Sunday, May 30, 2010

Week Three Bite-Sized Recap

Corset, 1891, Maison Léoty (French, late 19th century), Silk, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I plan to post on one of the major themes of our reading this week -- sex -- a little later, but for now, here's a brief recap of some of the major events from pages 152 to 228:
- Andrei spends time with Bilibin, who lived, sadly, long before the advent of Twitter, for which his penchant for annoying bon mots seems particularly suited (154)

-- Andrei has dreams of glorious battlefield exploits before falling asleep, and revels in his memories of his valor

-- Andrei has a brief and pointless meeting with Emperor Franz of Austria, where "[t]he emperor spoke with such an expression as if his whole goal consisted in asking a certain number of questions. The replies to these questions, as was only too clear, were of no interest to him." (160)

-- Andrei learns that Napoleon has fooled the Austrians and is heading for Brunn. (164-65)

-- Russian General Kutozov fools French General Murat with a fake truce to buy himself time to reinforce his troops. Napoleon learns of the ruse and sends Murat a very displeased letter: "Il m'est impossible de trouver des termes pour vous exprimer mon mécontement." (171-72) (Don't most letters written in French start with this sentence?)

-- More battle scenes, which I found, frankly, to be a little confusing. All these random people! Perhaps the overwhelming number of characters and details are part of the point, to demonstrate the noise, chaos, and crush of news and words and decisions of the battlefield.

-- Andrei experiences more "great happiness" going into battle with Bagration. (185) War is apparently a form of therapy and self-expression for Andrei.

-- Fascinating scene with Nikolai Rostov after he is shot down off his horse, sees the French troops coming to get him, and can't believe his eyes: "'Who are they? Why are they running? Can it be they're running to me? Can it be? And why? To kill me? Me, whom everybody loves so?' He remembered his mother's love for him, his family's, his friends', and the enemy's intention to kill him seemed impossible." (189) This scene struck me as very true; I can imagine that if some enemy troops were coming to kill me with their bayonets, similar thoughts would run through my mind.

-- The scene shifts back to Moscow, where Prince Vassily is drawn as an unconscious, instinctive climber and schemer. (201) He is leeching off Pierre, who is now rich and overwhelmed with social duties and obligations, but is starting to believe that there is something special about him, given all the fawning attention he is receiving, something beyond his vast wealth.

-- Prince Vassily, with the help of Anna Pavlovna, arranges for Pierre to fall for his beautiful daughter Helene. At one of the soirees Pierre is forced to attend, Helene, wearing a "gown in the fashion of the time, quite open in front and back," thrusts her body into Pierre's face, and the effect on him is permanent: "he saw and sensed all the loveliness of her body, which was merely covered by clothes. And once he had seen it, he could not see otherwise ...." (206)

-- In short order, without much say from Pierre or Helene, who mostly just sit next to each other at the endless parties, Pierre is "married and settled down, ... the happy possessor of a beautiful wife and millions of roubles, in the big, newly done-over house of the counts Bezukhov in Petersburg." (214) But Tolstoy is not overly subtle in larding these scenes with Pierre's doubts about Helene, his conflicted feelings about her beauty and his own lust, and his own sense that the marriage he is being railroaded into might not be a good idea. But in the end, he's won over by what Tolstoy later refers to as "animal feelings," "silently [holding] his fiancee's hand and looking at her beautiful breast rising and falling." (Ibid.)

-- The scene then shifts to the Bald Hills estate of Nikolai Andrich Bolkonsky, where Prince Vasilly, not done with his matchmaking, has announced by letter his intention to visit with his son Anatole. (215) Grumpy old Prince Nikolai snorts and harrumphs a lot in these scenes. He's not impressed by the empty babbling of Prince Vasilly, and doesn't expect to be impressed by his son. And he's upset because he expects the point of the trip is to propose a match between Anatole and Prince Nikolai's plain daughter Marya. Prince Nikolai is, of course, loathe to let go of Marya, who is the center of his existence at Bald Hills.

-- Anatole is introduced to Marya, whose plainness is exacerbated by a poor choice of hairstyle by her sister-in-law. But Anatole, who we're told is foppish and possibly slept with his sister Helene (now Pierre's wife), is more interested in Mlle Bourienne, who nurses her own fantasy about finding "a Russian prince who would at once be able to appreciate her superiority over the plain, badly dressed, awkward Russian princesses, would fall in love with her and carry her off ...." (226) Anatole is fully aware of his effect on Mlle Bourienne, Marya, and Liza. He thinks to himself that Marya is frightfully ugly, but is intrigued by Mlle Bourienee: "he was beginning to experience for the pretty and provocative Bourienne that passionate animal feeling which came over him with extraordinary quickness and urged him towards the most coarse and bold action." (227) The suggestion is, I believe, that Anatole, in thrall to "animal feeling," had taken such "coarse and bold action" with his sister Helene, as the rumors that Pierre frets about hint at.
Okay, so the "brief" recap got a little out of hand. I'll be working on the sex-themed post shortly. Let me know if I've left out any important bits from this week's reading.

