One-Year War and Peace 3.5 – A Broken Heart and A Noble Sacrifice

In this chapter, the inevitable happened – and this little subplot all comes to an end.  In fact, in a regular novel, you wouldn’t have needed to put it in at all.

But it’s this incident that tells you just that bit more about the Bolkonsky family – and the Kuragin family for that matter.

Highlights for me, were the various levels of insomnia caused by the guests at the Bolkonsky mansion.  (And the amusing fact that it is only Anatole, at the centre of all this, who can sleep quite easily.)

And then, the amazing way in which Princess Marya manages to transform herself, inside an hour, from being the victim to being a victorious martyr.  Is she in denial?  Probably.

But, hey, having seen what happened to Pierre, it’s probably a good thing for Marya that things didn’t go differently.

One-Year War and Peace 3.4 – Of Parents and Weddings

I haven’t seen a lot written on this topic, but I have observed on several occasions that impending weddings can really bring out the worst in parents.  I’m not sure what it is, exactly – my theory is that it’s something to do with the fact that your “child” leaving home (which marriage would have been, back in Tolstoy’s day) is, for parents, the equivalent of a deadline on a tough assignment at uni or school.  The deadline’s coming up, you’ve got to hand the paper in tomorrow – how do you feel about that assignment?

Well, it depends how well you’ve done, doesn’t it?  If you’ve put a lot of effort into it, and you really know your stuff – you’d be proud to hand that paper in.  You’ll be confident that you’ve done the best you can, and that it’s the right time to hand it over.

But what if you’ve done a lousy job on it?  Perhaps you were too busy to work at the assignment properly.  Perhaps you were too lazy.  Perhaps you didn’t think it was that important, and you’ve left it to the last minute.  But, for whatever reason, the deadline is tomorrow, you know you’ve done a lousy job, and when the deadline arrives and that paper gets handed in – it will be a lousy paper for the rest of eternity.  You can’t reclaim lost time.

This is what I think weddings do to parents.  If you’ve put a good job in with your kids, you’ve had quality time with them growing up, you’re proud of who they are – a wedding is an amazing celebration.  Sure, there’s a little bit of sadness that they’re leaving – but there’s also an immense joy in watching your child step out into a new world of adult responsibility.

But for some parents, I think it’s the opposite.  I think they know that they could have done better with parenting.  As long as their teenager/young person was at home, they could always ignore it – because there’s always more time for things to get better – theoretically.  But when that son or daughter is up the front of that church – that’s it – your parenting days are over.  You will be remembered as either a good or bad parent – but you certainly can’t go back and undo what you’ve been doing while your child is growing up.

I think that haunts many parents who don’t feel that they’ve done a good job.  At least, that’s my theory to explain why so many of them go absolutely insanely nasty around wedding time.  Trying to micro-manage the details of the wedding.  Getting upset with their kids for moving out of the house.  Giving them long lists of jobs to do.  Complaining about the person they’re marrying.  Bagging out their choice of clothes, music, reception, etc.  It can get really vicious sometimes . . .

When, really, what the parent is trying to say is, “I love you.  I’m sorry I didn’t do better.  I can’t undo what I’ve done.  I’m really sorry to be losing you.”

Certainly, that’s the way Tolstoy portrays Old Count Bolkonsky and Marya in this chapter.  He can’t really answer that question of what he would do without his daughter, so just decides to make unspeakably horrible comments about her hair and her clothes.

However, horrible as that is, the biggest disappointment – like somebody falling over and not noticing it until too late – is that Marya is starting to think that there’s a chance that Anatole might like her.  Completely misreading the Anatole/Bourienne situation, she is setting herself up for a major heartache . . . I guess you’ll all be back tomorrow, then?

