This is the first of eleven posts I’ll be making about War and Peace over the next eleven Mondays, thanks to the War and Peace Newbies Readalong, hosted by Laura at Reading in Bed. Since this is the first week, it’s definitely not too late to join in. Just head here for the intro post, and get to reading. If you’re intimidated, then think of it this way: reading a 1500+ page book is hard work, in that it’s literally, physically difficult, so your reading time is basically workout time, too. Two birds, one stone.
1. What Went Down
As expected with a 1500-page book written in 1865, a lot happens even though almost nothing happens. Part 1 (in my Everyman’s Library Edition) is 137 pages and much of it is about establishing the characters and placing the chess pieces on the board before they’re moved around for effect later. Long story short: Part 1 is about about lining people up either for Napoleon or against Napoleon and for Pierre or against Pierre.
At a society party at her home in Petersburg, Anna Pavlovna Scherer discusses the war with her friend Price Vasili Kuragin (great name, and one of about 1200 princes and princesses in War and Peace). In the opening paragraph of the novel Anna calls Napoleon the antichrist and declares that Russia is the only nation on earth capable of stopping him. Talk of the war dominates much of the party. People casually throw around words like “virulent” and “chimerical.”
Sidenote: Many people have said that War and Peace has the one of the worst opening lines in the history of the novel. “Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.” But they fail to mention how terrific the opening paragraph is.
Pierre, who spent much of his youth being educated in France as the illegitimate son of the incredibly wealthy Count Bezukhov, comes out in favour of the French Revolution, much to the dismay of the partygoers. Afterwards, Pierre and his friend Andrew discuss whether peace is possible. Pierre thinks it is, but in a more spiritual sense.
Sidenote 2: In the Maude translation, Andrei has been translated as Andrew. How strange. Why change an obviously Russian name, Andrei, to an English name, Andrew? As much as I hate to do this, I think I will continue to refer to him as Andrew. That’s what he has been to me, and writing about him as Andrei is just going to confuse my already taxed brain. If this is a problem going forward, please let me know. I’ll adjust if it avoids confusing everyone else (which should probably be my priority).
Later, Anna Mikhaylovna and her son Boris visit Pierre’s father, and Boris’ godfather, the dying Count Cyril Bezukhov. Vasili is also here, as he is the current heir to Count Bezukhov’s massive–and I mean massive–fortune. Pierre is an illegitimate son, meaning he stands to inherit nothing. Vasili, meanwhile, fears that Anna is trying to pry his fortune-to-be away from him.
Enter yet another family, the Rostovs. At a dinner party of their own, Nicholas Rostov–brother of the precocious, and actually kinda weird, Natasha–proclaims that Russia must conquer Napoleon and all who support him or else lose their country forever. Nothing else really happens because this family is boring as shit.
Later, Count Bezukhov has–get this–his sixth stroke. Vasili informs another of the count’s potential heirs, Princess Catherine Semenovna (called Catiche, for some ungodly reason), who is also Pierre’s cousin, that the count has allegedly written a letter proclaiming Pierre as his legitimate son. No longer a bastard, Pierre would stand to inherit all of Bezukhov’s vast wealth, given that the count has no other children. Vasili and Catiche attempt to destroy the letter, but Anna Mikhaylovna stops them. Pierre visits the count on his deathbed, and soon after the count is dead.
Near the end of Part 1, Andrew visits his father at Bald Hills. Andrew tells his sister Mary that he will indeed be leaving soon for the war. While Andrew’s father, the Prince Bolkonsky, voices his contempt for Napoleon, Andrew seems to find the man quite the impressive figure. As if he couldn’t have disappointed them enough, Andrew admits to his family that he is unhappy in his marriage to Lise.
2. What I’m Liking
Pierre — In a world full of princes and princesses all thinking and doing the same things, Pierre has the balls to think for himself, often controversially. Everything about Pierre sets him apart: he is large and ungainly, he is the illegitimate son of one of Russia’s wealthiest men, he was educated abroad, and he has a habit of drinking to excess (in that he and his friends tied a police officer to the back of a small bear and threw them in the water together). But he also seems the sharpest mind of the whole lot. It remains to be seen what he will do with his incredible fortune, but he is certain to take center stage moving forward.
Andrew — If Pierre is set to shepherd the “peace” sections of War and Peace, it seems apparent that Andrew will be our eyes and ears for the “war” sections. Andrew may actually be more interesting than Pierre. He has ostracized himself from his family, he is unhappily married (see the editorial section below), he is set to enter the war, even though he is sympathetic to Napoleon. Andrew represents drama at every turn. He’s also got a bit of a cool, reserved, bad boy vibe. Well, as much as possible in Russian high society in 1805. Now that I think of it, it’s likely that Andrew is running off to war precisely to avoid his life at home. Is it sad that I just clued into that?
The Language — War and Peace is shockingly readable. I was afraid this was going to be a three month slog, but it’s quite a page turner. Much of the credit, I’m sure, must go to Louise and Aylmer Maude, the book’s translators. So far it’s wonderful.
