Thursday, October 18, 2012

War and Peace, Piecemeal: Round Four

Fall of the Damned
Hieronymus Bosch
(ca. 1450-1516)
via Wikimedia Commons
THE LAST 'live blog' of War and Peace, translated by Rosemary Edmonds, took place quite a while ago, but we (or at least 'I') reached the 18th chapter. This was just before the death of Count Bezuhov, father of Pierre, who is the well-meaning social dromedary who unwisely dove into Russian society headfirst after he returned from his studies abroad. The death scene itself is impressive, because it is a milder version of a grand Hogarthian display of hypocrisy; its particular solemnity is ludicrous in light of its trivial, baseminded underpinnings. (It is not unlike the deathbed of Peter Featherstone in Middlemarch.) But it makes me a little uncomfortable.

The next scene is in the countryside, where Prince Bolkonsky is living out the rest of his stately aristocratic life in splendid isolation. His son Andrei (the friend of Pierre) has already escaped, and his father is very proud and fond of him; but Princess Maria, being a woman, is stuck in the position of being molded into the male heir whom her father had always fancied he would like to have. At least that's my reading of the situation. This enforced sobriety and manly strongmindedness which Maria is supposed to possess — they are not poor qualities in themselves but qualities which are best acquired or kept on one's own initiative — contrast pitifully with her self-doubt and romantic aspirations.

12:28 p.m. Maria Bolkonsky finds an ally in girlishness in her friend Julie Kuragin, who writes her the sort of youthful, gushing letter which shrivels under the scrutiny of adult persons. Among her maidenly woes is her plain face, which Tolstoy tritely redeems with a 'pair of fine eyes.' In Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the hero is compelled to change his opinion of the heroine thusly:
no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes.
(Vol. I, Chapter 6, at

In War and Peace, the narrative voice says,
. . . Princess Maria sighed and glanced into the pier-glass which stood on her right. It reflected a slight, homely figure and thin features. Her eyes, always melancholy, now looked with particular hopelessness at her reflection in the mirror.
Her friend had written that she has beautiful eyes, but Maria doubts it. So the narrator steps in to explain,
the princess's eyes — large, deep and luminous (it sometimes seemed as if whole shafts of warm light radiated from them) — were so lovely that very often in spite of the plainness of her face they gave her a charm that was more attractive than beauty. But the princess never saw the beautiful expression of her own eyes — the expression they had when she was not thinking of herself.
and moralize: "Like most people's, her face assumed an affected, unnatural expression as soon as she looked in a glass."

As a former girl-teenager, these cogitations ring true to me; I was told that my eyes were pretty and I liked having long hair and doughty legs, but worried about everything else. But I outgrew it by sixteen and find it, in retrospect, horribly mopy and rather embarrassing. As for Tolstoy, he seems to be sermonizing (not unkindly) that feeling poorly about one's pulchritude is the price of vanity; but that characterization might do him an injustice.

13:45 p.m. Julie Kuragin proffers three important pieces of gossip. Firstly, Russia's war against Napoleon is underway and Nikolai Rostov (at whom she has been casting sheep's eyes, to use an amusingly terrible phrase) has enlisted. Secondly, Pierre Bezuhov is being beset by partis and their parents, who are casting sheep's eyes at his new inheritance. Thirdly, the adult relatives (e.g. Prince Vasili, one of the deathbed harpies) of Anatole Kuragin are thinking of palming him off as a husband on Marie. I don't know if this has been mentioned in the book yet, but Anatole Kuragin is — in modern parlance — The Absolute Worst, a glamorous society creep. So she is in great peril!

Maria writes back and we learn that she is highly devout and a little naïve; she thinks she would like to be 'poorer than the poorest beggar.' I hadn't remembered this part and feel Offended. But she is not so romantic about the proposed marriage to Anatole. She says, witheringly, that she doesn't much care whether she likes the man or not, and that she is willing to do her Christian Duty as a wife, if it should come to that.
Jan Dussek (1760-1812), composer of pieces
which it is apparently
not an unmitigated pleasure
to play
via Wikimedia Commons

14:16 p.m. Prince Andrei comes home to find the reign of his father continuing according to its wont — everyone including the servant Tikhon living as customary — with his wife in tow. This wife surprises Maria at the piano, rehearsing a passage of a Dussek sonata; and they kiss and cry even though in fact they barely know each other and the wife is visiting the house for the first time. I think this vignette of feminine emotivity is rather obnoxious; but so is Prince Andrei, who pulls a Holden Caulfield and, by means of a shrug and a frown, indicating that he finds these proceedings Phony.

15:55 p.m. Prince Andrei and his father meet in his room for man talk, and the father is not particularly impressed by the shiny new war. As they join for a family repast, it swiftly turns out that this is through no pacifist ideology, but merely through a thorny reverence for the warmasters of the past and a shallow understanding of the grave importance of Napoleon and his opponents. Not that these battle-wagers are important because of any true grandeur (which is apparently debatable; I at least refuse to see any); rather, because they will wreak enormous damage.

This family repast constantly bemuses me. Prince Bolkonsky wants to be egalitarian so he demonstratively seats his architect at the table and then talks at him whenever he wants, even though this makes the man uncomfortable — odd manners. His daughter-in-law, Lise, turns out to be a fribble; rather than thinking that his son has messed this up through his questionable taste in choosing (and lack of respect for) his wife, he lets her talk until he can decide that she is beyond the pale. Then he feels sorry for said idiot son. This daughter-in-law is also pregnant and hysterical about it; but why shouldn't she be? It's her body that feels ill, she seems to know that she isn't mature enough to grapple maternity properly, and she has an unsupportive, sneering husband when she might have been happy in a circle of like-minded people. When I was younger I didn't like these passages much and now I think they are full of 1. misogyny and 2. intellectual and ethical laziness.

IT'S not enough to feel better than other people, or rather this isn't virtue at all. First of all I think you should be too busy finding out how to behave decently to think much of others' morality, and secondly, if anything, you should measure people against their own yardsticks instead of yours. It comes off as a little iffy in the original context, but I think that George Eliot's quotation is a worthwhile starting point: "Souls have complexions too: what will suit one will not suit another." Of course it's awkward to moralize about the moralizing of books, particularly if I moralize about the very moralizing nature of their moralizing, but still!

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