One-Year War and Peace 3.3 – Lock Up Your Daughters

And now the book returns full circle to something we heard planned right back in chapter 1.1 – the scheme to marry the ratbag Anatole off to Prince Bolkonsky’s daughter, Marya (Andrei’s sister).  Outdoing his last appearance at the end of Book 1, old Bolkonsky is in even a fouler mood now.  He knows that the arrival of Prince Vassily and Anatole will spell wedding bells (not to mention that he knows that Anatole is a ratbag) and so he responds in a spectacular display of tantrum throwing.  I must admit, even I found it amusing that he orders his servants to shovel the snow back on to the road, so that his guests can’t arrive easily.

I’ll say more about all of this tomorrow, but I thought I’d point out that, at the end of the chapter, we see Marya head down a similar path to Pierre.  She also decides to just go with the flow and let things happen how they will.  (Only she dresses it up in rather fatalistic, religious terminology – but the idea is the same.)

How will this all pan out?  It’s certainly not looking good . . .

I should start by saying that I thought it was time I updated the MindMap a little bit to reflect the recent change in events.  So please note that a) Pierre and Ellen are now married.  b) I also thought a line might be useful to indicate that Anatole is probably more interested in Mademoiselle Bourienne than Marya.

One-Year War and Peace 3.2 – Wedding Bells

It is rather amusing to consider that, in some literature, a proposal of marriage is like the climax of the whole book – think Pride & Prejudice or Jane Eyre.

But what do we have here? Pierre is floating through life so amazingly well, he manages to get himself married without even having to pop the question! It just happens, and he goes with the flow.

I must admit, though, that this is where I must add on to what I said yesterday. Going with the flow is perhaps not Tolstoy’s suggested course in life. Pierre is an example of someone who does something and goes with the flow, but as we can see quite clearly, people like that get taken advantage of by people who do scheme and plan.

In this case, Prince Vassily, who starts the chapter by planning a trip to marry his son Anatole (the ratbag – if you can remember all the way back to 1.1) to Andrei’s sister, Marya (she of the plain looks but amazing eyes).

And, look, if that plan goes anything like his scheme with Pierre, he’s got a career made in positive cash flow marriages . . .

Actually, I think it’s today’s chapter that has so far given me the only slight quibble with Tolstoy’s writing. And that is – what is going on with Ellen? Tolstoy zooms around the dinner table at this chapter’s name-day party, giving us little soundbites of what is running through people’s heads – but he never explains what is happening with Ellen.

Is she happy that her father wants to marry her off for money? Does she really like Pierre? The glasses comment at the end of the chapter doesn’t seem to indicate that she does? If she doesn’t, then why is she going along with all of this? Is she stupid? Or does she like money as much as her father does, and is a willing accomplice to the whole scheme?

It’s never quite clear, because Tolstoy never once lets us inside her head. So, like Pierre, we’re kind of stuck wondering who or what she is. In fact, in all the chapters she’s appeared in so far, I don’t think we’ve found out much about what makes her tick at all.

For me, she always remains a bit of a mystery character, but people may have other thoughts?  (No spoilers, please, if you’ve read further than this . . .)

One-Year War and Peace 3.1 – Pierre’s New Life

And so we return to the aristocratic social circles of Russian high society, as we go back to revisit the now-fabulously-wealthy Pierre.

The interesting thing is that Pierre’s character is so naive that money seems to have done nothing to him.  He’s still just as confused as ever – and kind of bumbling along from one thing to another.  It should be mentioned at this point, that I don’t think this is just a random character attribute that Tolstoy gives him.

Pierre, in fact, seems to represent the very epitome of Tolstoy’s approach to history.  We’ve already seen throughout Book 2, that Tolstoy downplays the role that “great men” have in making history.  Generals may have made plans and given orders, but we’ve seen that it is the thousands of small decisions by individuals that actually change the course of a battle.

So the question is, then – if that’s the case, and you can’t really change the flow of history from the top down – is it better just to go along with the flow and let things happen?  What do you think, thoughtful reader?

Tolstoy plays with this idea throughout the book – I can’t remember from last time I read it, whether he ever comes right out and says that it’s better to just let things happen around you – because that would be a bit stupid.  But Tolstoy is fascinated with the idea that history just seems to happen, regardless of people’s own wishes or desires.

