Thursday, 14 July 2016

War and Peace #9: II.viii.10 - II.ix7

Unfortunately I was right in my predictions of how everything might take a turn for the worse after last week's relatively happy chapters! It's always interesting to see the way a change in one character's storyline affects the other characters, especially when they become as closely tied together as Tolstoy's characters (finally) have. It still feels like a soap opera, but now that we've roughly reached the halfway mark Tolstoy is also interjecting into the narrative with some historical and political arguments, which is definitely spicing up the book.

Summary of Chapters:
Last week left us on the bring of potential (romantic) disaster for Natasha and Tolstoy well and truly gets into it in this week's 20 chapters! We start still at the opera, where Anatole makes his move on Natasha who, for the first time, receives the complete and utter romantic attention of a man and is consequently overwhelmed. Helene happily plays go between and invites her around the next evening. Natasha, romantic innocent that she is, assumes her confusion over Anatole and Prince Andrew can only mean she loves them both. When Anatole kisses her that evening she feels she must love him and therefore ends her engagement with Prince Andrew. Sonya sees one of Anatole's letters and confronts Natasha, who is almost deliriously in love. They are staying with Marya Dnitrievna, who finds out from Sonya that Anatole and Natasha are planning a kidnapping/elopement which is just about prevented. Natasha is heartbroken, especially when it is revealed that Anatole is already married and couldn't actually care less for Natasha's feelings. Pierre buys his silence and sends him back to Petersburg. This is the moment Prince Andrew makes his return, coldly accepting the breaking off of the engagement and hiding his wounded heart behind more coldness. Pierre is initially also very disappointed in Natasha until her sadness awakens his own heart.

We leave Natasha recovering from a suicide-attempt in Moscow and move to the Russian border where Napoleon decides it's time to invade Russia again. There is a fascinating chapter on history and ow we perceive it, and then there is a lot of talk about rivers being crossed, emperors being mad, and marshals being sent around. Boris manages to be right in the middle of things while remaining utterly unimportant. A certain Balashev is sent to Napoleon with a letter by Emperor Alexander, who is not pleased to be invaded by someone who is supposed to be an ally. He is received with lacking courtesy and when he does meet Napoleon it is in the very room from which Alexander sent him away five days earlier, now conquered by the French. Napoleon goes on a massive rant against Russia and the Russian Emperor and everyone seems embarrassed by it.

Feel of the Chapters:
Whereas the initial chapters describing the growing affection between Natasha and Prince Andrew felt refreshing and rosy, this week's chapters have a distinct sense of tragedy about them, as well as a more hectic feeling. There is no peaceful and happy lingering. Rather Pierre, seemingly the go-between of everyone, rushes from one house to the next, with the whole affair and failed elopement occurring within a few days. In some ways this makes the sentence on Natasha feel even harsher because it all happens so quickly. One does pity Prince Andrew but then his own pride and unwillingness to go against his father did make him absent for a whole year without any true reassurance. It is an odd situation in which everyone is slightly guilty for looking away or looking too closely.

The chapters regarding Napoleon and Tolstoy's digression on the nature of History are fascinating, and yet the question of how it is entirely relevant does linger. They feel distinctly different than the chapters in which he focuses on his own characters, an yet there is an edge to his "historic" writing because it allows him to express his own opinions, perhaps even dabble in some history-making himself. Having recently read Les Mis it is also interesting to see Napoleon described from a different perspective, by a different country and culture.

I think more than any of the other chapters, these have been a perfect example of the incredibly double standard enforced upon men and women, both previously in history but even today. It is clear that Anatole is purposefully setting out to seduce Natasha, knowing she'll make an easy victim because she's so young and having no intentions whatsoever to behave honourably. Natasha is, perhaps, foolish enough to fall for it but Tolstoy actually shows  part of her thought process better than he perhaps intended. Natasha blames herself for how far she already feels involved and sees love as her only way out of her predicament. She then rushes into it head on, while Anatole equally happily distances himself again once he is offered money by Pierre. Sure, Pierre is disgusted by him but yet Anatole gets of scot free and, after all, what was anyone really expecting from him? But no, virginal and kind, lovely and young Natasha, she is now the fallen woman, she has sinned, she is stupid and just as bad as all other women. Pierre doesn't truly forgive her until he sees her cry and realizes he might love her. The consequences of this "affair" fall well and truly upon Natasha's shoulders when she is the only true victim. Not only has she been actively played by Anatole, she is also being raised in a society which restricts her contact with men and her behaviour so much that she becomes an easier victim. I am curious how this will develop, what continuing consequences it will have. But so far Natasha seems to be "ruined". But perhaps the love of a man, a Tolstoy-approved man, i.e. Pierre, can save her... blegh.

General Points:

  • By switching between the heads of different characters, so to say, Tolstoy gives a lot of depth to his characters. As the narrator seems to be detached from the situation he can switch "protagonist" mid-scene
  • Like I said last week, historical knowledge definitely comes in useful when reading War and Peace. I found the same thing when reading Les Miserables, which is equally obsessed with Napoleon. Whereas a lot of modern novels feel almost cut off from their contemporary historical and political background, it seems authors in the 19th century actively used their novels to comment upon society, culture, politics, etc.
  • There is a fascinating chapter (II.ix.1) in which Tolstoy writes about History and it has the following line: 'A king is history's slave.' Tolstoy discusses how History comes to be, what it is that truly causes our Great Historical Events, whether single men, kings and generals, actually have as much power as we give them in hindsight, or if it simply is the convergence of all the right circumstances that makes History what it is.
Something Extra: the Great Comet of 1811
Great Comet of 1811
Drawing by William Henry Smyth.
About halfway through this week's section, when returning from visiting Natasha, Pierre sees a comet and Tolstoy gives a beautiful description:
'the comet which was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world. In Pierre, however, that comet with its long luminous tail aroused no feeling of fear. On the contrary he gazed joyfully, his eyes moist with tears, at this bright comet which, having travelled in its orbit with inconceivable velocity through immeasurable space, seemed suddenly - like an arrow piercing the earth - to remain fixed in a chosen spot, vigorously holding its tail erect, shining, and displaying its white light amid countless other scintillating stars.' p. 475
I love this description and it was such a relevant note for the 9th Book to finish on. The Comet of 1811 was visible for almost 260 days to the naked eye and for many was indeed a portend of bad news. Some even say it predicted the invasion by Napoleon and the War of 1812, hence its relevance to War and Peace. The comet was so bright that it had a lot of impact on non-astronomers. In 2012 there was even an off-Broadway musical called Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 which follows the events in this week's chapters and ends in Pierre witnessing the comet.

'Rakes, those male Magdalenes, have a secret feeling of innocence similar to that which female Magdalenes have, based on the same hope of forgiveness."All will be forgiven her, for she loved much; and all will be forgiven him, for he enjoyed much".' p.449
Well, good to know 19th century Russia had its own version of 'boys will be boys'. This is exactly the kind of double standard I'm talking about. While men get to enjoy themselves because they can see themselves as innocent, women can only hope for forgiveness.
'Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal aims of humanity. A deed done is irrevocable, and its result coinciding in time with the actions of millions of other men assumes an historic significance.' p.479
I think this is one of the truest statements about how a single person influences history that I've ever read. A single person is in the end largely irrelevant but when the actions of many come together, then it becomes History.

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