More on Page Targets and Other Editions

Welcome, new participants! The size of the group reading W&P together this summer continues to grow. We're not quite sure of the size of the group, but people keep jumping in. If you're thinking about joining, you should definitely do it. You have all summer to finish the book. And let me know if you'd like to join the blog as a co-author so you can put up scintillating posts like this one.

We've had some additional requests for guidance as to our reading schedule, as many of our participants are reading versions other than the Pevear and Volokhonsky edition to which the page targets in the sidebar here are set. (Also see the Table of Contents from the P&V edition in the sidebar.)

Here's a way to determine your reading pace, no matter which version of the book you're reading. First, we plan to finish the book by 9/1/10. So wherever you are in your particular edition, calculate how many pages you have left to finish, divide by the number of weeks left (~13), and that's how many pages per week you need to read. If you want to catch up faster, and be on schedule by the midway point (7/4/10), then calculate how many pages you have left to get to the midway point (in most editions, this is the beginning of Volume III), and divide by 5 (the number of weeks until 7/4/10).

My understanding is that the chapters and chapter parts are set up differently in different editions. To give you a sense of where we are in the P&V edition, by today, we are at the end of Volume I, Part 3, Section IV. By next Sunday, we will be at the end of Volume II, Part 1, Section 1. Drop a comment below if you have any questions.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Week Two Thoughts: War and Peace and Crowds and Power

Chinese National Revolutionary Army troops

After many scenes of dinners, polite (and slightly less polite) conversation, descriptions of desserts, etc., near the end of last week's reading, we finally got to the War side of the WAR AND PEACE equation.

I found the descriptions of the Russian army in Austria in last week's reading to be some of the most compelling of the book so far. There's an immediacy and vividness to these descriptions that jumps through the translation, and across the hundreds of years separating us from the events described.

As I mentioned on the Twitter account last week, many of the descriptions of the Russian army brought to mind Elias Canetti's masterwork, CROWDS & POWER. In that book, Canetti describes the key attributes of crowds as follows:
1. The crowd always wants to grow. There are no natural boundaries to its growth. Where such boundaries have been artificially created . . . an eruption of the crowd is always is always possible and will, in fact, happen from time to time....

2. Within the crowd there is always equality. This is absolute and indisputable and never questioned by the crowd itself. It is of fundamental importance and one might even define a crowd as a state of absolute equality. A head is a head, an arm is an arm, and differences between individual heads and arms are irrelevant. It is for the sake of this equality that people become a crowd and they tend to overlook anything which might detract from it....

3. The crowd loves density. It can never feel too dense. Nothing must stand between its parts or divide them; everything must be the crowd itself....

4. The crowd needs a direction. It is in movement and it moves towards a goal. The direction, which is common to all its members, strengthens the feeling of equality. A goal outside the individual members and common to all of them drives underground all of the private differing goals which are fatal to the crowd as such. Direction is essential for the continuing existence of the crowd. Its constant fear of disintegration means that it will accept any goal. A crowd exists so long as it has an unattained goal.
(CROWDS AND POWER [1962 Transl., Viking Press] at p. 29.)

Demonstrators in Bangkok

These attributes of the crowd that Canetti outlines are startlingly reproduced in Tolstoy's description of the Russian army pouring into Austria.
"You there, brother!" the Cossack said to a supply soldier with a cart, who was pushing through the infantrymen crowded right against his wheels and horses, "you there! As if you can't wait: look, the general needs to pass."

But the supply soldier, paying no heed to the denomination of the general, shouted at the soldiers who blocked his way:

"Hey, countrymen! keep to the left, hold up!"

