Sunday, January 31, 2010

Volume 1, Book 1, Chapter VI

Okay, it's starting to get going.

Andrei and Pierre are speaking, and the Princess walks in. She starts berating Andrei for wanting to leave, and then starts speaking tearfully about how awful he is, at which point Andrei signals somehow that she's gone too far. And then she gets scared, pretends everything is okay, and leaves. Andrei tells Pierre that he should never get married, as it will ruin everything and be a disappointment. Andrei feels his prospects are gone and he's stuck in this awful society he hates, like a lapdog. Pierre is shocked, as he has been looking up to Andrei this whole time, since he needs a role model. And he calls himself a bastard, which he is. Andrei just tells him to cool down and not to go to Kuragin's (Prince Vassily's son, Anatole, who is a reprobate and carouser, and who Anna is plotting to marry of to Andrei's sister {sounds like that's not going to happen}). He chides Pierre for spending so much time on wine and women, especially those kind of women. Pierre gives him his word.

Poor Pierre, just comparing himself to Andrei, found himself wanting, and then being told by Andrei that his life is horrible. From the thing with Andrei and the Princess, I have a feeling he may be a little mean. If not a lot.

Pierre leaves, it's late, and he decides to go to Kulagin's anyway. But at once, as happens with so-called characterless people, he desired so passionately to experience again that dissolute life to so familiar to him, that he decided to go.

If I had a nickel. Really. I must have no character.

So Pierre is confused, since he gave his word of honor to Anatole, too, that he would be there, and then just rationalizes going with that old chestnut "you might die the next day or something extraordinary might happen to you that there would no longer be either honor or dishonor." Turns out Pierre reasons like that a lot. Probably will be important later.

Once there, there are some guys baiting a bear in one of the rooms, and Anatole immediately sees Pierre and makes him drink to be as drunk as everyone else. In that room we meet Dolokhov. I figure if Tolstoy spends a a paragraph describing him, then he's important. He's Anatole's drinking buddy, and lives with him. Not very tall, blue eyes, about 25. Tolstoy spends a lot of time describing his mouth. Actually, earlier there was a lot about the Princess' trembling moustache, and her lips - maybe T has a thing for mouths? I guess you can tell a lot? He and Anatole are " the world of Petersburg scapegraces and carousers". Fun word - scapegrace. T calls his gaze "firm, insolent, intelligent" and that it was impossible not to notice his face. Interesting we don't get a description of Anatole except that he's wearing a shirt exposing his chest.

Anyhow, Dolokhov always wins a bet, is dangerous, and at the moment he's betting an Englishman that he can sit in a sloped window with no hands on the third story (with only cement underneath), and drink an entire bottle of rum. Someone with some kind of sense tries to stop him, but he doesn't. And you kind of now, since there was a whole paragraph and the mouth description, that he must live. Still tense, though. And then you think, how many idiots have died in useless deaths like that trying to prove something while they're drunk. I bet it's a good number. Anyway - Dolokhov manages to win, and then Pierre wants to do it as well. Everyone thinks that's a bad idea, since he can't hold his liquor and is easily dizzy, so Anatole suggests they go to ***, and Pierre is excited and dances with the bear.

That must have been a small bear. I'm assuming ***, means a place where there is women and wine, as in "*** are legal in Nevada, but no where else." Or "I just love that musical Best Little *** in Texas." That's my guess.

And that must be a small bear. Or Pierre is really large.

So this is Petersburg, big city, I guess. You get a sense that it's kind of not that large. And that there is really not a lot to do.


Princess B - sad, pregnant
Andrei B - stifled
Vassily, Anna - political
Helene - ethereal
Ippolit - in love with Princess, but doofus-y (I'm thinking Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil Vyse in Room with a View)
Pierre - young, fat, confused, drunk, dancing with bear
Dolokhov - drunk, not to be messed with
Anatole - drunk

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Volume 1, Book 1, Chapter V

Wow, reading some of the notes on the things he did makes one think that Napoleon--not such a nice guy.

So, all the guests are leaving Anna's soiree, including Pierre, who is described as "..clumsy. Fat, unusually tall, broad, with enormous red hands..". Most of the focus is on Prince Ippolit (who I didn't realize was Vassily's son and Helene's brother, and not the brother of Princess Bolkonsky) and Princess Bolkonsky's flirting. Her husband seems especially tired and annoyed with her, and she and Ippolit have a converstaion with lowered voices in which he compliments her and puts on her shawl, hovering for a moment on her shoulders. Her husband Andrei's eyes are closed, in seeming annoyance.

