Monday, June 21, 2010

Week 6 Recap

St. Ives, patron saint of lawyers, Charles Bridge, Prague

As previously noted, I was struck by how much of this week's reading had to do with legal issues, legal proceedings, statutory compilations, etc. And as I mentioned earlier today, I thought Denisov's pathetic and obsessive attempts to have his petition heard held a particularly Dickensian and/or Kafkaesque flavor. Hopefully many of the lawyers involved in our summer reading group (and it's now officially summer!), enjoyed the Bleak House-type bits of this week's reading.

On to the recap:
-Pierre visits Andrei at his country estate. Pierre and Andrei debate the meaning of good and evil, love of one's neighbors, etc. Pierre blathers on about his new mission to save humanity; Andrei responds with his cynical and jaundiced worldview. Still, Pierre's talk of God and truth and virtue touch a chord with Andrei: "[H]e looked at the sky Pierre had pointed to, and for the first time since Austerlitz saw that high, eternal sky he had seen as he lay on the battlefield, and something long asleep, something that was best in him, suddenly awakened joyful and young in his soul." (389)

- Denisov, out in the field in the army with Rostov, commandeers a convoy without authority, to feed his troops. This is apparently some terrible breach of regulations, and proceedings are initiated: "Denisov spoke disdainfully of the whole affair; but Rostov knew him too well not to notice that, in his soul (concealing it from others), he was afraid of the trial and suffered over the affair, which was obviously going to have bad consequences. Every day papers of inquiry came, summonses from the court, and on the first of May, Denisov was ordered to turn over command of the squadron to the next in seniority to report to the division staff for explanations of the case of violence in the provisions commission." (401) Denisov is then wounded, and ends up in a gruesome army hospital, a place filled "by the stench of rotting flesh ...." (402) When Rostov finds Denisov, he sees that Denisov is changed, a fearful, obsessed man:
Rostov even noticed that Denisov found it unpleasant to be reminded of the regiment and generally of that other, free life that went on outside the hospital. It seemed he was trying to forget that former life and was interested only in his case with the provision officials. To Rostov's question about how the case stood, he immediately pulled from under the pillow a paper he had received from the commission and the draft of his reply to it. When he started reading his paper, he became animated and particularly drew Rostov's attention to the biting remarks in it directed at his enemies.
(405) The monomaniacal obsession, the hopeless nature of the case, the sudden animation in reading the doomed petition-- these are all classic tropes one finds in BLEAK HOUSE, and in many of Kafka's stories, such as "Before the Law". The law's delay (which is, of course, one of life's negative factors Hamlet itemized in determining whether to shuffle off the mortal coil) has two aspects: there is of course, the deadening plod of process, but there is also the dim but ever-tantalizing prospect that while the law may be slow to react, it may, one day, pick up one's petition and redress the wrongs enumerated. This is all nicely set out in the bit about Denisov's petition, which does eventually, and most improbably, reach Alexander himself, via Rostov, and then a general. The sovereign refuses to personally intervene in Denisov's case, saying, in a line that could have been lifted from "In the Penal Colony": "I cannot, General, and the reason why I cannot is that the law is stronger than I ...." (413)

- Rostov is disenchanted and confused after watching Alexander and Napoleon trade courtesies, present medals to each others' troops, seeing Alexander dismiss Denisov's petition, etc. What was the point of all the death and destruction he had witnessed, Rostov thinks? "Why, then, those torn-off arms and legs, those dead people?" (416) In a drunken fit, he goes into a Dostoevskyian rage of logical extremes and overstatement: "We're told to die -- and we die. If we're punished, it means we're guilty; it's not for us to judge. If it pleases the sovereign emperor to recognize Bonaparte as emperor and conclude an alliance with him--it means it has to be so. And if we start judging and reasoning about everything, then there'll be nothing sacred left. Next we'll be saying there's no God, no anything...." (417) These kinds of speeches always make me want to stomp out onto a field of fresh snow under a bright winter moon somewhere in Russia, drinking from a giant bottle of vodka.

- Andrei, newly filled with spirit to do good works for Russia, heads to Petersburg, where he meets Speransky, whose clarity of mind and reason attracts Andrei. Together, they begin work on a commission on military regulations. Andrei begins revising or drafting part of the civil code, drawing on the Code Napoleon and the Justiani. (433) (Footnote 9 has some interesting background.)

- A series of Dear Diary entries from Pierre, who is amazed and disbelieving that his wife Helene has somehow become a respected intellectual figure in Petersburg, holding soirees where poetry, philosophy, and literature are discussed. In his entries, Pierre reveals that he tries to read scripture with the proper mindset and tries to rouse himself out of bed at a respectable hour. Surprisingly, he doesn't seem to keep a daily log of his weight.

- Berg proposes to Vera Rostov. Vera's father, deeply in debt, hems and haws about her dowry. Berg demands at least "thirty thousand in cash" or he will call off the wedding. Desperate to save face, Count Rostov makes promises for a large dowry that he will be hard pressed to keep.

- Natasha is reunited with Boris, who knows he should not get involved, as he has bigger plans, but can't help being drawn back to Natasha. (449) Natasha's mother realizes that nothing good will come of this and puts it to an end. (452)
We're very close to midway now. I'll be posting the poll for our next book shortly. Page 532 by Sunday.


  1. Ron, nice summary. I had forgotten these legalistic aspects of W&P, and now am reminded that this is part of why I loved it the first time; I'm a real sucker for fiction that adopts the Kafkaesque/Hellerite/Dickensian perspective on the innate irrationality of legal systems. I had also forgotten the hospital scene, which is brutal, also in a Catch-22 kind of way.