But the countrymen, pressed shoulder to shoulder, catching on their bayonets and never pausing, moved across the bridge in a solid mass. Looking down over the railing, Prince Nesvitsky saw the swift, noisy, low waves of the Enns, which, merging rippling, and swirling around the pilings of the bridge, drove on one after the other. Looking at the bridge, he saw the same monotonous living waves of soldiers, shoulder braids, shakos with dustcovers, packs, bayonets, long muskets, and under the shakos faces with wide cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and carefree, weary faces, and feet moving over the sticky mud that covered the planks of the bridge. Occasionally, amidst the monotonous waves of soldiers, like a spray of white foam on the waves of the Enns, an officer pushed his way through, in a cape, with his physiognomy distinct from the soldiers'; occasionally, like a chip of wood swirled along by the river, a dismounted hussar, an orderly, or a local inhabitant was borne across the bridge by the waves of infantry; occasionally, like a log floating down the river, a company's or an officer's cart floated across the bridge, surrounded on all sides, loaded to the top, and covered with leather.
(W&P at p.139.)

In this description we see the equalizing force of the crowd, its disregard of distinction, its urge to exceed its boundaries, the density that makes the crowd what it is, and its need to continue in a shared direction. The comparison of the army procession to the Enns River also corresponds to Cannetti's description of crowd symbols, and in particular the symbol of the river: "[W]e may conclude that the river is only a limited crowd symbol and differs in this respect from fire, sea, forest or corn. It it is the symbol of a movement which is still under control, before the eruption and the discharge; it contains the threat of these rather than their actuality." (CROWDS AND POWER at p.84.)

The striking parallels continue as we get snippets of conversation from unnamed members of the passing crowd:
"Look at 'em, it's like a dam burst," the Cossack said, stopping hopelessly. "Are there many of you there?"

"One shy of a million," a merry soldier in a torn greatcoat, passing close by, said with a wink and vanished; after him came another old soldier.

"Once he" (he was the enemy) "starts peppering the bridge," the old soldier said gloomily, addressing his comrade, "you'll forget about scratching yourself."

And the soldier passed by. After him came another soldier on a cart.

"Where the devil did you stuff those foot cloths?" said an orderly, running behind the cart and rummaging in the back.

And this one passed by with the cart.

After him came some merry and apparently tipsy soldiers.

"He just gave it to him, the dear fellow, right in the teeth with his musket butt . . ." one soldier in a high-tucked greatcoat said joyfully, swinging his arm widely.

"That's it, the sweet taste of ham," replied another with a guffaw.

And they passed by, so that Nesvitsky never learned who got it in the teeth and what the ham referred to.
(W&P at p. 140.)

In these snatches of dialogue, and in the refrain of "and this one passed," Tolstoy draws a picture of an endless river of soldiers pouring by, "like a dam burst," the various exclamations and observations of the mass not attributable to any individual in particular, but simply to the crowd. Similarly, the crowd collectively ogles the German women who cross their path: "The eyes of all the soldiers turned to the women, and as the cart went by, moving step by step, all the soldiers' remarks were addressed only to these two women. All the soldiers' faces bore virtually one and the same smile of indecent thoughts about the women." (Ibid.) In the density of the crowd, where the individual is submerged in the mass, responsibility is dissolved, and the crowd often acts together on its basest instincts.

What is the point of all of this? There is certainly something at work here, in the contrast between the intimacies of the drawing room and the torrent of undifferentiated humanity marching toward battle.

The contrast seems to be one between the individuals who inhabit and react to history and the masses of (mostly) organized crowds who do the work of shaping history. The book has alluded to the power of individuals to shape history, especially Napoleon, but Tolstoy also takes care to show us the profane masses tramping through the mud in their disintegrating boots, who provide the force to shape the course of history. War is about numbers, force, losses; as Canetti notes, it is ultimately about crowds of the living and crowds of the dead. The victor is the side that produces a larger crowd of the dead among the enemy.

This is a book largely about a handful of privileged individuals, but it is also a book about the assembled masses that have been pitted against one another in bids to control territory, populations, and the future. As Don DeLillo noted in a different context, "the future belongs to crowds." We'll see how this theme plays out through the rest of the book. Perhaps there's an argument to be made about the role of the crowd in the French Revolution, versus the attempt to control the power of the crowd made by Napoleon, in proclaiming himself Emperor? The French Revolution and Napoleon's reaction to it are the foundational points for this novel. And sitting where we do in history, we have a sense of how the power of the crowd played out in Russia over time.

