldiers in this novel, this question of whether to serve in the Guards or in the hussars or the infantry is an important one that takes up a lot of dialogue time. Nikolai enters the war as a cadet in the service of Captain Denisov, who has a speech impediment and takes up long blocks of page space saying things like, “They don’t even give us time to dwink! They keep dwagging the wegiment to and fwo all day!” (183). Nikolai is absolutely desperate to see some action. When the enemy begins firing, Nikolai “had the delighted look of a schoolboy called up before a large audience for an examination in which he is confident he will distinguish himself…, glancing at everyone with a bright, serene expression, as if asking them to notice how calm he was under fire” (185). In other words, for Nikolai the war is all about Nikolai (which is totally how I would be if I were to go to war, incidentally).

Nikolai has a one-sided bromance with the tsar. In Part Three, Chapter Eight, 80,000 troops prepare to be inspected by the tsar and the Emperor of Austria. This scene is wonderful, both for the way it captures just how many people these battles involved. Imagine – eighty thousand soldiers from two nations, all lined up for an inspection at the same time. (“Not only the generals in full-dress uniform, their thick or thin waists drawn in to the utmost, their red necks squeezed into tight collars, wearing stocks and all their decorations, not only these pomaded officers in full regalia, but every soldier with his freshly washed and shaven face and his equipment cleaned and polished till it shone, and every horse, groomed till its coat gleamed like satin and its wetted mane lay smooth – felt that what was taking place was not to be taken lightly but was a matter of great consequence and solemnity. Every general and soldier felt his own insignificance [Editor’s Note: Except for Nikolai], was conscious of being a grain of sand in that sea of men, and at the same time felt his own might, being conscious of himself as part of that great whole” [301]). At the same time, this scene captures the inspection wonderfully from the perspective of Nikolai, who cares about nothing except the possibility that the tsar might sneeze and some of his imperial bacteria might make their way into Nikolai’s nostrils. When the tsar (who later excuses himself to go cry and vomit because he can’t bear the sight of injured soldiers) enters Nikolai’s field of vision, “[Nikolai] experienced a feeling of tenderness and ecstasy such as he had never before known. Everything about the Tsar – every feature, every gesture, seemed to him entrancing” (303).

I’m being sarcastic, I know – but I suppose this hero-worship is plausible enough, and of course it exists today in different forms. But if you ever want a reminder that we live in deeply cynical times, read War and Peace – the first half of Part Three, to be exact.

Meanwhile, back in Moscow marriages are being arranged in all kinds of sneaky and underhanded and cruel ways. Prince Vasily in particular is hot to trot to marry off his kids. For his daughter Ellen, he has his sights set on Pierre, the illegitimate son of a count who has unexpectedly inherited his father’s title and is suddenly a much more eligible bachelor than he used to be. Bustling busybody Anna Pavlovna appears again to get involved in the matchmaking, and various people lecture Pierre because he is doing little to move the discussion of a marriage between him and Ellen toward its conclusion. Most of the actions of these chapters (Book One, Part Three, Chapters 1-2) take place inside of Pierre’s head, where he moves from finding Ellen stupid and frivolous to finding her attractive to recognizing that a marriage to her is inevitable. There’s no real logical progression to these insights, but they do seem authentic to me. Our brains sometimes skip key steps when making decisions.

It’s a good thing Pierre proposes when he does, because Prince Vasily has another kid to marry off. In addition to Ellen, he has two sons, Anatol and Ippolit. Ippolit was the mastermind of the tying-a-police-officer-to-a-bear-and-dumping-them-in-the-river incident from Book One; Anna Pavlovna’s declaration that Ippolit is incorrigible is one of the first things that happens in the novel. Anatol is not necessarily completely incorrigible, but he’s no saint either. Prince Vasily decides that Anatol ought to marry Princess Marya, Prince Andrei’s younger sister. With Andrei off at the war, the Bolkonsky household consists of Andrei’s horrible father, Prince Nikolai, along with Andrei’s pregnant wife Lisa, Princess Marya, and Madamoiselle Bourienne, who is one of those ‘companions’ that always seem to pop up in nineteenth-century literature, living with rich people and not being servants exactly but not being family or friends either. Prince Nikolai is a first-class asshole who runs roughshod over the emotions of everyone he encounters. Princess Lisa keeps herself secluded in her room, afraid that contact with Prince Nikolai will harm her unborn baby. But Prince Nikolai’s primary target is Princess Marya, who is deeply shy and seems incapable of thinking about marriage to anyone, let alone the handsome, almost-incorrigible Prince Anatol (who, immediately upon entering the Bolkonsky house, falls in love with Madamoiselle Bourienne).

The chapters detailing this episode (Book One, Part Three, Chapters 3-7) are a veritable showcase of feminine pathology. First there’s Princess Marya, who is subject to poisonous thoughts like this: “Her imagination conjured up a husband, a strong, masterful man, a being inconceivably attractive, who suddenly carried her off to a totally different, happy world of her own. She pictured a child, her own, like the baby she had seen the day before in the arms of her nurse’s daughter – pictured it at her own breast, and the husband standing by, tenderly gazing at her and the child. ‘But no, it cannot be, I am too ugly,’ she thought” (273). Meanwhile, her deeply unhappy sister-in-law Lisa is swarming around, making sure Marya feels as insecure as possible about her hair. Tolstoy gets in a good zinger: “they set about dressing her in good faith and the naïve and firm conviction women have that clothes can make a face pretty” (272). Then Prince Nikolai reprimands Marya in front of everyone, including Anatol, for changing her hairstyle, announcing that “there is no need for her to change her hairstyle – she is ugly enough as she is” (278). Later, the profoundly emotionally confused Marya catches Anatol kissing Mademoiselle Bourienne and still manages to excite herself at the prospect of marrying him. Her father continues his demolition of her spirit: “Splendid! He will take you with your dowry and grab Mademoiselle Bourienne into the bargain. She’ll be the wife – while you – ” (285). Then he changes course and starts sniveling about how much he loves Marya, how she is the center of his existence. If the tsar had been there, he would have excused himself to cry and vomit.

So that’s where we are. So far this novel is not coming together in my mind – I don’t know what all the parts are going to add up to. Of course, I have more than 1100 pages to go, so there will be plenty of time to figure that out. I am enjoying War and Peace and am officially impressing everyone at work by carrying it around with me and reading it during my down time. Which is what War and Peace is for, I think.

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

2 Responses to An Update on War and Peace (by Bethany)

  1. Catherine says:

    I read War and Peace this summer and while I cannot say I was engrosed I was fascinated by many of the charactors and their everyday life dilemas (such a the importance of washing behind the ears), how bungled a military operation can become due to lack of communication,the wide separation of the have and have not’s, and Tolstoy’s lamenting on “free will”. While this book has stayed with me, I do not plan on reading other Tolstoy. I am glad that I read it.

    • bedstrom says:

      Yes, W&P is a great object lesson in how NOT to run a war (I’ve been told that it’s taught in military colleges for precisely this reason; I also find it fascinating because the style of warfare in this novel is such a relic by now. It’s interesting to see how much has changed in just about 200 years.

      I do highly recommend Anna Karenina if you ever change your mind about Tolstoy. 🙂

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