A beautiful afternoon

What a beautiful, beautiful afternoon! I hope you were able to sit in your green, cool, sun-drenched back yard as I was, and finish reading War & Peace, as I was.

What an odd, odd, enormous book. After the fall of Moscow, after (spoiler alert!) the death of Andrei and the capture of Pierre as a prisoner, the book just sort of dissolves into an essay on the necessity of historical events. Yes, we drag along with the French Armée as they try to flee Russia and are pursued by Russian partisans, and we do finally get back to Pierre and his rescue from the French, and he finally declares his love for the grieving Natasha and everyone’s going to be very happy.

But the book itself ends with Pierre leaving Natasha to go to Petersburg to settle his disgraced dead wife’s debts, and Natasha exclaiming:

“Only what’s he going to Petersburg for!” Natasha said suddenly, and hastily answered herself: “No, no it has to be so… Right, Marie? It has to be so…”

Boom. End of novel proper. There follows an 87-page epilogue, in which we catch up with Pierre/Natasha and Nicolai/Marya, but we just swoop in and out of their story while listening to Leo Tolstoy hold forth about historical imperatives. It doesn’t end so much as evaporate.

Which is probably why the thing was decried as “not a novel” when it was published. I have to agree with Count Lev that it is what it is, and more than anything what it is, is amazing. A huge undertaking (which still took him only five years of writing: did you get that, J.K. Rowling?), it sprawls on a vast canvas, and we are invited to inspect it minutely. It is cinematic in both scope and treatment. One moment we’re overlooking a battlefield and only seeing tiny wisps of smoke in the distance; the next, we’re examining the irrational thoughts of one of our characters who is caught up in the thick of the violence. He zooms, he pans, he cuts, he fades. It’s pretty astounding.

Highly highly recommended.

A bold move

Yep, a bold move. That’s what I need all right.

Since we (the Lyles and the Honeas) are heading to north Georgia this afternoon, mostly because we like to drive in the heaviest rain this year, towards the freezing altitudes, and thence to Guilford to watch a lacrosse game for the weekend, I’ve decided to leave the computer behind. I’ll take my music paper Moleskine and probably work on III. Andante, which, if you will recall, is a concert waltz.

Then, when I re-encounter IV. Largo on Sunday evening, I will have some distance from it and can more easily slit my wrists upon realizing what utter drek it is.

Wish me luck.

P.S. I’m also taking War & Peace as my only reading.

The reading trap

Before Christmas, I swore an oath, that I would buy no books until I had read the stack by my bed. This stack consists of about fifteen books which have mostly been in my possession for at least a year but which I have never gotten around to reading because there’s always a new book I’ve bought that jumps to the front of the line.

After I bought Tom Bedlam, by George Hagen, I decided enough was enough. I would buy no more books until I had finished Ethics for a New Millennium, by the Dalai Lama; The Keep, Jennifer Egan; A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth; Charles Ives: a life in music, Jan Swafford; etc., etc.

To quote Adolfo Pirelli in Sweeney Todd: “You hear dis-a foolish-a, foolish-a man. Watch and see how he will-a regret-a his folly!”

Since then, I have bought (or been given, it was Christmas, after all):

  • Henry Green: Loving • Living • Party Going (three novels in one volume; one of those British novelists no one but great writers have ever heard of but who is adored by them)
  • Meg Rosoff: What I Was (new young adult novel)
  • China Miéville: Un Lun Dun (new children’s fantasy novel)
  • Rick Yancey: Alfred Kropp: the Seal of Solomon (sequel to The Extraordinary Adventures of A. K.)
  • Pink Dandelion (no, really): An introduction to Quakerism
  • Marcel Kuisjten, ed.: Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness (essays and research following up on The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind)
  • Louis Auchincloss: East Side Story (novel of manners, by one of Them)
  • Max Barry: Company (a satirical novel)
  • Charles Nicholl: The Lodger Shakespeare (a look at the lawsuit in which our friend Bill was a deponent)
  • Gregroy Benford: Deep Time: how humanity communicates across millennia (bought back when we Lichtenbergians were futzing around with the buried nuclear waste)
  • Ellen Dissanayake: Art and Intimacy (the “prequel” to Homo Aestheticus)