So he plays around with it in a way that only a novel-writer can: he creates a character like Pierre.  Pierre, at least in everything we’ve seen him do so far (and in today’s chapter) just lets events carry him along.  Okay, so Prince Vassily is cheating him out of his money?  He’s not sure.  He just lets it happen.  His architect says he should do up his house?  He’s not sure.  He just lets it happen.  Everyone drops hints that he should marry Helene Kuragin?  He’s not sure.  He – well, actually, he does fight this one a little bit.  By the end of the chapter, he’s debating in his head whether that would be a good idea – the first time we’ve seen him stop and take a think about it.

But then again, as Tolstoy points out, with the incident of the snuffbox – Helene has cleavage.

Is that a dumb thing to base a marriage on?  Common sense would say yes, but I’m sure we’ve all seen relationships (especially among young people) that have started on just that shallow a basis nowadays.

Anyway, the point of all that is that Pierre, because he is portrayed as naive, is happy to go along with the flow – and so Tolstoy can use this character as a kind of experiment.  “What would happen,” he sorts of asks us, “if a man just let things happen to him, rather than vainly trying to change things?”

After all, Pierre did nothing in Book 1- and he made a major fortune out of it.   Not bad for doing nothing, is it?

What do you think?  Better to let life run its course?  Or jump in and seriously grab history by the horns?

We shall return to this question throughout this year of War and Peace . . . Till tomorrow.

One-Year War and Peace 2.21 – The End of Book 2!

Well, if you’ve made it this far, give yourself a big pat on the back.  This is probably as hard as it gets.  Most people I know who drop out of War and Peace do so in those first few books.

If you’re still reading it at this stage, then it’s probably safe to say that you’ll make it through to the end of the book.

Why do people drop out?  Sometimes it’s because the book doesn’t really provide what they want.  That’s quite okay.  I love hearing all the little details, and the little human moments – you might be just wanting more action.  Or perhaps you wanted more romance and ballrooms, and you were sick of all the cannons.  There’s infinite regions.

But I think it’s safe to say that if you’re really hating it so far – I don’t think there will be much to change your mind in the rest of the book, so I’d probably give it a rest.  You can say you gave it a fair crack, and it’s not really the book for you.

However . . . for the rest of you . . . we’re just about to move into new levels of brilliance here – so hold on to your hats for Book 3.

As for this final chapter of Book 2, wasn’t it nicely wrapped up?  Firstly, by some intersection of characters.  The wounded Nikolai Rostov, who has had nothing to do with any of the other characters in this war – gets connected to Tushin, when he is offered a lift on Tushin’s cannon as they pull out.  I think the thing that most was driven home to me was the effect of daylight and nighttime on soldiers.  Think about it – in 1805, you’re not really going to have a whole lot of lights to see by at night except for fires.  So everything would be absolutely pitch black.  Notice how Tolstoy describes the night and the stars.

And then, of course, the meeting of the generals – humorous, as each general tries to claim victories – even though we know that most of them had no clue what was going on.  And then, finally, in the confrontation between Tushin and Bagration, it is Prince Andrei who cuts through the drivel and egos and speaks the truth.  It is a great relief to Tushin, of course, but Andrei walks off depressed.

Why is that?  My theory is that here he was, hoping to escape the fakery of the Russian aristocratic world – with, perhaps, noble dreams of victory and honourable men.  And instead – he finds the same hypocrisy and flawed human beings in the army as well.

But isn’t that life?  We all the time think that if we were just in a different job, a different church – and in extreme cases, different relationships.  But do we really find the perfection in people we’re looking for?  I don’t think so.  And it’s how we react to that, defines us as people.  For Andrei, it makes him bitter.  Oddly enough, for Tolstoy himself, as a narrator, it seems to just make him smile.  If there’s any tone that the narration in this story takes, it is one of a gentle poking humour at the foibles of these characters.

And, finally, we finish up with Nikolai, longing for home and comfort, something which we could all relate to.

