January 14, 2011

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Vol 1)

January 14, 2011
Leo Tolstoy
I had read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina some time ago and having loved it, decided to purchase his War and Peace. For over a year, this 1,215 page monstrosity has stared at me menacingly from my shelves, too intimidating to actually be read. Thankfully, Allie’s read-along has finally ended the stand-off between War and Peace and I. Despite all the confusing Russian names, the intermittent French, and the extensive footnotes, I have begun to feel at home in this novel. I am reading from the 2007 Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, which I would highly recommend. Before beginning, I tabbed the list of principal characters and the notes section at the back for easy reference. After finishing Volume 1, I feel as though I am more comfortable with the period of the Napoleonic Wars and, perhaps more importantly, can easily identify each character regardless of which name is being used for them at any given time. Tolstoy’s prose is decidedly easy to read and understand once you find your rhythm. In particular, I was dreading the “war” sections, but I even found some enjoyment here – though not as much as in the other story lines.
While reading the military scenes in Volume 1, I was struck by how Tolstoy had invoked in me a much different perception of the ideas of military and war than that which I usually hold when thinking of these ideas in the context of our modern society. As Shinshin asks, “… what the deuce makes us go to war with Bonaparte?” I refer back to the idea of a certain boredom lingering within a certain societal class that I introduced in my second post for The Woman in White. Although I know it is a little more complicated, it seems to me that in days gone by, war was sometimes waged simply because royalty had become bored and needed a distraction and that many men joined the military for exactly the same reason. You know that old adage: “What should we do today?” “Well, I suppose we could take over the world, Sire.” Tolstoy’s depiction gave me the nagging impression that battles and military service were merely a sport of sorts, while a position in today’s American military is more a true position - a job, a career. The injured, young Rostov seems to echo this sentiment at one point: “He looked at the snowflakes dancing above the fire and remembered the Russian winter with a warm, bright house, a fluffy fur coat, swift sleighs, a healthy body, and all the love and care of a family. ‘And why did I come here?’ he wondered.”
I have to say, I really admired Tolstoy’s description of how Pierre found himself suddenly and inexplicably married to Princess Helene, after becoming Count Bezukov. I almost feel the need to quote the narrative from Volume 1, part three, I and II in its entirety because I am so in love with these parts of Tolstoy’s writing. I found that he has somehow managed to perfectly articulate this feeling that I have often felt when reading of courtships and marriages of this time, a feeling that I had not previously been able to put into my own words, a feeling that the idea of a relationship had somehow taken on a life of its own with those around it and had unfortunately swept a dumbfounded couple off to a destination that they could not remember traveling to. Even now, I find it hard to really pinpoint that feeling I am alluding to. I just know that Tolstoy has captured it.
After something as simple as reading a party invitation that mentions Helene, we find Pierre thinking the following: “[he] felt for the first time that between him and Helene some sort of connection had been formed, recognized by other people, and this thought at the same time frightened him, as if an obligation had been laid upon him which he could not fulfill, and also pleased him in an amusing supposition.” And at the party, “She turned, looked straight at him with her shining, dark eyes, and smiled. ‘So you never noticed before how beautiful I am?’ Helene seemed to say … and at that moment Pierre felt that Helene not only could, but must be his wife, that it could not be otherwise … how it would be and when, he did not know; he did not even know whether it would be good (he even felt that it was not good for some reason), but he knew that it would be. That night while going to sleep, Pierre felt a “terror come over him at the thought that he might already have bound himself in some way to go through with something which was obviously not good and which he ought not to do. But while he expressed this realization to himself, on the other side of his soul her image floated up in all its feminine beauty.” Then a month and a half later at another party, Pierre knows he is expected to propose: “And how did it all happen? So quickly! Now I know that, not for her alone, not for me alone, but for all of them, this inevitability had to come about. They all expect this so much, they’re so certain it will be, that I cannot disappoint them.” And then, in the end Pierre never proposes at all, but simply allows Prince Vassily to just announce it for him and another month and a half later is married. I guess this just really spoke to what I sometimes find to be the absurdity of marriages in novels from the 1800s.

I am excited to continue on...not because of mystery and suspense that is reeling me in like with the other two read-along novels, but because I long to know more about the characters we have met.


Kristi said...

The "proposal" of Pierre was ridiculous. I love how Prince Vassily basically forces him into it. That guy is a sleeze!

I too was surprised to find how readable it was. Not at all difficult like I had expected. I did enjoy the war sections, but like you, I'm itching to get back to Petersburg and Moscow. I'm dying to see how the Pierre story unfolds and Mayra's as well.

Avid Reader said...

There's a line that Pierre thought after he was officially engaged that I just loved. It said something like... there's no point in wondering if this is good or bad, because it's already happened and can't be changed (on p. 214 in the P&V translation). I felt like that perfectly summed up Pierre's view of the world. He floats along and never really wonders what he actually wants out of life. It's a wonderful book so far!

Selene said...

I'm still in the "dreading the wars" stage, I'm afraid, but I'm getting there! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I'm really enjoying getting around and reading all the updates! :D

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