Tuesday, July 7, 2009


I got through the next 300 pages, or up to the end of Vol II, of War and Peace while at the shore in June. My reading has languished a bit since, so this is an effort to get back to where I left it.

In this phase of the book, it’s possible to begin fixing on a favorite character, or at least to see who is likely to emerge as the major focus. Andrei Bolkonsky’s experiences in the war are compelling, particularly the scene where he contemplates the freedom of the open sky. It’s right before he loses consciousness after being nearly killed; he goes missing for a while afterwards, so it’s clearly a moment when something happens to him, something which a later language would allow us to recognize as existential. For a moment Andrei sees himself as utterly detached from whatever Andrei Bolkonsky is. For a moment he’s part of a picture that simply includes him, but is not about him. The sky becomes the center of the universe, or at least its most telling expression.

Much as Andrei comes forward as a figure of greater interest -- shortly after he accepts the notion that ‘our life is over . . . he had to live his life without doing evil, without anxiety, and without wishing for anything,’ he becomes engaged, but with no betrothal announced, to Natasha Rostov. Indeed, Natasha emerges as the major female character; in her mid teens, she’s becoming the woman who must find a marriage partner, a task that will drive much of the plot of Volume II from Part Three onward. The Andrei-Natasha romance is odd in its detachment; Andrei’s father insists he wait a year and so he does; this culminates in Natasha finding herself swept off her feet by the novel’s foremost no-goodnik, Anatole Kuragin (we last saw him flirting outrageously with Marya Bolkonsky’s French female companion while ostensibly courting Marya). This little dalliance of Natasha gives us the kind of melodramatic flight of emotional hijinxs that is the stuff of much lesser novels, and which Tolstoy handles with his characteristic ability to make everything seem just so. He doesn’t play it up for big effects; he doesn’t go all purple. He doesn’t get sly and snarky as our writers today do, as if emotional depths are a thing of the past and everyone knows they’re just trying to be in a movie. For Tolstoy there are no movies, just opera and drama. And even if Natasha feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway.

Part of my lack of complete involvement with this novel has to do not with the usual concern with the ongoing quest for a suitable partner in a young lady’s life, but with the lack of anything of a more involving nature to set against that. It becomes clear that we’re supposed to take an interest in Pierre: he inherited all that wealth, made a bad match to a supreme beauty who is unfaithful to him, gets caught up for a time with the Masons, only to see that most are simply play-acting when it comes to the more metaphysical significance of the sect, that for most it's simply an exclusive club they want to be admitted to. Pierre is a ditherer; he behaves well in trying to foil the dastardly (but very hot, presumably) Anatole (Pierre’s brother-in-law, which is to say, the brother of Pierre’s steely, selfish, preening wife), but that seems to be the next plot point. Will Pierre too fall under the spell of the ever eligible Natasha? Tune in next week to see.

To give the Count his due: Volume II ends with Pierre, having comforted the distraught Natasha, seeing the comet of the year 1812 above in (again) the sky: 'It seemed to Pierre that this star answered fully to what was in his softened and encouraged soul, now blossoming into new life.' The passage snaps into place with magisterial surety. It rounds out the long Volume with a feeling of the powers that be, but also with a sense that the characters are deluding themselves at every stage when they act as if they can see what’s coming and what it will mean.

I'm not sure I know what's coming either, but one thing for sure, it's not gonna be all good times for Napoleon.

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