Thursday, September 01, 2011

War and Peace, Piecemeal

Empress Maria Fedorovna, by Jean-Louis Voille, late 1790s
Oil on canvas. Russian Museum in St. Petersburg
via Wikimedia Commons
[Portrait chosen because it conveys court dress, picks up on the mentions of the lady in the book, and depicts the immediate historical backdrop to the early stages of War and Peace.]

While beneath the dignity of one of the world's Great Novels, I thought that I could never write a decent overview of the entire book, so I am giving a "live blog" of my reading a try. (The most recent updates are at the bottom. And I am indeed up rather late. And I admit that the pun in the post title is rather bad.)

01:22 AM Finished introduction by Rosemary Edmonds, which says among other things that Tolstoy began writing this the year after he married (himself 34 years old) 18-year-old Sophie, which not only changed his mind about the overwhelming onset of decrepitude but also inspired a flowering of his authorial ability. He had been teaching the serfs on his estate and was apparently rather bored of it. He spent years writing and publishing (in increments) War and Peace, as Sophie spent the time copying it out by hand, and it was finally all out as a book in 1869. Apparently the argument of the essay at the end of the book (which I never finished reading during my previous conquests of War and Peace and whereof I only remember the argument that history is not guided by God toward some fulfillment because he could fulfill the world at once — which logic really impressed me at the time, though now I think I a) misunderstood it; b) would have to reread the passage; and c) disagree) is that the straightforward goodness of the Russian people won out over the artificial grandeur of a certain Corsican general and his French host.

01:54 AM

Setting: 1805, Russia under Tsar Alexander I and the dowager(?) Empress Maria

A court dame, Anna Pavlovna Scherer, is holding forth at the early stages of her evening party about the fashionable and somewhat bloody topic of Napoleon Bonaparte's victories in present-day Italy. Prince Vasili Kuragin, who is in the government, is one of the guests, and speaks French like almost all of the aristocrats. Both are bored by society, and the first pretends to be self-deprecating and interested in everything, and the second spools off soulless politeness. She gushes a little about the Emperor and says that he will Rescue Us All since England and Prussia are resolutely sitting on the relevant portion of their anatomy, then mentions the Empress reverentially. Prince Vasili has three children, a daughter Hélène (that was one of my baby/story character names until I read this book, which pushed me toward Elena or Yelena) who isn't mentioned yet, and two sons: Hippolyte is crude and rather dumb (I pictured him as a little like George W. Bush when I read War and Peace roughly in 2005) and Anatole is a libertine and reckless spender. Anatole needs to be fished out of the financial hole preferably without Prince Vasili's help, so when Anna Pavlovna brings up her relation, Princess Bolkonsky, he asks her to set things up for a mercenary marriage.

02:01 AM Hélène (who is blindingly beautiful and, though nobody realizes it, scarily opaque) and Hippolyte Kuragin, and Princess Bolkonsky (the other Princess Bolkonsky, who was Lise Meitner before she married Princess Bolkonsky #1's brother Andrei) arrive at the party. Princess Bolkonsky #2 is pretty and sunshine-y and half-consciously cute as a button and, at present, expecting a child. I think that Tolstoy's characterizations are pretty harsh, by the way, though not in such an obvious tone.

Next Pierre Bezuhov comes gallumphing in, a well-disposed and roundly young man whose spectacles attest to his studious interests and whose general unimpressive bearing does not attest to his grand and rich, though illegitimate, parentage by Count Bezuhov. He has studied outside of Russia, so he is new to the St. Petersburg society game; in terms of conversation, for instance about politics, he has the tact of a hopping dromedary crossed with that of an inebriated elephant.

A guest, the Vicomte de Mortemart, offers his opinion as an expatriate native of France about the gossips' real reason for the involuntary demise of the Duc d'Enghien. Prince Hippolyte, an awful audience, makes pointless remarks
in a tone which showed that he only understood the meaning of his words after he had uttered them.

He spoke with such self-confidence that no one could be sure whether his remark was very witty or very stupid.
That description reminds me of Bush; but Hippolyte is "astonishingly ugly", lanky, and I think truly stupid, so a complete similarity is out, and the identification of a partial similarity is already too meanspirited.


With that we have reached the middle of Chapter 3 and the end of this attempt at a liveblog.

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