Bolshevik (1920), by Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiyev

Monday, May 24, 2010

Week Two Super-Fast Recap

I'll post a more extensive Week Two Thoughts item later today, but here is the super-fast recap of things that happened in our Week-Two reading:
- Old Count Bezukhov dies, after a final meeting with Pierre, where Pierre seems confused and detached, and the Count simply moans, points, and then rolls over and fills his bedpan; there's some bickering about his will, Pierre ends up inheriting a massive fortune;

- Scene moves to the Bald Hills estate of Prince Nikolai Andreevich, Andrei's grumpy father; we meet Prince Nikolai, who spends his days in his 19th century mancave, gardening, making snuff boxes, and giving Andrei's sister, Princess Marya, math anxiety;

- Andrei and his pregnant wife Marie arrive in Bald Hills, where Andrei plans to leave Marie as he heads off for some alone time with his bros in Austria; Andrei's dad makes fun of Napoleon and has problems showing affection to his son; religious Marya gives Andrei an icon to protect him as he prepares to head off to the war;

- The scene shifts to Austria, where the Russian troops are occupying Braunau and preparing to meet the French army; we meet a lot of additional characters about whom I haven't decided whether I should care enough to learn their names;

- Nikolai Rostov is friendly to the locals, speaks some German, gets in trouble with a superior he catches stealing someone's money, and generally demonstrates that he's an innocent soul in a dirty world; and

- We get a few excellent scenes of the Russian troops streaming through Austria, ogling some locals, suggestively offering them apples, and wearing out their crappy boots; we see them massing on a hill facing the opposing French troops; the weather seems very nice, and everyone seems merry and thrilled, even as -- especially because? -- French cannonballs begin to fly overhead, not (yet) killing anyone (important).
The Week Two Thoughts item I'll be posting later will focus largely on the last few pages of this week's reading, and on the book's first depictions of war. And did I miss anything big in the comically truncated summary above?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Reading Music

I asked a friend, who is knowledgeable about music (and who is currently too busy to participate in this project), for some suggestions for music to read WAR AND PEACE to. His response:
Prokofiev wrote a whole opera based on the book, you know? .... [Y]our [other] obvious starting points are Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, which commemorates the Battle of Borodino, which features in the book. Then there is if course Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, which he originally dedicated to Napoleon, but which dedication he later withdrew in disgust when Napoleon crowned himself emperor (much like one of the characters in W&P becomes disillusioned with his former hero [Napoleon]).
I can add that, according to Wikipedia, the song "The Gates of Delirium", by Yes, from the album Relayer, was apparently inspired by W&P.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Early Reviews

Tolstoy in 1868, when WAR AND PEACE was released in Russia

Apparently, many of WAR AND PEACE's early readers were not impressed with its opening pages:
Publication of the first part of the book (Chapters I to XXVIII) began in February 1865, and at first even the most indulgent readers were disappointed by the slowness with which the story moved, the plethora of detail, the author's digressions and excessive use of conversation in French. His friend Botkin could scarcely hide his disappointment: "This is only a preface, the background of a picture to come," he said. Borisov told Turgenev, "I think Fet was not impressed by it." And Turgenev, whose verdict Tolstoy was impatiently awaiting, told Borisov in reply, "The thing is positively bad, boring and a failure. . . . All those little details so cleverly noted and presented in baroque style, those psychological remarks which the author digs out of his heroes' armpits and other dark places in the name of verisimilitude -- all that is paltry and trivial, against the broad historical background of a novel. . . . One feels so strongly the writer's lack of imagination and naivete! . . . And who are these young ladies? Some kind of affected Cinderellas . . . ."
(TOLSTOY, by Henri Troyat (1965), p. 295.)

Of course, after the entire six-volume bound edition had come out, after the critics had a chance to complete the entire novel, and after it had become a massive best-seller in Russia, the reception of the book changed entirely. Turgenev, who had been so withering in his criticism of the opening of the book, wrote to his friend Borisov in 1868: "There are passages in it that will live as long as the Russian language." (Id. at 315.)

By the way, I picked up the biography, TOLSTOY, by Henri Troyat, today at the library. Troyat was born in Russia to an Armenian family; they left Russia for France, where Troyat became a successful novelist and biographer, writing acclaimed biographies of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy. Troyat put a tremendous amount of effort into compiling his massive, 773-page biography of Tolstoy -- perhaps in an effort to live up to the effort and discipline Tolstoy himself put into his own masterwork, which, Troyat explains, was originally to be titled THE YEAR 1805:
Tolstoy spent the entire winter of 1863-64 familiarizing himself with the period he wanted to recreate in his book. His father-in-law sent him original source material from Moscow. He himself bought up, pell-mell, an assortment of books on the Napoleonic wars: Mikhailovsky-Danilevsky, Bogdganovich, Zhikarev, Glinka, Davidov Liprandi, Korf, the Documents historiques sur le sejour des Francais a Moscou, en 1812, the Souvenirs de campagne d'un artilleur, the Correspondance diplomatique of Joseph de Maistre, Marmont's Memoirs, Thiers' Histoire du Consulat et de l'Empire, etc. "You can't imagine the difficulties of this preparatory work, plowing the field I shall have to sow," he wrote to Fet toward the end of 1864. "Studying, thinking over everything that might happen to the future heroes of a very big book, devising millions of schemes of all varieties and selecting the millionth part of them, it's terribly hard work."
(Id. at 290.)

