Sunday, February 14, 2010

Volume 1, Book I, Chapter XX

Tolstoy has such a masterful grasp of the richness of comedy in inopportune moments, or perhaps of how ridiculous moments can happen even when things are the most grave.

Pierre is brought into his father's room. His father is being given last rites in a chair on the other side of the room from his bed. He's in an armchair, and the priests are solemnly intoning. Hysterically, an old servant is reaching around the side of the armchair to hold the candle to look like Count Bezukhov is holding it. The two princesses, Catiche, and Vassily are there as well. The description of Vassily is great, going along with the earlier descriptions of his dry, uninterested tone: "His face expressed calm piety and submission to the will of God. "If you don't understand these feelings, the worse for you," his face seemed to say. Nothing more is needed to describe his superciliousness. Pierre bumbles and crosses himself with the hand holding the candle and the young princess giggles behind her handkerchief.

Pierre notices Catiche and Vassily go to the bed, and then leave through a rear door and come back. (I hope they don't get the papers! This is nerve-wracking!) Bezukhov must be carried back to his bed, and Anna helps with that. Pierre watches him, and we are told that he has leonine gray hair, a handsome sensual mouth and wide brow, majestic gaze which are not disfigured by the proximity of death, but he is helpless as his head lolls while he is carried. T really does have a thing with mouths. It's a descriptor go-to.

Another comic moment, as Pierre tries to figure out what to do next. Looking at Anna, who motions for him to kiss his father's hand, then sit in a chair, he continually needs her to tell him what to do. There's a great moment when the Count looks right at him, and either this gaze said nothing at all...or it said all too much. Pierre has not clue how to take it. His silent entreaties and her silent instruction are comic. I can imagine them being played for laughs if acted out. He's so sincere, and so lost. T says he sits and "again assumed the symmetrically naive pose of an Egyptian statue, evidently regretting that is clumsy and fat body took up so much space, and applying all his inner forces to making himself seem as small as possible." Poor Pierre - you really hope he gets comfortable some day.

Then Pierre must help turn him over, as the servant knows that's what he's asking for. While doing so, one arms dangles helplessly, and they are both surprised. The Count "looked at the disobedient arm, at the expression of horror on Pierre's face, at the arm again, and on his face there appeared - so incongruous with his features - a faint, suffering smile, as if expressing mockery at his own strengthless-ness. Unexpectedly, at the sight of this smile, Pierre felt a shuddering in his breast, a tickling in his now, and tears blurred his vision."

So not maudlin or sentimental. In the midst of this intrigue, jostling for money and position, hard feelings, self-conscious fake piety, bumbling moving a nearly-dead man, out pops this unexpected human moment between father and son. Acknowledgment of humanity and the ridiculousness and helplessness of the situation. Just beautiful.

This Tolstoy guy can really write, huh?

1 comment:

  1. Nifty! It looks like I'm starting a re-read of Magic Mountain. I'd say that I'd race you, but my quest for a Ph.D. might get in the way, so I'll live vicariously.