Ippolit and the Viscount share a few words in French, as evidently Ippolit has told him about his crush on her. The Viscount calls Andrei an"officer who gives himself airs of a reigning prince."

Meanwhile, we're back at Andrei's place, and Pierre has come by and made himself comfortable. Andrei is encouraging him to find a career, and his father has been waiting supporting him in Petersburg for 3 months already while he tries to figure it out. Pierre mentions something about the Abbe being a mason (I mention since the notes suggest Masonry is important to Pierre later in the book). Pierre says he doesn't want to go to war, since it's just a war of two countries against Napoleon, whom he calls "The greatest man in the world", and not a war for freedom. Andrei thinks all wars being for freedom is a naive idea and says he's going to war anyway, since the life he leads is not for him. Which means he's leaving his pregnant wife to go fight.

It's interesting that Tolstoy lets us know who to root for right up front. The characters are complex, but it feels clear that we should be rooting for Andrei and Pierre, unsure about Vassily but basically like him, be enchanted by Helene, think Ippolit and the Viscount are not good and Princess Bolkonsky is annoying. I'll see if that holds up.

I can see how this was serialized.

And I wish his name wasn't Ippolit. Hippolyt, the French version, isn't much better, and it all reminds me of Hippolyta from Midsummer Night's Dream, which is odd. Maybe I'll start calling him Ipp.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Volume 1, Book 1, Chapter IV

So, even though this is after midnight it's still the same day. Unexpectedly, someone at work who was very kind gave me two tickets to Eddie Izzard she couldn't use. He was brilliant, but it didn't end until 11, and then we took the train back to my car, and so now it's after midnight. But I'm back dating it by half an hour, just cuz.

And I'm tired.

So this one's quick.

An older woman, who was sitting with Anna P's aunt who Tolstoy cleverly calls ma tante as if she's everyone's aunt, gets up to convince Prince Vassily to intercede on behalf of her son.

Then, there is an argument about Napoleon, with Anna P and the Viscount coming down against him, and Andrei (Prince Bolkonsky) and Pierre on his side. With Andrei it's a little confusing, since he just quotes Napoleon a few times, so you're unsure where he stands. It's clear, though, they're the only two who like him. Everyone is seemingly shocked that anyone could say anything in Napoleon's defense, but the tension is broken when Ippolit decides to tell a joke in Russian. HE supposedly tells it in a French accent and has difficulty with the language, so the translators write dialect, "she is very stingee. She must 'ave...", etc.

The story makes no sense and is not funny to anyone, but serves to break up the political talk.

Still confused why Ippolit is not Russian, but I think the Princess must be French and he's her brother.

And in 1805, barely 15 years after the revolution, you can see why any nobility would be freaked out at anyone who didn't just restore the throne.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Volume 1, Book I, Chapter III

We're still at Anna Pavlovna's party.

We meet Princess Helène, who is Vasilly's daughter, and beautiful. The descriptions of her are wonderful, including her own self-conciousness at how beautiful she is, managing to both try and fail to apologize for her beauty and be charmed by herself at the same time. There's an entire paragraph about her paying attention to herself while the viscount tells a story about Napoleon and a man he killed who supposedly shared a lover with him, Mlle George.

The conversation had broken into three groups, so Anna P tries to pull everyone together to listen to the story. Not to be outdone, Princess Bolkonsky comes over to sit and says "Now I feel good" to no one in particular while seating herself.
We're introduced to Ippolit (Hippolyte), the sister of Princess Bolkinsly, who looks just like her but is unattractive and annoyed, and annoying it seems. He was wearing "Trousers the color of cuisse de nymph efrayée (thigh of frightened nymph), as he said himself," which just sounds damning.

Pierre, meanwhile, who frightens our hostess has managed to strike up a too loud conversation with the Abbe Morio about politics. Anna runs over to attempt to steer the conversation away from anything too vehement, and then Andrei Bolkonsky arrives. He is the husband of the Pregnant Princess who sews, and is seemingly annoyed by everyone, but most of all by his wife.