While immersing -- perhaps burying -- himself in historical documents and sources, Tolstoy found himself at times struggling to see the forest for the trees and to keep sight of the ultimate purpose of all of this research:
[H]e took advantage of his stay in Moscow to continue his search for source material, pawing through bookshops, borrowing books from Professors Eshevsky and Popov, hounding the Rumyantsev Museum library, obtaining, by special favor, important documents from the palace archives, questioning old people on their reminiscences of 1812. The wealth of material both delighted and alarmed him. He was afraid of drowning under the ocean of detail. He was continually forced to tear himself from historical data and return to his characters. "Napoleon, Alexander, Kutuzov and Talleyrand are not the heroes of my book," he said. "I shall write the story of people living in the most privileged circumstances, with no fear of poverty or constraint, fee people, people who have none of the flaws that are necessary to make a mark on history."
(Id. at 292.)

Troyat's account of Tolstoy's struggle to not get lost in the thicket of historical details he was accumulating reminded me of my own experience in the first few sections of W&P -- of feeling the balance between the particular and the universal that Tolstoy manages. Tolstoy took great pains to vividly recreate a time that was accessible only as history to him in the 1860's. At the same time, the characters he drew, for all of their historical trappings, were ones meant to be universal, to remain recognizable and sympathetic, through the vicissitudes of time. And it is because Tolstoy accomplished this balance with such art and skill that we are all reading this book here in 2010.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Your Hero

Film still from the 1967 Communist Russia adaptation

Now that many of the characters have been introduced, I am wondering where our readers' sympathies lie. A 19th century book, and therefore more plot- than character-driven, it is nevertheless vital that readers in it for the long haul find someone in whom they discover a particular respect, if not outright affection. As The Secretary wrote in the last post, we've been introduced to a multitude of characters and it can be difficult to differentiate the Annas and Nikolays if one's attention wanders or misses a few days' read. As was posted yesterday, we witness them in soirees and feasts and their public face seems to fall in accordance with regiphilia and patriotism. Princes and princesses, they represent the very economic apex of Russian society. What I'm interested is how a 21st century (mostly American) reading audience reacts to their antiquated fetishization of monarchy and relative obliviousness to the big, bad world outside their gilded doors.

I have to say so far my sympathies thus far are with Pierre, though reluctant they are. And though he has operated very much as a counterpoint to the philosophies to his peers and elders, I am willing to imagine his character will be transformed by his coming inheritance. Besides that, it's hard to judge that his viewpoints are anything more than a childish wish to play the Devil's Advocate. Tying up a policeman to a live bear can seem anti-authority if you're generous but it betrays a mischievous immaturity below the worldly facade and declaration of support for Napoleon's egalitarian proclamations.

Anyone else want to share their sympathies thus far...?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Week One Thoughts (pp. 1-76)

Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1806

Once we get over the fact that the book begins with a conversation conducted largely in French, we begin to get acclimated. To tell the truth, I began to worry a little, as I made my way through the first few pages, with talk of marriages, soirees, dinners, etc., that perhaps this wasn't going to be the book for me. Happily, I quickly got past that feeling, as the magic of Tolstoy's writing -- his keen, timeless eye for the way people are -- began to win me over. (See, for example, p. 60 ["It was that time before a formal dinner when the assembled guests refrain from beginning a long conversation, expecting to be called to the hors d'oeuvres, but at the same time consider it necessary to move about and not be silent, in order to show that they are not at all impatient to sit down at the table."].)

In this first section of reading, we are introduced to the three major characters we will be following for much of the book: Pierre, Andrei, and Natasha.