One is not only forsworn, but one despairs. This list is not counting the books I am reading:

  • Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: The Waste Books (bedside book)
  • Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace (more about which in a moment)
  • Ellen Dissanayake: Homo Aestheticus (which I’m discovering is hard to pick up after an extended absence)
  • Patrice Hannon: 101 Things You Didn’t Know About Jane Austen (bathroom reading)

What is one to do? It is ridiculous to think that I will clear out these thirty books soon, if ever. And always, always, there are new books. And bookstores. (While waiting for Ginny to finish worshipping at the new DSW shoe store the other night, I picked up the Austen and Shakespeare books at Barnes & Noble.)

So do I have a plan? No. I already had a plan: buy no new books. It failed.

Part of the problem is of course that I’m devoting all my free brain time to the symphony. I wish I could say that reading these books could provide a break from that, but that’s not realistic. Writing this blog post is taking a break, clearing out thoughts and worries from my brain; reading is an entirely additional commitment for the brain power/time continuum. So until the symphony is finished, or at least turned over to Stephen in 110 days, there will be no concerted effort at clearing out this stack.

I can and will take a stack with me to GHP to read. That is assuming of course I don’t get sucked up into finishing another movement or two of the symphony (which is, you will notice, already assuming that I’m not going to finish all four movements in the next 110 days) or the piano piece for Maila, or even the songs for Day in the Moonlight, which would be a kindness on my part. But I have been able to find time at GHP to read, believe it or not.

After the summer, I might have time to plow through some of these. But I am fooling no one, am I? This stack will never disappear. There will always be new books and new projects to keep me from reading them. I will die with a huge stack by my bed. I will probably die crushed by the huge stack by my bed.

War and Peace is a marvel. I’m halfway through it now, and it no longer feels like I’m scaling some virtuous mountain. Now when I open it, it feels like being in a warm, limitless ocean. I feel like the kids opening the wardrobe door to Narnia, returning once again to a complete world that is not my own, not without its dangers, but one that is strong and fresh and fascinating.

I’m at a curious point in the book, where all the themes and characters have been laid out like pieces on a chess board. It’s most like the end of The Two Towers, I think, where everyone is dispersed and heading off in different directions, seemingly. No one’s choices have worked out for the best, and it’s been so long since I read it before (35 years, maybe?) that, embarrassingly, I cannot remember who gets to be happy at the end. Other than Kutuzov, obviously.

Right, then. I’m going to update my reading pages, and then I’ve got a symphony to write.

War & Peace, Part 2, ch. 7-21

War: battle and retreat from Vienna.

I’ve picked up War & Peace again in a quiet moment during lunch today. I had, like an idiot, carried it with me to Munich, but if travel does anything, it robs the mind of the sharpness necessary to read a book like this.

It is brought home to me again how incredibly remarkable this book is. We observe in minute detail the personal stories of the battle and how senseless it all is, senseless in the fact that no one in their right mind could believe anyone was controlling the outcome.

Again and again, the movements of the French and the Russians are actually blunders. No one understands what’s going on, and whole battalions of men turn and flee without really knowing why, or, conversely, turn and save the day without meaning to.

We return again and again to the little artillery captain Tushin, who holds the center of the Russian line with his four cannons, setting a village on fire and bedevilling the French, or stopping their charges altogether. He never receives two orders to retreat, and in fact the French react to his insistent cannonade as if that is where the main Russian force must be.

Finally Prince Andrei arrives and stays with him until he understands that the order to retreat has been given. Then we get an incredible passage: as night falls, Tushin and his men are swept into “an invisible, gloomy river… flowing in the darkness, all in one direction, with a hum of whispers, talk, and the sounds of hooves and wheels.”

Tushin, after the adrenalin of battle, is in a daze, but still looking after his men and anyone else who shows up at the campfire, including young Nikolai Rostov. Tolstoy shows us men who are utterly drained, who cannot yet register the events of the day. Random snapshots of men, officers, wounded, horses, life, death.