The Short Chapters — You know what makes a 1500-page book feel accessible? Short chapters. God bless serialization. These 137 pages were split across 25 chapters, making the experience as manageable as possible. It’s easy to read just a little bit more, just a little bit more, just a little bit more…
The Emotional Approach to Masculinity — While several of my fellow readalongers (word?) have planned to talk about Tolstoy’s negative portrayal of women in War and Peace, I have to say I was quite impressed with the book’s openness towards male sensitivity. In Chapter 21, for instance, Vasili–the patriarch of the Kuragin family–actually cries over the loss of Count Bezukhov, and Pierre is encouraged by Anna to cry also: “Try to weep, nothing gives such relief as tears.”
3. What I’m Not Liking
Sorting Out Who’s Who — This one is the obvious one, so let’s just knock away the low hanging fruit. It’s a bit challenging, to say the least, learning and remembering and–most importantly–cataloging all the characters. The names on their own are fine; they’re long as hell but they’re digestible. For me, what’s most difficult is recalling who everyone is and how they fit into each of the families (and how each family fits into the greater society). By the end of Part 1 I think I have it down, but it’s taken a concerted effort to get here.
The 1200 Princes and Princesses — Sure, that’s an exaggeration, but my word there are a lot of them. Eleven, to my count: Catiche, Nicholas, Andrew, Mary, Lise, Vasili, Hippolyte, Anatole, Helene, Anna, and Boris. Their names are long enough as is. Adding titles makes them even more cumbersome. Let’s not forget: it’s more than just princes and princesses. There are also counts, countesses, stewards, heiresses, diplomats, hussar officers, governors, and maids of honour. There’s a definite hierarchy to Russian society, and it takes some getting used it.
The Rostovs — The Rostov family was by far the least interesting of the four major families (the others being the Kuragins, the Bezukhovs, and the Bolkonskys). Natasha, especially. Jesus. My distaste for her waned a bit when I realized she was only 13, but her behaviour is uncomfortably erratic. She always seems to be running or crying or dramatically pronouncing … something.
It should be noted that these negatives are very minor. On the whole, I’m really enjoying myself.
4. Favorite Quotations
“Hippolyte was surprising by his extraordinary resemblance to his beautiful sister, but yet more by the fact that in spite of this resemblance he was exceedingly ugly. His features were like his sister’s, but while in her case everything was lit by a joyous, self-satisfied, youthful, and constant smile of animation, and by the wonderful classic beauty of her figure, his face on the contrary was ruled by imbecility and a constant expression of sullen self-confidence, while his body was thin and weak. His eyes, nose, and mouth all seemed puckered into a vacant, wearied grimace, and his arms and legs always fell into unnatural positions.”
Tolstoy’s description of Prince Hippolyte’s ugliness is at once hilarious and remarkable. I don’t think I’ve read a more elaborate portrayal of ugliness. Describing someone’s ugliness by juxtaposing it with someone else’s beauty–therefore, defining ugliness as a lack of beauty rather than an abundance of homeliness–is inspired.
“Nothing is more necessary for a young man as the society of clever women.”
Prince Vasili asks Anna Pavlovna to “educate” the “bear” that is Pierre (because he is, to this point, unaccustomed to society parties). For me, this speaks to a greater understanding of what women bring to men: character, conduct, intelligence, and emotional maturity. If only more father’s sought to educate their sons as such.
“Pierre, arriving before the others, went into Prince Andrew’s study like one quite at home, and from habit immediately lay down on the sofa, took from the shelf the first book that came to his hand (it was Caesar’s Commentaries) and resting on his elbow, began reading it in the middle.”
This was the line that sold me on Pierre. One, he’s a reader. Two, his easy rapport with Andrew (total bromance, that hits me here). Three, how he picks up books and starts to read them from the middle. That’s reading for reading’s sake, for learning’s sake. Anyone who reads a random book from he middle is immediately more interesting to me.
“If no one fought except on his own conviction, there would be no wars.”
This line from Andrew comes on the heels of Pierre saying that, “If it were a war for freedom I could understand it and should be the first to enter the army; but to help England and Austria against the greatest man in the world is not right.” The greatest man, in this case, is Napoleon. Andrew’s reply is interesting because he is speaking to a man’s loyalty to his country, to society, to the greater good. A man can respect Napoleon, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t fight against him. That’s a really exciting bit of moral complexity.
“He sat with his legs up on the sofa as if quite at home, and having stuck an amber mouthpiece far into his mouth, was inhaling the smoke spasmodically and screwing up his eyes.”
The funniest line of War and Peace thus far.
5. Me in One GIF
An Indictment of Love
If War and Peace offers the worst first line in history, Leo Tolstoy’s other epic, Anna Karenina, may offer the best: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Since the diaries of Tolstoy’s wife, Sofia, were released to the public in 2010, its become apparent that Tolstoy was, in fact, writing from experience.
Detailing more than 50 years, The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy paint a picture of a brilliant, dedicated, but often cruel man who isolated his wife, turned her into a baby factory, and worked her to the bone for decades.