Pierre is introduced to us as follows:
Soon after the little princess came a massive, fat young man with a cropped head, in spectacles, light-colored trousers of the latest fashion, a high jabot, and a brown tailcoat. This fat young man was the illegitimate son of a famous courtier from Catherine's time, Count Bezukhov, who was no dying in Moscow. He did not serve anywhere yet, he had only just arrived from abroad, where he had been educated, and this was his first time in society. Anna Pavlovna greeted him with a nod reserved for people of the lowest hierarchy in her salon. But, despite this greeting of the lowest sort, at the sight of the entering Pierre uneasiness and fear showed in Anna Pavlovna's face, like that expressed at the sight of something all too enormous and unsuited to the place. Though Pierre was indeed somewhat larger than the other men in the room, this fear could have referred only to the intelligent and at the same time shy, observant, and natural gaze which distinguished him from everyone else in that drawing room.

Andrei is introduced to us as follows:
Just then a new person entered the drawing room. This new person was the young Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, the little princess's husband. Prince Bolkonsky was of medium height, a rather handsome man with well-defined and dry features. Everything in his figure, from his weary, bored gaze to his quiet, measured gait, presented the sharpest contrast with his small, lively wife. Obviously, he not only knew everyone in the drawing room, but was also so sick of them that it was very boring for him to look at them and listen to them. Of all the faces he found so boring, the face of his pretty wife seemed to be the one he was most sick of. With a grimace that spoiled his handsome face, he turned away from her. He kissed Anna Pavlovna's hand and, narrowing his eyes, looked around at the whole company.
(p. 14.)

And finally, our introduction to Natasha:
The dark-eyed, big-mouthed, not beautiful, but lively girl, with her child's bare shoulders popping out of her bodice from running fast, with her black ringlets all thrown back, her thin, bare arms, her little legs in lace-trimmed knickers and low shoes, was at that sweet age when a girl is no longer a child, but the child is not yet a young lady. Wriggling out of her father's arms, she ran to her mother and, paying no attention to her stern remark, buried her flushed face in her mother's lace mantilla and laughed. She laughed at something, talking fitfully about the doll she took out from under her skirt.

Of course, unintroduced and unseen, but looming in the background, is that other major character who is so present throughout this opening section, who is on everyone's minds -- Napoleon Bonaparte. (See, for example, Pierre's uncouth discussion of his admiration of Napoleon's achievements at Anna Mikhailovna's soiree, pp. 18-21 ["Napoleon is great, because he stood above the revolution, put an end to its abuses, and kept all that was good -- the equality of citizens and freedom of speech and of the press -- and that is the only reason why he gained power."].)

Going through the opening section, I was a bit overwhelmed by the endless stream of characters. The initial sense of disorientation and confusion was a bit like the feeling I had watching the first few episodes of THE WIRE, as I tried to figure out who all the various people were, what their relationships were. Though, like THE WIRE, the characters in W&P quickly begin to become distinct and recognizable. (It remains to be seen if they will be killed off at the same clip as in THE WIRE.)

The section is set in the late summer of 1805, which was a very eventful year. The fall and winter of that year were dominated by the Napoleonic Wars, and battles between the French and everyone else, including the Russians. By the end of our first section, we begin to get a sense of where things are going. Pierre's father, Count Bezukhov, is on his deathbed as his would-be heirs scramble to claim their inheritance; Boris and Andrei are headed off to war as a manifesto circulates through Russia; everyone speaks of Napoleon and his armies massing on the borders. (See pp. 18-21, 27, 35, 41, 58.) We get hints that Natasha finds something of interest in Pierre, who is apparently described as "fat" every time he is mentioned. (See p. 67 ["'You know, that fat Pierre, who sat across from me, is so funny! Natasha said suddenly, stopping. 'I feel so merry!'"].)

I couldn't shake the sense, as I was reading this first section, that Tolstoy wants us to sort of loathe many of the Russian aristocrats we meet, who speak French, throw gossipy dinner parties, grub after inheritances, and whine about "regicide." (p. 20.) This first section appears to be setting the scene for the comfortable world of these aristocrats, filled with games of Boston, Italian singing lessons, and pineapple ice cream, to be flipped upside down -- and most likely by the character we don't meet, but whose name is on everyone's lips: Bonaparte.

So I hope you're all still with us after this first week. Please share your thoughts and impressions so far. How does everyone feel about this translation? I'm finding it remarkably readable and vivid. It seems to be free of any trace of the stuffiness or stiltedness one would expect in a translation of an 18th a 19th century Russian book.

Page target for next Sunday is 152. STAY ON TARGET.