Tushin is called to Prince Bagration’s tent, where for a moment it looks as if the day’s defeat is going to be pegged on his failure to retreat. Tushin is unable to speak clearly in his defense, and finally Andrei, sick of the whole business, tells what he saw and stands up for the captain.

The section closes with Nikolai Rostov nursing a severely bruised shoulder and deliriously wondering why he’s not at home where he’s loved.

Tolstoy’s ability to depict both the confusion of battle in all its panoramic horror and the inner confusions of his characters is mind-blowing. He uses his camera like an auteur, and we are swept along with it. He’ll pull the soundtrack as we hear someone’s thoughts, then cut to a totally different part of the battlefield, even introducing a brand new character in the midst of the excitement, expecting us to follow the action without pause. It’s amazing.

The question on the floor

The question we failed to answer at last night’s colloquium: “Z*/Tolstoy: Do we have a choice?” continues to bug me.

I hope everyone felt that the topic was asking not only the flippant surface question, “What should we choose to read?” but also challenging us as creators: “Do we have control over our own creative output?”

This is a question with some girth. Clearly, the works of Z and Tolstoy are at opposite ends of the scale, and without a doubt our works are somewhere in between. It would hard indeed to create something beyond Z’s work, even deliberately; that is his special gift. But where do our works fall and how much control do we have over that?

I don’t think I’m talking here about posterity’s evaluation of our works. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that there is at base a level of quality that I will dare to call objective. In other words, I think we can posit that each work has a base line of quality from which posterity will not stray very far in its assessment.

Our two goalposts can illustrate that point. No one is ever going to proclaim Z’s two novels as anything other than what they are, which is one human being’s noble attempt to fulfill that inborn urge to create. Likewise, Tolstoy’s War & Peace is not likely to fall very far from its current heavyweight status. The fact that there cannot be any serious argument about placing these works at opposite ends of any scale you want to devise is further evidence for my argument.

My not so secret fear then is that the stuff I produce will fall into Z’s range. I know the songs I’m writing for Moonlight, for example, are not really going to be that bad, but I am afraid that they will be at best insipid and at worst banal. And I am wounded by the knowledge that they will never approach the other end of the scale, either.

And here’s our question again: Do we have a choice? I know enough to keep my stuff from being bad, but is my inability to create a work of genius dependent on my knowledge? Was Tolstoy’s work a direct result of his artistic control, or is there something else going on?

This is getting into Tolstoy’s “man of destiny” territory, and it would be ironic indeed if his creative output is as great as it is simply because of the dictates of his own will. For those of us stranded below, it makes more sense, and is certainly more comforting to think, that there was some happenstance, some inborn-genius-thing that he could not control, and which we do not possess, that made War & Peace the staggering work of art that it is.

So, do we have a choice?

We’ve mentioned before the idea that a creative work is “abandoned not completed,” and nowhere is this more true than in the last five or six chapters of Z’s latest novel. There were misspellings, typos, repeated paragraphs/sentences, and an overall sloppiness that was actually distracting instead of just being a part of the delightful mise en scene. I don’t understand that. It cannot have been the case that his publishers were breathing down his neck like J. K. Rowling’s were for Goblet of Fire, causing her to slip up in the crucial graveyard duel scene. I cannot imagine that he was being rushed in any way to complete the thing.

At any rate, I finally put my finger on what is wrong with much of the dialog in this book. Almost all of it consists of the characters stating what they’re doing, have done, or are going to do. It is pretty much the way 8-11-year-olds play: “Come on, we have to fight the Balrog.” “You can’t defeat us, Balrog, we have Gandalf on our side.” “Oh no, Gandalf has joined forces with the Balrog.” “We have to run away.”

The rest of the dialog is made up of flat descriptions of the characters’ emotional status: “I’m so happy/scared/worried/in love.” Or agreements: “You are so right.”

It’s entertaining something awful.