He knows, and is excited to run into unexpectedly, Pierre of all people. Huh.
Vassily leaves for the party at the Ambassador's with Helène, who frightens Pierre with her beauty.

On the way out, Prince Vassily asks Anna to educate Pierre since he's been living with him for a month but needs the company of intelligent women.

Once again, loved the descriptions of the people. You get such a clear sense of character immediately. His description of Helène and her self-consciousness is funny, her paying attention to her arm, her chest, her dress while others are speaking and then mimicking their reaction tells you all you need to know. Or that Hippolyte is ridiculous because he wears a lorgnette, and says in French "I hope it's not a ghost story. I detest ghost stories". And he wears green trousers. That can't be good. Of course, the precarious balance of society and how close everyone had to be aware of what to say and how to act must have been exhausting. And it's clear, when Andrei walks in and is sick of everyone, how small the society must have been.

And I have a feeling Andrei will be very important.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Volume 1, Book I, Chapter II

Still Petersburg. Still 1805. Still Anna Pavlovna's salon.

Guests are entering. We get a few names, and then light on the young Princess Bolkonskaya, the “most seductive woman in Petersburg”, who is knocked up. Newlywed. She can’t show her pregnant self at the “high society” parties (italics sic), but can go to smaller soirees like this one. She charms everyone there, and Tolstoy describes her as having a faint moustache, and not enough upper lip to cover her teeth. It is the way of the most beautiful women that it’s precisely these flaws that make her so irresistible. She makes all the men feel better about themselves by her mere presence, and takes a moment to sit by the piano and tell everyone that she’s brought her needlework. She comes off as a little insipid to me, but it’s early. I actually thought of this painting, of the Countess Daru by Jacques-Louis David, from the Frick, which a woman I knew who is a PhD from NYU in art history called lovingly “Countess Goober”, since she looks a little goober-y.

There certainly are a lot of Countess paintings at the Frick. I like this Ingres the best (Portrait of Countess D'Haussonville. 1845).

Maybe I can picture some of these people in it.

Here’s one of Tsar Nicholas. Just to get something Russian in my head.

As a kid I used to wish my last name was Romanov. And Nicholas. But without being a hemophiliac. It’s true.

Actually, I’ve been trying to imaginarily cast in my head, which always helps reading. Anna P, I’m thinking, is someone like Sophie Thompson in Persuasion. I’m thinking busybody and a bit of a hypochondriac. Harriet Walters, maybe or Miranda Richardson.

Mon dieu, they speak a lot of French in this. I took about 6 years of it, and I’m actually surprised how much I understand. “Woohoo!” I keep saying to myself when the footnotes confirm I’m understanding. Also, reading it in French and English really changes the way I’m hearing the conversation. I love it. I guess, from a friend’s facebook posting, that Russian nobles of this period all spoke French. And hated Napoleon. The book opens with Anna P calling him the Antichrist

Napoleon Buonaparte, the Antichrist. By Ingres.

So, after we walk away from the mustachioed charm of Princess Bolkonskaya, some guy named Pierre enters and makes Anna P nervous. Qui est ce Pierre? He’s the son of a courtesan, and it’s his first party in Petersburg. He’s large and ungainly, doughy, and blond I pictured. Ken Howard, maybe. A young version. Seth Rogen? He’s awkward conversationally, and we’re told he engages a lady when she needs to leave, but also walked away from one when she is speaking. Shorthand is that he’s socially tin-eared. Something about him makes Anna P nervous, and it’s not only that he’s larger physically than everyone there, but that he doesn’t know what to say about what to whom and when. Her nervousness is mentioned a couple of times.

There are, apparently, many rules.

Just as the chapter ends, he is walking up to the Abbe Morio, whose plan for “perpetual peace” he has just poo-pooed to Anna P while talking her ear off (see above). What’s he going to say?!?

A note here that I’m liking this one chapter day thing. This one was only 3 pages long, which meant that while I was eating my lunch I read it 2 or 3 times, and read some passages over. Getting a good sense from it, and the conversational tone of the author.

Also, I looked up the lineage of the Russian Royal family, and what things like Empress, Empress Dowager, and Empress consort are. You can read it yourself, but suffice it to say in 1805 we’re under

Alexander I

He looks a little blonde and doughy to me, actually. There are rumors he may have had something to do with the death of his father, Tsar Paul I.

