One-Year War and Peace 5.6 – Boris the Social Climber and Momentous Events

In this chapter, we see Boris Drubetskoy attempting some social climbing at Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s place.  For those who’ve completely forgotten who Boris was, if you flick back to the beginning of the book, you will note that it was Boris’ Mum who first went to Anna Pavlovana’s place to beg Prince Vasili to get her son, Boris, a good spot in the army.

And then a bit later, we met Boris at the Rostov’s.  Because he and his mum were poor, they used to live with the Rostovs, and he was Natasha’s boyfriend when we first met her.

Of course, goes to show how times change, doesn’t it?  Now he’s risen in the ranks of the army, just by playing his cards rights, and sucking up to the right people – and here he is, in the very circle that made his mother feel like an outsider.  We’ve effectively come full circle.

Under all this is the rather disturbing way that everybody encourages the rather flagrant flirting between Helene and Boris – clearly casting shadows yet again on her fidelity – but it’s Pierre who is the victim of all the gossip and talk!  The Russian aristocracy can be a pretty merciless place . . .

In the meantime, completely different topic – have you noticed how in the space of about three months here, all kinds of momentous events have passed in War and Peace?  Two battles, a wedding, a funeral, several soirees, and an episode involving drunks and a bear.

But what about your life?  Has anyone had any momentous milestone events since starting to read this book?  For myself, my milestone is waking up this morning and realising that I’ve been in this world for 30 years now . . .

Anyone else got any momentous events?

One-Year War and Peace 5.5 – Pierre’s Backbone

A very brief chapter, but a very interesting one.  Vasili comes around to try to give Pierre flack about his marriage, and Pierre suddenly gets some backbone and stands up to him!  Like he did with Helene, in the last part, he suddenly has had enough.

Should also say, as a final note on the Masonic issue, my endnotes from my Maude edition state that Tolstoy actually researched all the Masonic stuff pretty thoroughly and so the descriptions of their rituals are pretty accurate.

Philosophically, as far as Tolstoy was concerned, he liked the aims of the Masons, but thought their methods were misguided and crazy.  So there you go.

One-Year War and Peace 5.4 – The Rituals Continue

Tolstoy reigns himself in a little bit here, so we can’t tell whether he’s taking the Masons dead seriously or whether he’s poking fun at them.  (Normally, it’s more obvious whether he’s being satirical or not.)  So, on the one hand, you might agree with a lot of the things they say, or on the other hand, you might think the whole thing’s rubbish.  And I think, in this case, you can quite easily read both from the same passage.

Which brings me to my other Freemason story.  When Rachel and I were on honeymoon, we decided we’d explore Sydney (because you never really look around your own city when you live there) and we went to get a free guided tour of the Masonic Temple in the city.

The interesting part started when we went up to the reception desk and the young guy behind the desk told us that three people had been sacked that day, and he was standing in for the receptionist – but that he would be able to take us on a tour soon.

So we sat down for 45 minutes in a waiting lounge facing a glass case full of trowels, King James Bibles with Masonic symbols on them, various history books, and of all things – several cute toy penguins wearing masonic aprons!

When our young guide finally came back, he took us around all over the place, showed us strange rooms, opened creepy little cupboards with even creepier pictures behind them and constantly debunked the idea that they were devil-worshippers, a cult, etc. etc.  (This guy’s reason for joining was that he found out that his cricketing hero, Don Bradman, was a Mason, so he wanted to join.)

All in all, a fascinating trip, but I had the strangest dreams all that night.  For the next two days, I desperately wanted to join, just because the idea of finding out all kinds of secrets seemed quite alluring.

However, I would have had issues with the Freemasons just because of their views on God that they publicly announce (not counting the stuff that they’re rumoured to believe), so the feeling passed after a while.  But definitely one of the strangest experiences of my life.  I still have a second glance if I notice a Masonic ring or a tie pin.

Anyway, enough of me . . . so Pierre has had his “conversion experience” and the question now is: what kind of changes will his new-found faith bring?

One-Year War and Peace 5.3 – Joining the Masons

I must admit, that I’ve always been a bit freaked out by Freemasons since reading Alan Moore’s brilliantly but disturbing tale of Jack the Ripper, From Hell.  In Moore’s carefully plotted graphic novel, he laid out how the JTR murders were an elaborate plot, with Masonic involvement.  The brilliance of it all was that while there’s no way of knowing that his version of the story was true, nonetheless, he had done his research so well that it was entirely plausible.

Anyway, there’s another tale I could tell about Masons, but I’m about to leave work to head out to a chamber music concert (the fabulous Eggner Trio) and so I don’t have all that much time.

But my two cents for today are that I liked the way Tolstoy contrasted the solemnity (and creepiness) of the Masons with Pierre, with his own little funny thoughts in his head.  They’re asking him about his three reasons for joining (and he’s thinking things like, “Yeah, okay, I like the third one.  I think I should join!”).

More tomorrow . . .