*Names changed to shelter the innocent

Nostalgia for the Motherland

In Chapter 6 of Part II (we’re talking War & Peace here), we see Kutuzov and the Russian army falling back towards Vienna. (Kutuzov does a lot of falling back in this novel.) It’s October 23 (!), and the army is crossing the Enns River at Enns.

The day was warm, autumnal, and rainy. The vast prospect that opened out from the height where the Russian batteries stood, defending the bridge, was now suddenly covered by a muslin curtain of slanting rain, then suddenly widened out, and in the sunlight objects became visible and clear in the distance, as if freshly varnished. At one’s feet one could see the little town with its white houses and red roofs, the cathedral, and the bridge, on both sides of which streamed crowding masses of Russian troops. At the bend of the Danube one could see boats and an island, and a castle with a park, surrounded by the waters of the Enns falling into the Danube; one could see the left bank of the Danube, rocky and covered with pine forest, with a mysterious distance of green treetops and bluish gorges. One could see the towers of a convent looming up from the pine forest with its wild and untouched look…

This is, of course, the southernmost corner of Hofvonstein.

It was almost exactly at this time that Carl IV died under the usual Hofvonsteinian circumstances. Evidence points to Queen Mother Therese, Carl’s stepmother and lover, as being somehow responsible. His half-brother Georg took the throne as Georg II.

This is a rather obscure portion of our nation’s history, but perhaps my readers will remember Georg II’s son, Maximilian II. It was Maximilian’s assassination in 1879 that set off his son Leopold III’s liberal reformist tendencies, as well as his grandson Maximilian’s reactionary ones, culminating in that awful night in Vienna, December 31, 1899.

The castle in the Enns, in fact, was property of Karl Magnus von Ludwighof, Leopold’s prime minister and eventually king himself.

I know that there are still some who thrill at hearing this.

Caught up

I’m caught up and can begin my summarizing again. Hopefully I have gotten that out of my system and can settle down into more of what I myself expect from my 100 Book Club readers at school: no summary, more personal response.

Small points of the translation differences continue to stand out. When the elder Prince Bolkonsky is giving his daughter Princess Marya her daily geometry lesson, he exclaims against her stupidity, but then paces the room, “touched the princess’s hair with his hands, and sat down again.”

That phrase “touched the princess’s hair with his hands” struck me in several ways. First of all, it’s almost clumsy. Certainly if I came across it in one of David Wilson’s novels, I would consider it risible. (FYI, I do plan on attending his autographing session at Scott’s Bookstore on Tuesday.)

But here it is direct, blunt, and ambiguous. I went back to the Dunnigan translation, and sure enough, she has “lightly touched his daughter’s hair,” which is a very different and very much softer approach to Nikolai Andreevich’s character. In the new translation, it is not clear at all whether or not Prince Bolkonsky has a soft spot for his plain, religious daughter.

Of course, in either translation, there’s a lot of this. Tolstoy just gives a blank description of an action, much as Benjy’s narration of his section The Sound and the Fury, his father touches the wall and the lights come on, just the facts, ma’am, and none of the emotional underpinnings. I myself am not very good at reading any emotional underpinnings into these descriptions. Asperger’s, perhaps? Perhaps it’s very clear to everyone else that the Prince is stroking Masha’s hair tenderly if regretfully?

But I don’t think so. I think phrases like these are pivot points for Tolstoy’s approach to these characters. Prince Bolkonsky keeps alternating, at least in my reading, between savage martinet and sane if somewhat self-centered paterfamilias, and I think one way Tolstoy does that is to give us these emotionally empty descriptions of the character’s actions.

Another way I think he does it is to tell us what a character’s like, and then show us something completely different. Everyone’s terrified of the Prince, but he doesn’t really do much to be scary. Yes, he yells at people, and he seems extremely short-tempered. But he’s not an ogre at all; much of his anger is defensive, and I’m a little surprised that none of the women with whom he shares his house has figured this out.

The new translation

Well, this is different.

First of all, of course, it’s significantly heavier than my old paperback. It’s really too heavy to hold comfortably. It has to sit in your lap or on a table. This makes it not very likely that I’ll get a lot of reading done at bedtime. I know, we’ll actually clean off that nice chair in the corner of the bedroom that was meant to be a sitting area rather than a storage zone.