His wife was Empress Elizabeth (Empress Consort-confusing, but her mother-in-law, the Dowager Empress, had more power).

I swear I took Russian history at some point. I must’ve dropped it, since I can’t remember thing one.

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Volume 1, Book One, Chapter One: 1805

Oh, boy, what did I get myself into?

It’s 1805.

This is all exposition. Luckily I have an annotated version, with not only translations of the languages, but notes on who is being referenced and what the political background is.

From what I can tell, Napoleon is upsetting Anna Pavlovna (a maid of honor to the Empress, 40), and she is talking about it to Prince Vasili (a Prince [there seem to be many, unrelated], and a little older). We find out that he has a good-for-nothing son, Anatole, as well, who Anna Pavlovna is working on setting up with the rich daughter of Prince Bolkonsky. Here invitation for the evening being set up is funny, in French or otherwise, to the effect of “my husband and I would love your company if it doesn’t bother you too much to hang out with a sick lady. Regrets only.” Vasili is her first visitor, stopping on the way to another party at the English Ambassador’s. Nineteenth century – a lot of house visiting going on.

The chapter begins in French, and a good deal of the dialogue is in French as well. It’s interesting in the online version just dispenses with that, and it really loses the comedy of the whole thing and the richness of the characters. He’s weary, and she’s a busybody, and somehow switching back and forth from French just magnifies it. My French isn’t great, but I have a feeling if this continues it’s going to improve. I am liking this translation a lot from what I can see of the alternatives.

Can I say again how glad I am to have an annotated version? Political intrigue leading up to the War of 1812 is not my specialty (read: complete ignorance except that Napoleon lost) so it’s helpful to have the notes and explanations. I also love that there are so many footnotes on each page because of the French translations that they have to go through as many as 8 symbols. I think there’s a hierarchy, and I’ve never seen a # sign before. It’s like *, **, †, ††, §, #.


I’m learning so much already. And the characters are clear, which is great. Not physically, they’re not described that way much, but definitely their character.

Even though it’s a little lumbering, I do think having all the info makes it a richer experience. And maybe only reading 4 pages a day, too.

Monday, January 25, 2010


I'm reading ths Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsy tranlsation, which I'm excited about. I just read the intro. Bits on history, and Tolstoy's personal history. A little daunting, I think.

I was most intrigued by the comparison of the translations and their respect of Tolstoy's repetitions, which I guess a lot of people revise in translations. Pevear in his introduction gives several examples, the most succinct of which is the translation of the sentence "Kápli kápali", which literally means "Drops dripped." He said it has been translated as "The branches dripped" or "The trees were dripping" instead of just going for the exact simplicity of the original. Reading the few sentences of the night scene that phrase is a part of, I was struck by the onomatopoeia of the language. I don't speak Russian, of course, but the sounds are there. It reminds me of once in synagogue someone telling me that reading the book of Ruth in Hebrew is to hear the wind through the grain in the field. Something is always lost in translation, but I think in this case I'm in good hands. And there's also French and German, so that should be fun. Thank g-d for footnotes

And the Russian names. But I thought the names in Chekhov were a mite confusing when I first read them, and now I know them very well. Though this one has over 60 characters and they all have nicknames!

First word to look up from the intro: chiasmus, which is one of the rhetorical devices that Tolstoy uses. What is it?

"a reversal in the order of words in two otherwise parallel phrases, as in “He went to the country, to the town went she."

Huh. You hear it all the time in fairy tales, right? Learn something new every day.


I posted over at Criticlasm my reason for undertaking this, inspired by "The Last Station" and a desire to read a book that people have loved for over a century. So, here's my one chapter a day reading of "War and Peace".

And since it has 365 chapters, well, that's an invitation to something like this.

Chapter a day, I am hoping, rain or shine. Even if it's only to say "wow, they's a lotta guns and fighting in the nineteenth century".

Hopefully, I'll have something more to say than that. Will I do the blogger confessional thing and write about analogous things in my life? Who knows.

All I can do is read and put down my impressions. I'm looking at a nice round date, like February 1st. Or maybe, I'll just start. Yes, that's better. No time like the present.

And what I love about blogs is that I could read a few chapters at once, and then post date them! Oy, that's probably not in the spirit of the exercise. I'll aim for an entry a day.

One chapter a day, one day at a time. Bedtime reading and writing.