Table of Contents for Pevear & Volokhonsky Edition

Some of the people participating in the reading group have editions other than the 2007 Pevear and Volokhonsky translation. Different editions have different pagination, but the basic structure, in terms of volumes and sections, should be similar. So below is the Table of Contents from the Pevear and Volokhonsky edition that the reading schedule is keyed to. If you're reading a different edition and have any questions about pagination or pace, please send me an email.
Pevear & Volokhonsky Edition Table of Contents

Part One 3
Part Two 112
Part Three 201

Part One 297
Part Two 347
Part Three 418
Part Four 488
Part Five 535

Part One 603
Part Two 682
Part Three 821

Part One 935
Part Two 987
Part Three 1031
Part Four 1075

Part One 1129
Part Two 1179
So, if you're reading another edition, you should aim to finish all of VOLUME ONE by 5/30, and to finish all of VOLUME TWO by 7/4. If you stay roughly on pace to do that, you'll be on the same pace as the official schedule.

Also, it's my understanding that most other translations do not retain the original French (and German) as the Pevear and Volokhonsky edition does. Is that true? How do people feel about Pevear and Volokhonsy retaining the original French and German passages?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Why Now?

Image from WiLsonT

I'm not sure what drove me to spend much of the past week trying to bully people into reading WAR AND PEACE. The project seems ridiculous, like a silly, absurdly out-of-proportion response to the age of Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc.

But maybe it does make some sense. Perhaps it's a way to use the options we have now to do something we just couldn't do not so long ago: have a summerlong discussion with people located all over the world about one of the world's great books.

It's a massive book, an old book, and probably the least likely or probable book for us to take up at this point in time. And it may be that its very anachronistic quality is what is appealing. As political debates are driven by 140-character tweets and status updates, as books become data displayed on a screen, albums become bytes, etc., there is something to fetishize in 1215 pages of paper and ink -- and in spending so much time on one thing, when we are so used to dividing our time between dozens of things.

It seems hard to deny that we are saying goodbye to the world of books as we knew them, just as we said goodbye to vinyl, cassettes, CDs, etc. As we are saying goodbye to books as we knew them, what better way to do so than by reading, together, the MOBY DICK of massive books?

The Game of Boston

In case you were wondering, as I was, what the heck this game of "Boston" is that the Russian aristocrats we meet in the early parts of the book seem to love so much:
By the late 18th century English players were forsaking Quadrille for partnership Whist. In France, Quadrille-playing society was finding itself rapidly decimated by the guillotine. This left room for the development of a new game of the same alliance genre as Quadrille, but of simpler, more populist structure, and free from what must have been regarded as the "effete" associations of aristocratic women's games. Such is Boston Whist, le whist bostonien, which became the great nineteenth century alternative to Quadrille, almost everywhere in the Western world, except Britain, where, however, it eventually emerged as Solo Whist....

The origin of Boston is shrouded in dubious legends. It is claimed that Bostonians under the siege of 1775, sought to relieve their tedium and political frustrations by divorcing English Whist from fixed partnership, the solo or independence element, a claim supported by additional bids under such names as Philadelphia, Souveraine and Concordia. A survey of nineteenth century compendia, however, shows that most of them were introduced long after the event in question. Another view credits the game to officers of the allied French fleet then lying off Marblehead. Two little islands in the harbor are known as Little Misery and Big Misery, by which, it is said, the bids of Petite misere and Grand misere were inspired; but these too prove under examination to be latter additions. Yet, another claim is that Benjamin Franklin, who was a keen player and who is even said to have invented the game, introduced it to the Court of King Louis XVI, upon his trip to Versailles in 1767. More likely than any of these romantic flights of fancy is that it developed in France and took its name and inspiration from current events in America, to which it had become a welcome export before the signing of the Franco-American Alliance of 1778. (In this connection it is perhaps only an attractive "red-herring" to note that Trappola cards were known in parts of Europe as boston karten, from the suit of bastoni, or clubs.

We'll post something soon on general legal principles governing wills, trusts, and estates, which come up in the disputed estate and successive wills of Count Bezukhov. We have a couple lawyers moderating here so far. Also, to keep you updated, the reach of this project continues to grow, as we now have participants in L.A., Tokyo, New York, New Zealand, Boston, Texas, Brazil, and India, to name just some of the places we've been able to keep track of. Keep spreading the word and bullying people into reading the book with us this summer!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

War and the World

The title of WAR & PEACE in Russian (which I do not speak or read) is Война и мир (the title of this blog). Romanized, that's "Voyná i mir". So I figured "voyná" was war and "mir" was peace. "Mir", you may recall, was also the name of the Soviet/Russian space station, which was the first continuously inhabited space station, and which everyone was freaked out about in early 2001, as we worried it would come crashing down on our heads as it fell out of orbit.