It’s funny, too, that I was expecting, I don’t know, some kind of special binding. This is War & Peace we’re talking about. But it’s just a plain red buckram binding, and I’m not impressed with the cover design or the dust jacket design. That’s just quibbling, however.


The first thing you will notice is that the first page is half in French. Every translation I’ve seen has Anna Pavlovna greeting Prince Vasiliy in French, but then continuing in English. It is a surprise to discover, then, that when Tolstoy says (in my other translation) “she said in French,” he actually wrote it in French. Our translators, like Tolstoy, have translated it for us at the bottom of the page, but I find that makes for bumpy reading. (Cf., The Infinite Jest or House of Leaves)

A little more disturbingly, there are endnotes. I am a compulsive end-note reader, especially if they are explanatory and not just bibliographic citations, and so every time one of those tiny little numbers is perched above a period, I have to struggle not to turn to the back of the book to see what it says. Often it’s stuff I already knew, so that’s doubly frustrating. One ends up reading with two bookmarks in place.

So how is it as a translation? How does it read?

Already I can tell it is less decorous than Ann Dunnigan’s, a little rawer in its descriptions of people and their motivations. The French sets a more complete picture of the rarefied circles of Petersburg and its society’s disjuncture from the Russian language and culture. Pierre is described not as “stout” but quite frankly as a “massive, fat young man,” and continuing descriptions make him sound almost Hagridesque, not quite our romantic hero that other versions try to conjure up. It’s much easier to see/understand Anna Pavlovna’s panic when this uncouth young person begins to argue with one of her star guests.

In the introduction, one of the translators discusses how other translations smooth out Tolstoy’s distinctive repetitiveness, i.e., he’ll use the same word over and over in one paragraph. This trait has already popped up, and the effect is rather startling, because it deliberately draws attention to the scene.

All in all, I think it’s going to be a good read. I’m starting over at the beginning, so you’ll be spared any summaries for a while.

War & Peace, ch. 15 (Part 1) – ch. 6 (Part 2)

A word about names. One of the things that used to drive me nuts about Russian novels, and I went through a heavy Tolstoy/Dostoevky phase way back when, was trying to figure out who was who. Everyone had so many names; they were called so many things!

Everyone has a given name: Pyotr, Natalya, Andrei. In addition, they have their patronym, their father’s name, plus -ovich (“son of”) for men and -evna/ovna (“daughter of”) for women. The elder Prince Bolkonsky’s name is Nikolai, so Andrei’s middle name is Nikolayevich.

You would call a friend by both their given name and their patronym, i.e., Andrei Nikolayevich, and amongst the boys, you might use their patronym alone.

Last names are usually inflected, i.e. Bolkonsky for the men and Bolkonskaya for the women. You will see that Anna Karenina’s husband’s name was actually Karenin.

To make matters worse, in War & Peace, most of our character speak French as their first language, so our main characters are often Pierre, Natalie, and André. (Pierre is rarely referred to as anything else, except when he’s being spoken to by older characters.)

Then there are the diminutives, the nicknames. Natalya/Natalie/Natasha/Tasha are all the same person. Andrei’s sister Marya (Marie/Masha) calls him Andryusha, though no one else does.

And all of this depends who’s doing the talking. In one scene, Andrei can be called or referred to as Prince, Bolkonsky, the Prince, Prince Bolkonsky, Andrei, Andrei Nikolayevich, and Nikolayevich. Not to mention Your Excellency or Excellency.

This is why it’s handy to have a list of the characters handy. Trying to remember who Anna Mikhailovna is (Princess Drubetskaya, widowed mother of Boris Drubetskoy) can be trying indeed.

There is much skulduggery afoot at Count Bezukhov’s house. As the old man lies dying, all the forces in search of his fortune make their move. Apparently there is a recent will naming Pierre as the heir, which ordinarily would be meaningless since Pierre is illegitimate.

