So you read a chapter and think “that one was great”, but then he comes along and just outdoes himself. I would use the phrase “the words leap off the page”, but that’s kind of trite and doesn’t really cut it. It’s more you step through and into the world where the feelings are so deep, and moments passing by are juiced for all their flavor. I almost can’t sit still and feel like laughing when I’m reading a chapter like this one. It’s the simple things – food, music, friendship, laughter – and Tolstoy serves them up in such a way that I can’t help being pulled in. Who hasn’t had that perfect food, or a moment of such joy and satisfaction.
It turns out that this man is their uncle, but an eccentric who lives alone in what seems like a lodge. He has servants, and a housemaid, Anyisa Fyodorovna. Natasha and Nikolai first balk somewhat in the surroundings, but then are captivated by Anyisa’s wonderful food, the music of the balalaika, and their uncle. There’s also a Russian essentialism running through it, that Natasha, though half French, can dance like a Russian because its in her soul. Underneath it politically I’m sure is the love for the peasant, the Russian, the nationalism that was sweeping the world in the 19th century, especially at that time (or I could be reading that into it). Tolstoy doesn’t feel completely on the side of the monarchy, and seems to be looking for some essential way of living underneath. But that’s not for here and now. The writing is just wonderful, and here are some of my favorite passages:
“Natasha ate everything, and it seemed to her that she had never seen or tasted anywhere such buttermilk flat cakes, preserves, so fragrant, such nuts in honey, or such a chicken….Natasha, her eyes shining, sat straight backed on the sofa, listening to them. She tried several times to wake up Petya and give him something to eat, but he mumbled incomprehensibly, evidently without waking up.”
“At once, in time with that sober merriment (the same that was breathed out my Anisya Fyodorovna’s whole being), the tune of the song began to sing the souls of Nikolai and Natasha. The uncle continuted to pick out the song, clearly, assiduously, and with energetic firmness, gazing with an altered, inspired gaze at the place Anisya Fyodorovna had left. Something laughed slightly in his face, on one side, under his gray mustache, and it laughed especially when, as the song got going, the tempo quickened and in running passages there would be a sudden break.”
“Natasha threw off the kerchief she had wrapped around her, ran and placed herself in front of her uncle and, arms akimbo, made a movement with her shoulders and stopped.
Where, how, and when had this little countess, brought up by and émigré Frenchwoman, sucked this spirit in from the Russian air she breathed, shwere had she gotten these ways, which should have long been supplanted by the pas de châle? Yet that spirit and those ways where those very inimitable, unstudied Russian ones which the uncle expected of her….She did it exactly right, and so precisely, so perfectdly, that Anisya Fyodorovna, who at once handed Natasha the kerchief she needed for it, wept through her laughter, looking at this slender, graceful countess, brought up in silk and velvet, so foreign to her, who was able to understand everything that was in Anisy and Anisya’s father, and in her aunt, and in her mother, and in every Russian.”
“What did Nikolai’s smile mean, when he said ‘He’s already been chosen’? Is he glad of it or not? He seems to be thinking that my Bolkonsky wouldn’t approve of, wouldn’t understand this joy of ours. No, he’d understand everything. Where’ is he now?” though Natasha, and her face suddenly became serious. But that lasted only a second. “Don’t think, don’t dare think of it,” she said to herself…”
I love that. I love that she just cuts it off, doesn’t go there. In the carriage, she and Nikolai laugh, and she says she’ll never be as happy as she is now. He tells her to be quiet, that’s not right, and each in their thoughts is thinking how wonderful the other one is. Nikolai, of course, is wondering why she has to get married and take herself away. She’s just thinking how dear he is. There’s a light on at home. Is it foreboding? I don’t know, but the chapter is warm, and lovely.
2 months ago