“I am to gratify his pleasure and nurse his child, I am a piece of household furniture, I am a woman. I try to suppress all human feelings. When the machine is working properly it heats the milk […] and bustles about trying not to think – and life is tolerable.”
A strong, talented, and intelligent woman with interests in music and photography, Sofia wanted more than a life of servitude. Clearly, she idolized Leo, but his continuous sidelining of her became torturous. Once Leo’s mid-life asceticism set in, things became even more complicated.
“His sermons on love and goodness have made him indifferent to his family, and mean the intrusion of all kinds of riff-raff into our family life. And his (purely verbal) renunciation of worldly goods has made him endlessly critical and disapproving of others.”
Here, Sofia was referring to Leo’s ever-stricter ideologies, which included being celibate, a vegetarian, and a pacifist. Like Jesus, he came to believe they should live a life of poverty, justice, and hard work. They should believe in the doctrines of Christianity but renounce organized religion altogether.
Thus, he became a father of 13 children who preached celibacy, an aristocrat who rejected wealth, and a writer who failed to understand his wife but understood the hearts and minds of generations of people.
So what was he? A visionary or a hypocrite?
Sofia was nearly driven insane trying to find the answer. In her diaries she talked about wanting to kill herself several times, by poisoning herself with opium, drowning herself in a pond, and, like Karenina, throwing herself under a train.
Ironically, it was Tolstoy who ultimately couldn’t take the stress. Sofia’s behaviour eventually drove him from their home, and he died in a train station just days later.
In truth, it was more complicated than this. What I just described is much of what you may have read when Sofia’s diaries became public. Naturally, people glommed on to the more lascivious details and ignored the fact that diaries are notoriously contradictory. If one is honest and thorough, a diary can often seem like it was written by two (or more) people, because everyone–Sofia included–is a jumbled mess of emotions, ones that change all the time.
“It makes me laugh to read my diary. What a lot of contradictions — as though I were the unhappiest of women! But who could be happier? When I’m alone in the room I sometimes laugh for joy and cross myself, and pray to God for many, many more years of happiness. I always write in my diary when we quarrel. … and we wouldn’t quarrel if we didn’t love one another. … I have been married for six years now. … but I still love him with the same passionate, poetic, fevered, jealous love …”
This isn’t to say that Leo was a saint. Clearly, he wasn’t. This is to say that love is complicated, and Leo’s view on it was more complicated than most. And so it was with a keen eye that I set about reading War and Peace, using it as a window into his soul, so to speak, in order to glean what I could from this brilliant, complicated, and incredibly flawed man.
Did Leo love Sofia? Did he value love at all? Was his younger self even a bit more romantic than the 72-year-old who wrote in one of his diaries, “There is no such thing as love, only the physical need for intercourse and the practical need for a life companion”?
Thus far, it would seem that he was not.
In Chapter 6 of War and Peace, Andrew pulls Pierre aside to complain about his marriage to Lise.
“Never, never marry, my dear fellow! That’s my advice: never marry till you can say to yourself that you have done all you are capable of, and until you have ceased to love the woman of your choice and have seen her plainly as she is, or else you will make a cruel and irrevocable mistake. Marry when you are old and good for nothing — or all that is good and noble in you will be lost. It will all be wasted on trifles.”
Love, for Leo, is a lie. It’s a smokescreen, a blindfold that prevents a man from seeing a woman for how she truly is. Love is blind, as they say. It ignores faults, makes excuses. It isn’t until a marriage is old and solid that two people see each other for who they really are. It’s an incredibly fatalistic view, one that seems more than a bit ironic considering how dedicated he became as a public servant in his later years.
Tolstoy, in fact, died as one of the world’s most influential pacifists. His letters–which influenced both Gandhi and Martin Luther King–called not just for nonviolent resistance, but a plea towards compassion. Evil, he wrote, is restrained not with violence, but with love.
I was not surprised, then, to find a very similar message within War and Peace. In Chapter 22, Mary writes a letter to Boris’ wife, Julie. In it, she writes, “it seems to me that Christian love, love of one’s neighbour, love of one’s enemy, is worthier, sweeter, and better, than the feelings which the beautiful eyes of a young man can inspire in a romantic and loving young girl like yourself.” It echoes, almost verbatim, what Tolstoy would go on to preach as a wandering ascetic in his later years.
Love for his fellow man, it seems, came easy to Leo. Love for his closest family, however, did not, and I’m left wondering why that is. Perhaps Leo is able to love strangers because they are just that: strangers. He never gets to learn their flaws, or at least have them suffocate him. Clearly he was a man of wisdom, of deep compassion and reverence. But there was something about the day-to-dayness of domestic life that confounded him.
He was cruel. He was arrogant. He was selfish. He was a dangerous gambler. He would drink to excess. He showed no respect for women’s bodies. And yet he died with love on his lips.
Leo’s family was unhappy, and certainly unhappy in its own way.
Have you read War and Peace? Are you reading it right now?
What are your thoughts on the book, and/or the man himself? Get into it!