Thursday, 24 March 2016

War and Peace #1: I.i.1 - I.i.20

And welcome to the first post of my War & Peace read along. I really enjoyed reading Les Miserables over the course of the last five months and there's something to be said for taking your time with classics, especially once they start spanning hundreds and hundreds of pages. My copy of War & Peace just about doesn't span a thousand, so in that sense it feels shorter than my copy of Les Mis, but since the latter was on my Kindle and the former is a paperback, War & Peace feels like an insurmountable mountain at the moment. A few notes to start, I'm using the same system I did for Les Mis in the sense that both of these books are split up into books and volumes. Hence in referencing the chapters read volumes are signified by capitalised Roman numerals, books by small Roman numerals and the various chapters by regular numbers. So, let's get cracking with the first twenty chapters.
Summary of Chapters:
In the first chapter we meet a variety of characters, all of which are interesting, most of which are relevant to the plot and some of which I spontaneously forgot about. But to recap, Anna Pavlovna Scherer throws a soiree in Saint Petersberg to which Prince Vasily Kuragin, his daughter Helene, Pierre Bezukhov, and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and his pregnant wife Lise. There are also a variety of other characters but so far they haven't been important yet. This soiree is Tolstoy's first occasion to show the reader how performative everyone's behaviour is. None of the adults seem to be genuine in how they act to each other and the whole evening is filled with polite chitterchatter until Pierre starts praising Napoleon and showing off "terrible" manners. He is the one at the party who doesn't know the social rules and makes a fool of himself. As the reader you feel for him a bit since you're also not quite sure what the rules are and slightly dislike everyone who is sticking to them. Pierre returns with Andrei and Lise, the former spontaneously reveals how dissatisfied he is with his married life and how it's holding him back. Pierre departs and joins Anatole Kuragin for a party which involves a bear.

The scene shifts after 10 chapters to the home of the Rostov family where the matriarch and Natasha Rostova are celebrating their name-day. We find out that Pierre got sent out of St. Petersburg for tying a policeman to a bear (what a party!) and is now in Moskow. The Rostov's have four children, Vera, who seems a bit spoilt and cold; Nicholas, 20, who is abandoning his studies to join the army and has declared his love to his second-cousin Sonya; Natasha, 13, who believes herself in love with Boris Dubretskoy, Nicholas' friend; and adorable 9-year old Petya. There are a lot of petty squabbles between all the "children", with Sonya upset at Nicholas for flirting with someone else and Boris promising Natasha he'll marry her in four years, while Vera looks on slightly disgusted. We witness Boris being dragged off my his mother to visit the dying Count Bezukhov, who his mother hopes will give him some money for his military career. Pierre is the Count's illegitimate son and also stands to potentially inherit, while Prince Vasily Kuragin is also there hoping for money. It's all rather tense and they quickly depart after an awkward conversation between Pierre and Boris. We return to the Rostov home where a dinner party is thrown and we meet a badass old lady named Marya Dmitrievna.

I appreciate all these names are rather confusing and they probably will get more and more confusing as we go on. Safe to say, pretty much everyone is a count, a princess or a soldier. Check out the Wikipedia page for the novel (I have no shame) if you get confused, they have handy family trees as well although they might spoil upcoming marriages!

Feel of the Chapters:
It's fair to say that Tolstoy does not play around. He gets right into the action and with Les Mis still so fresh in my mind it was very interesting to see these two different authors approaching immense casts differently. It is truly a bit confusing to deal with all these different names and I'm wondering when I'll have to stop checking the character list to know what's happening. Anyways, there is a distinct sense that everyone is acting and as such you're never quite sure which character to trust. There is a lot of polite conversation and switching between topics as Tolstoy rushes to introduce everyone. You get the feeling that he sides with Pierre most times, with the more socialist ideals he has and his innocence towards the social corruption of the other characters. Overall, the soiree feels a bit gloomy and constricted, and so does Prince Andrei's revelation of how frustrated he is.

In comparison, once we move on to the Rostovs everything feels brighter. Natasha is potentially the only character that acts intuitively and naturally, but even she seems to be a part of the game. There is a cheerfulness to the Rostovs though which really cheers the narrative up after the relative stagnancy of the soiree. There is also a distinct sense that Tolstoy is mocking the social niceties everyone feels forced to share, which means there is also an occasional chuckle in these chapters. Going into War & Peace, then, I get the feeling that Tolstoy does the same as Victor Hugo: moving back and forth between serious and fun, dark and light, intense and simple.

General Points:

  • The social elite in Saint Petersburg is incredibly well-spoken, in the sense that Tolstoy is constantly telling us about the different languages spoken by his characters. There is a lot of French, for which I had to dig into the notes at the back of the book, some Italian, and even an English phrase. I love this international edge to the elite.
  • There is quite a lot of attention for the need of money that some characters feel, especially Anna Drubetskaya, Boris' mother, who we see asking both Prince Vasily for help and trying to ask Count Bezukhov for money. When she eventually gets it from an unexpected source (see Quotes below) it leads to quite a bittersweet moment.
  • It was definitely a bit strange to read about these teens planning marriage and cousins being attracted to each other, but that is definitely an effect of Tolstoy showing his time period off as well as reading about the upper classes. In any society they tend to, well, inbreed. 
  • Somehow War & Peace feels a little bit like it could turn into a TV-show. Every week I'll tune in to see what these characters are up to, who's getting married, if anyone's dying, etc. I do expect Tolstoy will hit me with some intense philosophy at some point, but so far it's been very pleasant reading.

Napoleon doesn't look like he enjoys the cold!
Something Interesting:
Napoleon is absolutely crucial to War & Peace. When I bought my copy four years ago I was surprised he was on the cover and I now understand why. War & Peace is set around the beginning of the 1800s when Russia was engaging intensely with Napoleon's quest to become Emperor of all of Europe. So today I'm looking at a event which influenced Russia's interest in Napoleon: the 1812 French Invasion of Russia, or, as it is known in Russia, The Patriotic War of 1812. Napoleon invaded in order to convince Russia to stop trading with Britain although the official reason was to liberate Poland. The Russian army employed the scorched-earth tactic which freaked the French out a little bit. Tsar Alexander I appointed Mikhail Kutuzov as commander and Tolstoy has Prince Andrei working for him.

On the 7th of September the Battle of Borodino happened, where 70,000 soldiers died. Yet neither this nor Napoleon taking Moscow convinced Alexander I to submit. Eventually they started to retreat but the famous Russian winter hit them. Hundreds of thousands of French soldiers had died and the campaign was a turning point in the Napoleonic Wars as Napoleon's reputation was weakened.

'"What is important are the rights of man, emancipation from prejudices, and equality of citizenship, and all these ideas Napoleon has retained in full force."' p.15
This is Pierre defending Napoleon and voicing Tolstoy's own opinion, apparently. Somehow I've managed to pick another politically motivated and socialist book. Who knows if this will actually last though or if Pierre will have his mind changed by life.
'They wept because they were friends, and because they were kind-hearted, and because they - friends from childhood - had to think about such a base thing as money, and because their youth was over ... But those tears were pleasant to them both.' p.44
So, Anna Drubetskaya gets the money for Boris from Countess Rostova who is her childhood friend and it leads to the above moment. Both women seem absolutely worn out by their struggles. The Countess has birthed twelve children and worries for her family's spending while Anna is poor and has been reduced to begging. I liked how Tolstoy shows their relative hardship.

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