War & Peace, ch. 1-6

First of all, in order to read War and Peace in a month, you only have to read about three chapters a day, and they’re short. The Wikipedia article is not a bad guide.

I am surprised at how well my old paperback has held up. It’s more than 30 years old, but the pages are in good shape and the binding is fine. Not bad for an old Signet Classic ($1.95). I’m still going to see if B&N have the new translation tomorrow.

In case your translation doesn’t have it, here’s the list of (main) characters from the front of mine:

  • The Bezukhovs
    • Count Kiril Vladimirovich Bezukhov
    • Pyotr Kirilovich Bezukhov (Pierre) his illegitimate son
    • The Mamontov sisters (Pierre’s cousins)
      • Princess Katerina Semyonova
      • Princess Olga Semyonova
      • Princess Sophie Semyonova
  • The Kuragins
    • Prince Vasily Sergeyevich Kuragin
    • Prince Anatol, his elder son
    • Prince Ippolit, his younger son
    • Princess Elena Vasilyevna Kuragina (Helene)
  • The Bolkonskys
    • Prince Nikolai Andreyevich Bolkonsky
    • Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky, his son
    • Princess Marya Nikolayevna Bolkonsaya, his daughter (Marie, Masha)
    • Princess Lisa Bolkonskaya, Andrei’s wife
  • The Rostovs
    • Count Ilya Andreyevich Rostov
    • Countess Natalya Rostova
    • Count Nikolai Ilyich Rostov, their elder son
    • Count Pyotr Ilyich Rostov, their younger son
    • Countess Vera Ilyinicha Rostova, their elder daughter
    • Countess Natalya Ilyinicha Rostova, their younger daughter
    • Sofia Alexandrovna, a cousin
  • The Drubetskoys
    • Princess Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskaya
    • Prince Boris Drubetskoy, her son

Of course, the first person we meet is none of the above. It’s Anna Pavlovna Scherer, whose salon is the place to be seen in Petersburg. Everyone, just everyone, is there, and Anna Pavlovna declares in the opening paragraph her distaste for all things Bonaparte. It’s 1805, and the Corsican is causing much rumpus over in Europe, threatening to drag Russia into war. But Anna Pavlovna will have none of it at her party.

We meet Prince Vasily Kuragin, a smarmy courtier who is looking to marry off his rake of an elder son to some rich girl. Anna Pavlovna suggests Marie Bolkonskoya: good family, and loads of cash. She’ll see what she can do.

We meet Prince Vasily’s daughter Helene, who is so gorgeous that Tolstoy can barely keep his eyes off her. She also appears to be not very bright.

We meet Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, young, handsome, married to the adorable and pregnant Lisa. Andrei is one of our big three characters; his sister is the one Anna Pavlovna wants to marry off to the icky Anatol.

And finally we meet Pierre Bezukhov, the second of our main characters, recently returned to Russia after being educated abroad. He’s a large young man, not very polished, but quite amiable if a bit feckless.

Right off the bat Tolstoy gets the entire novel going: Byzantine matchmaking, always for money; happy/unhappy marriages; social/political advancement; and the threat of Napoleonic conquest. The NYT blog has decided that the first thing they’re going to talk about is Tolstoy’s idea that great men don’t cause history, that Napoleon himself is just a cog in the machine, but if you’re just encountering the novel, that’s a little big to be starting with.

One of the things that amazes me most about Tolstoy is how within six chapters he gives us scenes in rather grand society, at Anna Pavlovna’s salon, that hint at a world very different from the one you and I live in: rank, privilege, who’s out and who’s in, and very very great wealth. His author’s eye travels the beautifully appointed rooms, tracking conversations while never letting us forget that every person is part of a great hive of society.

We begin to see, too, what part these people play. The Kuragins seem to be scheming and worthless: the crafty father, the indolent daughter, the slimy younger son. (Come on, Ippolit, Lisa is pregnant!) The Bolkonskys are virtuous and educated. The Drubetskoys are down on their luck but determined to rise again. Poor Pierre is clearly a fish out of water in this shark pool.

Another amazing thing is how Tolstoy then takes us directly into the heart of things. After we follow the Bolkonskys home, where Pierre has tagged along, we see Andrei and Lisa deeply unhappy for a variety of reasons: he feels trapped and stymied by his marriage; she feels rejected because he wants to go off to war with General Kutuzov and plans to send her to stay with his depressing family in the country. Both are miserable, and Tolstoy’s portrait of them and their relationship is etched in crystal.

It’s interesting, too, that I found myself unsure of Tolstoy’s attitude towards Lisa in the opening chapters. His description of her is a bit too precious, and I keep thinking he’s making fun of her, perhaps. But when she and Andrei get home, her misery is profound and touching, and Andrei comes off as callous.

Finally, Pierre emerges straight away as a complex character without a center, although he seeks desperately for meaning. It is his search for meaning that drives the novel. Innately good, but unable to discipline himself, we leave him in chapter six at an extremely wild party at Anatol Kuragin’s place. Drinking, gambling, and whoring, and Pierre likes it that way.

The floor is open for discussion.

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