    We're getting close to the heart of the book, and it's definitely picking up steam. I may actually blog soon!

  2. I also thought Prince Andrey’s transformation during his conversation with Pierre was interesting. Their exchange actually appears to trigger an interior process in Andrey that ripens with—or is crystallized by—his encounter with Natasha. Walking off the ferry with Pierre, he glances up and sees the lofty, eternal sky and “suddenly something inside him that had long lain dormant, something better than before, awoke in his soul with a feeling of youth and joy.” He goes back to his gloomy ways afterward, and yet a vigorous form of life “began again in his own inner world.” Tolstoy allows Andrey to mull his personal renewal through observation of a parallel natural process. On his carriage ride to the Rostovs’, his servant exults in the spring day but Andrey sympathizes with the leafless old oak tree that seems to be saying “There is no springtime, sunshine or happiness.” Then Andrey eavesdrops on Natasha’s nighttime mooning about and on his ride home he sees the tree again: “No trace now of the gnarled fingers, the scars, the old sadness and misgivings. Succulent young leaves with no twigs had burst straight through the hard bark of a hundred years; it was almost incredible that this old fellow should have grown them. ‘Oh yes, that’s the one,’ though the prince, spontaneously overwhelmed by one of those surges of delight and renewal that belong to springtime.”

    Have others noticed that Tolstoy builds slowly toward narratives of interiority, or the thought processes of his characters? In the first several sections he treats his characters much more as objects to be observed in their curious actions. Tolstoy interprets gestures and words for the readers, as if he were guessing about what they are thinking, what their motives might be. So-and-so says something as if she were preoccupied or self-conscious (or something along those lines, I didn’t tag an example.) It really struck me in the first couple of hundred pages or so, and I wondered if the whole book was going to require me to build an alliance with Tolstoy in trying to figure out what the hell these people are really doing. Slowly, we learn more and more about the characters (a process that Sean, I think, remarked on), and part of that learning process involves reading more and more exposition of their thoughts. However, as the beginning of Volume III makes clear, Tolstoy thinks that all of these personal thoughts and feelings and inclinations direct people’s actions but ultimately have little weight in explaining History.

    (A bit of looking ahead in the next paragraph. Sorry.)
    The expanded interior narratives bring out several big turning points like Andrey’s Pierre/Natasha/oak tree revelation. It’s clearly a crucial shift: ‘No, life isn’t over at thirty-one,’ was his instant, final and irrevocable conclusion. ‘It is not enough for me to know what is going on inside me. Everybody must know about it—Pierre, and that girl who wanted to fly up into the sky—they must all get to know me. My life must be lived for me but also for other people.’ They mustn’t live like that girl, separated from me. My life must be reflected in them and they must live along with me, all of us together!’” But this won’t be the last sudden change for him. Even as Andrey begins his enthrallment with Speransky, he notices his “cold, mirror-like stare, which blocked everything out of his soul, and also those flabby white hands of his,” and these observations foretell problems ahead with that relationship. And down the road Natasha has her transformations and Pierre a wonderfully powerful one that closes Volume II. These turning points are interesting to think about in terms of Tolstoy’s meditations on the nature of history and causation. Action and events influence people powerfully, but the actual moments of change—of rupture in people’s lives—are narrated as personal, abstract, and interior processes. That individual-level model is replicated millions of times over, Tolstoy says, as events grind along and become history but they are meaningless at the collective scale.

  3. Yeah, I'm also attracted to fiction that describes the soiled, enervating, miserable majesty of the law. I look forward to your blog posts!

  4. Sorry -- immediately previous comment was directed to MJ.

  5. Tom: Very interesting observations.

    I've noticed that the grand speeches and internal monologues some of the characters have from time to time in the book about purported revelations or epiphanies they've had generally leave me cold. These speeches (or thoughts) and the emotions expressed feel, to me, very abstract, amorphous.

    I've generally been more impressed with Tolstoy's careful, craftsmanly realism, which at times approaches a micro-realism reminiscent of Updike (with, of course, fewer descriptions of cunnilingus, fellatio, etc.). The best parts of the book for me have been those that are built of concrete details and clearly described actions. It feels as if Andrei and Pierre are regularly having these supposedly profound realizations or epiphanies -- yet it's hard to feel the force of those changes without seeing action or effects in their lives.

    But you're undoubtedly correct that Tolstoy is working on bigger themes than just the personal narratives of our main characters, and that we are barrelling towards some heavy-duty grappling with the concept of History, with a capital H. (I believe Tolstoy lays out many of his thoughts on the process and logic of History in the Epilogues to the book.)

  6. Ron, a couple of hypotheses: I wonder if the epiphanies leave you cold because they leave Tolstoy cold in a way? That is, he mistrusts both the analysis of emotion, or the genuineness or relevance of the emotional change supposedly taking place. He includes it to provide *some* explanatory structure for the trajectory of his characters' actions.

    But also, I think the personal transformations get better, more visceral, as the book goes on. Andrey's experiences described above are pretty abstract--and that conversation with Pierre was pretty ridiculous, as both of them seemed to feel anyway.

    I like the realism too--the meticulous description, the odd detail, the *repeated* details, etc. Orlando Figes, in that NYRB piece, writes that "Repetition is perhaps the most distinctive single feature of [Tolstoy's] style."

    And I am looking forward to the Epilogues (I've glanced forward from time to time), since they contain passages frequently cited by historians. They're actually the only part of the book I've ever read, in my first year in grad school. It was sparked by a discussion with my advisor about fiction. He said he never read fiction, *but*, he said, he really enjoyed the discussions of History in the Epilogues to War and Peace.