So I figured "peace" was a fine name for a space station. But looking into the word "mir", one quickly learns that it has multiple meanings:
The word mir in Russian has several meanings. In addition to "community" and "assembly," it also means "world" and "peace." These seemingly diverse meanings had a common historical origin. The village community formed the world for the peasants, where they tried to keep a peaceful society. Thus mir was, in all probability, a peasant-given name for a spontaneously generated peasant organization in early Kievan or pre-Kievan times. It was mentioned in the eleventh century in the first codification of Russian law, Pravda Russkaya, as a body of liability in cases of criminal offense.

Over time, the meaning of mir changed, depending on the political structure of the empire, and came to mean different things to different people. For peasants and others, mir presumably was always a generic term for peasant village-type communities with a variety of structures and functions. The term also denoted those members of a peasant community who were eligible to discuss and decide on communal affairs. At the top of a mir stood an elected elder.
Russian History Encyclopedia.

Of course, some people dispute the potential multiple meanings of the title. I'll leave it to those of you who may have a bit more Russian than I currently do to sort this out. But as I'm getting into the book, which moves from a high society party in St. Petersburg, to Moscow, to the battlefield, I can see already how one could apply the multiple readings of the title: in an ironic way to the incestuous aristocratic circles of St. Petersburg as a form of village community, in the world impinging on Russia, in the threat posed by Napoleon and the French Revolution, and by the pervasive influence of French culture and language, and in the peace that the Russians currently cling to, but sense they won't have for long, with threats of social upheaval and change at the borders and in the streets.

Crib Notes

Your moderators (Welcome, MJ!) were very pleased to stumble across the New York Times' Reading Room blog, where the NYT and a panel of contributors blogged a month-long read of WAR AND PEACE back in October 2007, just after the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation that we are currently reading came out.

The format of the NYT blog seems like a good jumping off point: the moderator would post, every few days, questions prompted by the reading. Here are Sam Tanenhaus' initial questions on the book's opening sequences:
My first question comes from the essay Tolstoy wrote in defense of “War and Peace” — yes, the book met with criticism upon its publication in 1869. Readers didn’t know what to make of it. It read in some places like a history text or battlefield manual, in others like The Odyssey or The Aeneid. Tolstoy explains: “‘War and Peace’ is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle.” He then differentiates between the work of the historian and that of the artist and says historical accounts require heroes while for the artist “there cannot and should not be heroes, but there should be people.”

My first questions to the group: (1) Isn’t “War and Peace” in fact all these things — a novel, a poem, and a historical chronicle? Has Tolstoy really separated so neatly the functions of the artist from those of the historian? Does his invented world really seem devoid of heroes?

(2) One of the overarching themes in the novel — it amounts to a theory of history — is that human design is continually frustrated by events, which are too huge, complex and random for us to make sense of, let alone control. But don’t the events in Volume 1 — Pierre’s sudden inheritance and his horrific marriage, Napoleon’s precision-tuned military victories, and many more — unfold with a kind of inevitability, which in turn implies there is some deeply rational order to the universe?
Reading Room Blog

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Plan

Leo Tolstoy

Hopefully, most of you have started in on the book by now. Perhaps you were a bit startled, as I was, that this classic Russian novel begins with a full paragraph in ... French. The use of French among the Russian elites in St. Petersburg -- and the role of language in the book -- will no doubt be the subjects of future posts here.

Speaking of future posts, I thought I would lay out some ideas for how we can use this site during our group read of the book. I plan to post about once or twice a week with thoughts and observations about the book (trying, as possible, to avoid spoilers by keeping the commentary within the confines of the reading schedule). Hopefully, you all will participate with comments, reactions, etc. This will probably be kind of exhausting over a 16-week period, so it would be fantastic if others would be willing to post here now and then. Let me know if you'd be willing to post here, and I'll arrange for you to be added to the site's management. Or if you prefer, you can simply email me your essay at << >>.

Oh, and for those of you who have purchased the massive physical copy of the book, if there are times during the summer that you find yourself unable to lug the book along with you somewhere, so long as you have internet access, you can continue to read along (though in an older, public-domain translation), here.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Tentative Reading Schedule

Audrey Hepburn in WAR & PEACE

Start Date: Sunday, May 9

1215 pages, Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, Vintage Classics edition (2007)

Goal: complete book by September 1, 2010

Reading schedule: 76 pages each week, for 16 weeks

Schedule through Independence Day:

5/9: START

5/16: 76

5/23: 152

5/30: 228

6/6: 304

6/13: 380

6/20: 456

6/27: 532

7/4: 608 (MIDWAY POINT)