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.


  1. I don't have much insight to offer, except to note my translation calls Pierre "stout and heavily built" which I envisioned as solid and strong, withva little girth. That's somewhat different of the hedonism I associate with the use of the term "fat".

  2. Interesting. "Stout and heavily built" endows Pierre with a bit more dignity than "massive and fat." I wonder what the original Russian description is, and if it has negative or comical connotations.

  3. I have to agree. 'Fat' is more of a value judgment while 'stout' is far more objective.