Wednesday, September 07, 2011

War and Peace, Piecemeal: Round Two

A live blog of my thirdish reread (minus the essay at the end) of Tolstoy's War and Peace in the Penguin edition. It is not a Thursday, where the book would fit into the classics category, but to reuse an analogy, I'm not good at issuing forth a stream of creativity with regularity, like Old Faithful. The story is continued from the end of Chapter 10.

 1:48 AM To hop over a lot, the party at the Rostovs' in St. Petersburg ends and Princess Drubetskoy with son Boris in two go forth in their carriage, hat in claw as it were, to mooch from Count Bezuhov. Bezuhov is on his deathbed but they don't much care, though Boris finds this humiliating. There they encounter fellow harpies Prince Vasili Kuragin and one of the count's nieces. Pierre is hanging out in his room in the absence of harpydom and in the presence of great discomfort.

Skipping back a few days earlier, Pierre has come back from Moscow and his disgrace not looking forward to much. His female cousins greet him with self-righteous contempt on the one hand and greedy schadenfreude on the other, and when he awkwardly asks whether he might see the Count, the eldest declares, "The count is suffering both physically and morally, and your only anxiety, it seems, has been to increase his sufferings." No, really, could I see him, repeats Pierre. Only if you want to see him die!! answers his cousin. (Obviously not in those exact words.) The next morning Prince Vasili comes hopping in and after similar self-righteousness and caution not to approach the count, etc., confirms Pierre in his mini-exile.

Returning to the present, a human is sighted on his threshold at last in the form of Boris, while Pierre is play-acting a Napoleonic tirade. Which is, I think, as embarrassing to the rightminded person as being caught solemnly dancing the can-can in undersized high heels. Boris seems to think so; at any rate he is quite condescending. After they are introduced, he is astute enough to painstakingly state that neither he nor his mother are after Count Bezuhov's money. Pierre mistakes this for painful honesty and that establishes Boris on a friendly footing with him, which was I think Princess Drubetskoy's purpose in sending Boris to Pierre's room and Boris's purpose in going. Anyway, I think Tolstoy conveys very well how nice, unassuming and clever as well as attractive Boris can be, without being wellmeaning, altruistic or intelligent.

When Boris has descended again, Princess Drubetskoy has been in Count Bezuhov's room, and oddly enough the Count hasn't joined the angels and struck a harp yet. So clearly the point in keeping Pierre away from the Count's bed is to keep his father from making a will in his favour. Before the Drubetskoys leave, the Princess promises to return and sit with the Count, who would do well to have a good stock of incense, a couple crosses and a vial of holy water (if these are all compatible with the Russian Orthodox tradition) at hand.

In the meantime Countess Rostov, who regards her friend Princess Drubetskoy as an impoverished unfortunate rather than an inveterate leech with unadmirable principles, asks her husband for 500 rubles, which they can ill spare. The husband asks his employee, Mitenka, for 700 rubles in 'nice clean' notes and then the Countess forks over the dough to the Princess. I guess it's worthwhile to remember that the Rostovs in themselves are a family of seven and that they have the servants in their household, grocers, fishmongers, dressmakers, etc. to support and compensate. While the Countess could be hardheaded, she appears to be brought up to find it unladylike to be too precise about finances.

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Inspecting the Troops at Boulogne, August 15th, 1804
via Wikimedia Commons

(The Boulogne expedition, which Pierre debates one-sidedly with Boris, refers to Napoleon's plan to invade England from in and around Boulogne-sur-Mer, where he did train and quarter a large invasion force. It was also fortified and equipped with numerous barges, which were I think predecessors of the Allies' amphibious landing vessels. Obviously it fizzled. ["Napoleon's planned invasion of the United Kingdom" from Wikipedia] But, peculiarly enough, in 1840 his nephew Louis-Napoleon, Napoleon III, tried the same thing in the opposite direction with somewhat fewer soldiers. That fizzled too. ["Napoleon III" from Wikipedia])

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Chapter 15

03:17 AM The evening party has begun at the Rostovs' and fearsome Maria Dmitrievna Ahrosimov — "le terrible dragon" — is expected. She is

a lady distinguished not for her fortune or rank but for her direct mind and frank, unconventional behaviour. Maria Dmitrievna was known to the Imperial family as well as to all Moscow and Petersburg, and both capitals, while they marvelled at her, laughed up their sleeves at her brusqueness and told good stories about her; but at the same time everyone respected and feared her.
I've tended to think of my Aunt  N. here, except with a rounder face and more embonpoint and much more Russian. Anyway, the party can't run out of conversation, since their country has declared war on Napoleon. We meet the iceberg Vera Rostov's future fianc√©, Lieutenant Berg, who is chatting with the elderly Rostovian cousin Shinshin (I've forgotten whether he comes up much in the story later, so might as well mention him). The lieutenant is selfish and not terribly bright. Then Pierre comes blundering in and sits down in everyone's way.

It was the point of the party before supper where, in Tolstoy's atmospheric description:
the assembled guests, expecting the summons to the dining-room, avoid embarking on any lengthy conversation; while they feel it is incumbent on them to move about and say something, in order to show that they are in no wise impatient to sit down to table.
And they're trying to figure out what, in our vernacular, the hold-up is. Then Maria Dmitrievna arrives, greets the Count and Countess and Natasha (her little 'Cossack') affectionately, and teases Pierre on his dubious reputation. Then, to borrow again from the vernacular, the grub is served and they dig in, to the strains of an orchestra — "crystal decanters" and "fruit √©pergnes," blue ribbons, tutors and governesses, pineapples, inebriety, wines, game and turtle soup round out the festive board. Julie Karagin has snared Nikolai Rostov as her dinner partner and is pleased as punch; Sonya is not. Natasha is sort of opposite Boris and gazes at him besottedly, and for some reason I've liked this sentence very much: "Sometimes she let this same look fall on Pierre, and the funny lively little girl's expression made him want to laugh, he could not tell why."

To end, another of the descriptions that make the dinner scene so vivid (unflatteringly to the tutor, it reminds me of the moment where Emile Zola describes what the horse was thinking in Germinal — I read the beginning of the book for my history course and couldn't decide whether this passage was a stunt or unpretentious sympathy, but there was something charming and impressive about it):
The governess kept looking round uneasily, as if preparing to resent any slight to the children. The German tutor was trying to fix in his memory all the different courses, desserts, and wines, in order to write a detailed description of the dinner to his folks in Germany; and he was greatly mortified when the butler with the bottle wrapped in a napkin passed him over. He frowned, trying to make it appear that he did not want any of that wine but was affronted because no one would believe that he did not want it to quench his thirst, or out of greediness, but simply from a conscientious desire for knowledge.

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