I think the most interesting thing is that this book finishes with a simple sentence about how the French were repulsed – which would be about as much detail as you would expect to get in a history book about this skirmish at Schöngraben.  But hasn’t the experience been so much more detailed?  Don’t we feel like we’ve lived through it?

All right – see you tomorrow for Book 3, where we return to the social scenes of St Peterburg and become reunited with Pierre, Count Vassily, Anna Scherer and friends . . .

One-Year War and Peace 2.20 – Dolohov’s Triumph & Tushin’s Madness

This chapter really does speak for itself – but how cool is it to have Dolohov lead a charge, capture a French officer, and have the gall to butt in on his commanding general – all so he can get himself reinstated.  There is absolutely no stopping this man . . .

And then, the scene shifts to the amazing stand of Tushin and his cannons on top of the hill.  Tolstoy’s description of the elation and madness here is brilliant.  I know there were many of thinking a month and a half was a long time to wait for battle scenes, but I hope they were worth it.

It should also be mentioned that this whole battle of Schöngraben was really just a minor skirmish compared to the bigger ones to come . . . So, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, folks.

See you tomorrow.

One-Year War and Peace 2.19 – A broken chain of events

Just in case you missed it, the thing you were supposed to notice in this chapter was the broken chain of command that led to the charge of the hussars.

In a normal history textbook, General Bagration would have given an order for the hussars to attack.  In Tolstoy’s world, the reality is far more chaotic.

– Bagration gave an order.

– Zherkov wussed out on delivering it.

– The German colonel of the hussars was fighting with the general of the regiment, as to who should attack, and neither wanted to give the order.

– Because of this, the French attacked and forced a retaliatory attack.

– However, even then the colonel’s orders were vague and, in the end:

– It is Denisov who really gives the order to charge.

– And even down to the level of Nikolai, note that it is his horse that charges, not him, so even he can’t seen to be in control of that particular event.

But all of that is really swept aside by the brilliant stream of consciousness description of Nikolai’s ill-fated charge.  I don’t want to say any more in case you haven’t read it yet, but it’s definitely a Tolstoy highlight when Nikolai thinks to himself: “Can they be running to me?  And what for?  To  kill me?  Me, whom everyone’s so fond of?”

Anyway, babysitting calls . . . see you all tomorrow!

One-Year War and Peace 2.18 – Things Get Bloody

Have you noticed how Tolstoy starts at a fair distance from the actual events and then takes us gradually closer and closer into where things get more horrible?  It’s a technique that works wonders in horror films, and it works effectively in his battle scenes as well.

We move from being detached observers on the hill listening to gunshots in the distance to moving with Andrei and Bagration down the hill towards the advancing French (and the retreating Russians).  It only takes a couple of vignettes (such as the man shot in the throat or the soldier with blood pouring from his wound as if it were from a bottle) to drive home the grim reality.

Despite the intensity of it all, I couldn’t help but be drawn into the march.  Whether Bagration is a bad leader or not, there’s no doubting his courage . . .

And sorry to leave you mid-clash, but we’ll be back tomorrow.

One-Year War and Peace 2.17 – General Bagration

And in this chapter, we see General Bagration in action.  He was a real historical character, which you can read about on Wikipedia (so it must be true).

However, Tolstoy’s portrayal of him is somewhat quirky.  Is he grossly incompetent, which is why he gives no orders, but just goes with whatever is happening? 

Or is he quite clever – realising that the narrator of this novel doesn’t actually believe Generals have much say in what goes on in the battlefield anyway – and thus not giving any real orders and letting events happen as they will?

Believe it or not, this issue of whether battles are won and lost by the orders of generals vs being won and lost by the hundreds of tiny skirmishes by individual soldiers goes on to become a huge philosophical issue that Tolstoy starts to tackle in the second half of the book.  (My apologies is a) you didn’t realise there was going to be any philosophy or b) you really hate philosophy.)

Anyway, what do you think of Bagration’s leadership style?