Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Reading War and Peace

I reached the halfway point, the end of Volume II, where Natasha is disgraced and ill, Pierre feels a new hope after looking at the comet, Anatole is banished to Petersburg,  and Andrei takes on the qualities of his father-- bitterness, cruelty, superiority.

Up to that point, all the characters were growing in tenderness and love, except Pierre, whose faulty marriage has destroyed his chance for happiness.   Andrei, after suffering a grievous wound in battle, and disillusionment among men of power and glory, had fallen in love with Natasha who returned his love.  They were both unsuitable for each other somehow, yet each recognized the excellence in the other, and loved the person for the bigness of soul found there.  Natasha saw Andrei as an honorable, intelligent, accomplished person.  Andrei saw Natasha as pure spirit, whose voice's purity expressed joy and sorrow and emotions perfectly.  Here is a quote from the Maude translation (I am reading the Pevear/Volokhonsky, hence the Andrei/Andrew discrepancy below):
After dinner Natasha, at Prince Andrew's request, went to the clavichord and began singing. Prince Andrew stood by a window talking to the ladies and listened to her. In the midst of a phrase he ceased speaking and suddenly felt tears choking him, a thing he had thought impossible for him. He looked at Natasha as she sang, and something new and joyful stirred in his soul. He felt happy and at the same time sad. He had absolutely nothing to weep about yet he was ready to weep. What about? His former love? The little princess? His disillusionments?... His hopes for the future?... Yes and no. The chief reason was a sudden, vivid sense of the terrible contrast between something infinitely great and illimitable within him and that limited and material something that he, and even she, was. This contrast weighed on and yet cheered him while she sang.

What makes reading this long book such a pleasure is the sheer scale of it.  Everything is bigger than usual in a novel.  There are more major characters, and the characters have minor characters attached to them, such as servants.  Like reading Shakespeare,  you keep referring to the cast list.  The list of major characters in War and Peace takes up two pages, and is organized by family.  Only after reading all of Volume I did I get used to all of the characters' nicknames.  Then I was able to differentiate one Nikolai from another, one Vassily from another, to remember Dolokhov's significance, and to distinguish him from Denisov.

Once I was able to do that, I began to appreciate the set pieces Tolstoy lays out before you.  There is a hunt for wolves that is right out of a fairy tale, it is fantastic, dark, bloody, and shocking, with so many omens you are sure a human being will be lost any moment, but not even the old wolf who is the prey expires -- he is merely tied onto a log and carried, pathetically snarling and writhing to the exit.

The Mummer scene is another tour de force of romantic or impressionistic sensations.  The cold of an icy winter night, the speed of the horses as they race each other, the frozen masqueraded faces -- girls sporting corked on mustaches-- as they dash off to the neighbors, Nikolai getting a little lost -- the description of the stars in the snow, or the snow in the stars.  It is all so dazzling in sensations that you forget these episodes build up to the next plot point, Nikolai finally professing his love for Sonya.

There is a pattern of illusions and disillusions.
Pierre has great ambition in the beginning.  His hopes are dashed upon marriage. He is raised up again by his joining the masons and again disillusioned at the less than stellar performance of his brothers in alms giving.

Andrei has a need for glory and honor and distinction (Where is my whiff of grapeshot) on the battlefield, and does distinguish himself only to later feel it is all useless.  His wife dies, and even though he showed no love for her that I could see, he is deeply in mourning after returning from war, and embittered by political life.  Then he sees Natasha as the freshest most innocent joyous creature, and pursues her, and regains his footing and wants to go on living.  Why he takes so long returning to her after going away for his health is beyond me.  He is deeply passive in some ways.

Nikolai -- the battle scene where he is wounded.  He thinks of his life, and what is happening as sort of a dream.

The  novel is dreamy in places.  Then it snaps into focus and becomes real  again.  When Tolstoy is going into people's heads, though, there is a swirling sense of illogic and feeling that is clearly not objective, but deeply subjective, deeply from the subject's point of view.

I am savoring every morsel.

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