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.


  1. I wanted to read W&P this summer too. Have tried it several times and get bogged down. Started using it as my insomnia book, reading it when I couldn't sleep in the middle of the night. (btw I don't get insomnia anymore!) But I don't get much beyond the invasion of Austria. So this group might help. However ... I bought the Kindle edition and understanding the French translations is insane - you have to flick to another screen and somehow I end up chapters ahead and can't get back. Am frustrated already. So I'm going shopping. Possibly for the actual W&P book ... and some shoes. ;)

  2. The Pevear and Volokhonsky edition, which is in paperback (it came out in 1997) is very user-friendly, I find. You should be able to get relatively cheap editions on Amazon (used). Hope you will stick with us this summer!

  3. Yes, it seems that heavily annotated works do not go well with our new bookreading technology, what with all this shuffling back and forth. That's a bit of good news for those who still like their books wrapped in paper.

    But, of course, should you have W&P on your kindle rather than in real physical form, you would lose the opportunity to ooh and ahh strangers you mean to impress. And of course, with such small print (on such big pages-- Tolstoy, you devil!) you must don your smartest reading glasses.

    Besides, the onerous process of getting through such a book means that you should be literally weighed down, Tolstoy's subplots and flowery sentences sitting like a heavy stone in your bag so that you stoop and trip through the downtown summer light.

  4. I sure am going to try to stick with you! And yes - part of the reason I've had trouble over the years is the sheer size of the thing (I must have weak wrists). Brace yourself bibliophiles ... I actually split my last paperback edition into three 400 page sections to make it easier to hold and tote. I'd love to follow along with your edition, but I just spent another 12 bucks on my Kindle version and I'm not sure the Count needs any more of my money. ;) Does anyone know if the Anne Dunnigan translation is passable?

  5. Sorry - note above, I said P&V edition came out in 1997. It actually came out in 2007. I'm just getting old.

    Don't know about the Dunnigan edition. I think a lot of other people in the group are reading the Kindle edition, so you're in good company.

  6. @lovechild: there is a free electronic version from Project Gutenberg that has the translations of the French right after the paragraph where they appear. No annoying flipping back and forth. But the translation features Frenchified/anglicized names. E.g. Andrei is Andrew, Marya is Mary, etc.