However, the Count has written a letter to the Emperor Alexander, asking him to confer legitimacy on Pierre. (The Emperor would do this without hesitating because Kiril Vladimirovich was a big big deal in the court of Catherine, aka The Great.) This would make the will enforceable. Prince Vasiliy finally gets the oldest Malmontov cousin to realize that they will inherit nothing if that letter is not destroyed.

Anna Mikhailovna, in the meantime, drags Pierre from the name day party at the Rostovs back to his dying father’s house. Apparently it was she who got Count Bezukhov to change his will in the first place, and she skillfully engineers Pierre’s presence. She even engages in a literal tug of war over the portfolio containing the letter, just long enough for the old man to kick off.

These scenes are remarkable because we get the full picture of a dark house, full of people who have gathered for this man’s death, none of them because they love him and are sorry at his passing. Many are curious bystanders; there is some clergy; and then the loving family members whose nerves are stretched to the breaking point as they try to cement their inheritance. They all know what the others are up to, and they strive mightily to prevail, all while trying to maintain a facade of civility in front of the outsiders.

In the midst of all this tension, Pierre is serene and clueless. People say and do things that puzzle him (although we are fully in the loop) and he simply acquiesces to their bizarre requests without understanding a thing that’s going on.

In the first of many such scenes, Pierre simply decides to give himself over to these outer forces, that things clearly are “meant to be.” This becomes a major theme for Tolstoy, the question of whether we can actually affect/effect our destiny. He thinks not, on the whole.


Bald Hills is the Bolkonsky estate, some 200 miles west of Moscow. (Think Bald Hills = Tara, only without the emotional attachment to the place. And the armies are heading the other way, toward the city. But I get ahead of myself.) Andrei is bringing Lisa there to stay for the remainder of her pregnancy. He’s off to war with General Kutuzov.

Prince Nikolai is crusty, and a bit eccentric, but not really cruel. (He was a big big deal in the court of Paul, but has been living in exile from the capitals for many years.) His daughter Marya is a religious girl. Hers is a difficult character for me. I cannot see her as anything but a mealy-mouthed wimp, but surely Tolstoy saw her as one of the preeminently sane ones? I can’t tell.

Still, she hits the nail on the head when she chides Andrei for abandoning his wife there: Lisa is a city girl, raised in Society, and how dreadful it must be for her to be dumped in such a far away place with such odd, non-sophisticated people. Doesn’t matter: Andrei’s gone in little more than 24 hours after arriving.

I love the scene between Andrei and his father when he says goodbye. Prince Nikolai is very upset and cannot force himself to conceal his distress, even though he’s actually supportive of Andrei’s decision. Like many of us, he converts that anxiety into anger and takes it out on everyone else. He stalks into the front hall and glares at Marya and Lisa, who has fainted. “Is he gone?” he snarls. “Good!” And slams the door.

Thus ends Part 1.

Part 1 was Peace. Part 2 is War. We are in Austria, watching the Russian army assemble, waiting for the Austrian army to defeat Napoleon. In the first six chapters, we see Andrei, Nikolai Rostov, and Dolokhov (a companion of Pierre’s demoted for his role in the drunken shenanigans in Petersburg, they tied a policeman to the back of a bear and threw them both in the Neva), all in their new surroundings. They’re all getting on with it, eager for combat to begin.

Andrei in particular is a new man, freed from what he sees as a stifling society existence and a millstone of a wife. He is an adjutant to General Kutuzov himself, thanks to a letter from his father.

We also meet a whole host of new characters, including Nikolai’s bunkmate, Denisov, who has a speech impediment: “Ah, Wostov, bwing me the bwandy!”

Kutuzov, a wily old coot if there ever was one, is not so eager for comabt. He’s been asked to bring the Russian army on down to join the Austrian General Mack, but he’s stalling. Sure enough, Mack turns up at his headquarters, injured and soundly defeated by Bonaparte. Kutuzov’s hand has been forced: time to move the army.

In these first six chapters, we begin to get an idea of what Tolstoy’s take on war is going to be. The first thing we see is Dolokhov’s regiment scrambling to get ready for a review by Kutuzov himself. The orders were not very clear: did “in marching order” mean the way they arrived, or does the General want dress uniforms? They spend all night getting their dress gear ready, but 30 minutes before the General gets there, an adjutant rides up to double-check and tells them they guessed wrong. For reasons of his own, Kutuzov wants the Austrian commanders to see them bedraggled and foot-weary from their long march.

If in a calm situation no one can transmit orders with any hope of their being reliably understood, what’s going to happen when the cannons are going off and everyone’s being shot at? Doesn’t look good for those who think that history is made by men of genius like Napoleon and Mikhail Ilarionovich.

War & Peace, ch. 7-14

First of all, a grievous miscalculation on my part: it would take a few more than three chapters per day to finish this book in a month. It’s closer to ten, about 45-50 pages a day. I failed to remember, when I checked the number of chapters making up Book I, that each book is divided into Parts. I was actually seeing just the number of chapters in Part 3, not all of Book I.

Still, not an overwhelming task.

The scene shifts back to Moscow and we get to meet the Rostov family. These are nice people, the jolly Count Ilya, his quiet wife, and their children: Nikolai (who’s going into the army); Vera, a bit cold; Natalya, who’s thirteen and whose name day we are celebrating; and Petya, the little boy. There’s also Sophie, their cousin, in total love with Nikolai.

Natasha, who is our third main character, is in love with Boris Drubetskoy, whose mother’s scheming back in chapter 2 has achieved its goal: he’s now an officer and heading out with the army. He returns her love, but insists they wait till she’s sixteen before doing anything about it.

The main topic of gossip in Moscow is Pierre’s behavior in Petersburg, which has gotten him exiled to Moscow, and the impending death of his father, Count Kiril Bezukhov. It seems that the direct heir to Kiril Vladimirovich’s fortune is none other than Prince Vasily Kuragin, who has come down from Petersburg to watch the old man die himself and to make sure the old fool doesn’t leave his fortune to the bastard Pierre.

Tolstoy now gives us a lesson on money: even though he describes the Rostovs as Princess Drubetskaya’s “rich relatives,” it’s clear by the end of chapter 14 that they are not as flush as they might be, portending problems for their children’s marriage prospects, and remember that both Nikolai and Natasha are in love with people poorer than themselves.

And around Count Bezukhov’s deathbed are gathering some pretty voracious vultures: Prince Vasily; three nieces who are unmarried and clearly nursing their uncle for a hoped-for inheritance; Princess Drubetskaya, who drags Boris from the Rostovs to the Count’s house (the Count is Boris’s godfather) and who immediately attaches herself to the dying man like a pious leech.

The only one unconcerned about the Bezuhkhov fortune (forty thousand serfs and millions!) is Pierre, who has been refused admittance to his father’s sickroom by his female cousins.

The Rostovs also lack a sense of appreciation for money. Princess Drubetskaya has told the Countess that she needs 500 rubles to pay for Boris’s uniform and doesn’t know where she’s going to get it. That’s the main reason she goes to pay her respects to Count Kiril Vladimirovich. But as soon as she’s gone, the Countess calls in her husband and fretfully asks for the sum. He doesn’t even ask what it’s for; he calls for his manager and instructs him to bring the money, “in nice new, clean notes,” to his mistress. It’s clear from the manager that the money is not really available, but he does it anyway.

When Anna Mikhailovna returns, the Countess forces the money on her, and they both cry:

They wept because they were friends, because they were both kindhearted, because, having been friends from childhood, they should now be concerned with anything so base as money, and because their youth was over… But their tears gave them both pleasure.

I find passages like this incredible, because Tolstoy taps into the emotional currents so directly and honestly, and yet there’s always that undercurrent of the omniscient narrator telling us not to fall too deeply into that river. These women are indulging themselves. We know that Anna Mikhailovna, for example, is not exactly kindhearted, and we know, or should feel some foreboding, that being unconcerned with “anything so base as money” is bound to be a problem sooner or later. If this were Dickens, both these women would be in the poorhouse by Book III.

Of course, if this were Dickens, he’d have us laughing our heads off at this scene.