One-Year War and Peace 5.2 – A Solution To Life’s Problems

Carrying on very quickly from the thoughts of the last chapter, Pierre then has a conversation with Bazdeev, the Freemason.  What’s fascinating about this conversation is that, even though the subject is Freemasonry, it actually represents fairly accurately the way many religions attract their followers nowadays.

I’ve noticed that certainly in Christian circles – at least up until recent decades – one of the big pushes for having people convert to Christianity was that it offered you a “solution” to life’s problems.

It’s a bit stereotypical, but many of the more popular stories of people who became Christians later in their life (as opposed to growing up with the faith) tell of people who were rampant alcoholics – until Jesus saved them.  Or they were addicted to drugs.  Or their family life was falling apart.

The problems and situations vary, but the end result was that they were having a major life crisis, and Jesus came along to fix things up.  Of course, today in the West, we’re a bit more cosmopolitan, and so we draw from a vast number of religions, not to mention making up some strange things ourselves.  So we have bits and pieces of Buddhism like meditation and mantras so we can relax.  We have books like The Secret that show us how to put our desires out to the Universe and manifest our dreams.  So there’s a sense in which we’re looking to something beyond what we can see and feel physically every day to help us with life.

But therein lies the problem, I think.  The obvious thing that jumps out (at least to me) is that if religion or spirituality is just a “help” – then you don’t really need it if life isn’t too bad.  I’ve found that several Christian friends of mine (and the thoughts have crossed my mind from time to time) struggle with wondering about the reality of Christianity, precisely because so many people don’t seem to need it.

In other words, anyone can point to someone who was an alcoholic who came to Jesus.  That person was feeling so bad about how their life was going, that a religion that said they were sinful and offered a way out was bound to resonate.  But for the average person out there, who is a “good person” – they look after others, they care for people, they’re a responsible member of society – there’s no real attraction to a religion that offers to fix problems when you don’t feel like you have any problems that want to be fixed.

I don’t want to launch into a huge sermon, but I think it highlights that at least for the last few centuries, Christianity went from being something that was considered true and real – as real as trees, buildings and people – and turned into something that was experienced in your head, without much bearing on the real world itself.

I think the real questions about any religion are to do with how truthful and real it is.  I think that there are some grave limitations to having religion just as a “solution” to life’s problems.

Anyway, we shall be able to pursue this topic as we go through this part of the book and follow Pierre’s strange journey into Freemasonry.  Will he find the solutions he wants?  How helpful will it be?

Stay posted on this rather spiritual section of the one and only War and Peace.

One-Year War and Peace 5.1 – Life, The Universe and Everything

I won’t both doing a roll call any more.  You’re either here or you’re not.  However, I should say, I’m very satisfied with myself that I managed to get all the way through the first volume (out of four) of my little Garnett translation.

But seeing as I’m still a day behind, let me not gibber on endlessly about that . . .

This chapter begins with Pierre sitting in a post-station.  I wasn’t exactly sure what this was, so I’ve done a bit (but only a small bit, mind you) of ferreting around in my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (by Shorter, I mean two massive slabs that you wouldn’t want to carry anywhere).

Maybe someone else can fill in the blanks, but from what I understand, travelling by post was a little bit like getting a hire car.  You pick up a horse at one post-station or post-house, ride it a certain distance until you reach the next post-house, and then you pick up a new horse to continue the journey.

In Pierre’s case, he’s arrived and there’s no horses currently available.  So when the post-master says that he can have the courier horses, he’s probably offering him horses that were set aside particularly for mail delivery (or maybe even military messages).

All of this is a side note, however, to what is going on in Pierre’s head.  What I find most amusing about this chapter is that it captures the very human tendency to only really think about the big questions when things are going pear-shaped.

For instance, have you noticed that amongst your friends and relatives who are all happily employed, life is going well – that nobody ever stops to talk much about what life means, is there a higher Power behind it all, the reality of death, etc?

In fact, if you do meet somebody who is obsessing over these questions (and is openly talking about them), it’s usually a sign that things aren’t so good somewhere else – they might be single, or recovering from a relationship break-up, work might be going badly.

The odd thing is that none of these questions are dumb questions, and it would make sense that we should sit down on a regular basis and think through the meaning of life, so we can work out whether we’re spending our days well or not.  But it just seems to be a fact of modern life (and obviously back in the 1800s as well), that we often only stop to contemplate these things when life is not doing so well.  Which is a shame, because we don’t the clear head that would be so useful in these discussions.

Anyway, Pierre’s head is about to get more complex (if my memory serves me correctly) with the arrival of the mysterious gentleman at the post-station.

One-Year War and Peace 4.16 – A Confession & A Proposal

Now that I’m able to read it slowly, the interaction between Nikolai and his father is even more poignant here, when we remember the earlier descriptions of Count Rostov as a gambler (part of the reason for his financial problems), we realise that Count Rostov is seeing – to his great sadness – the same character flaws in the son.

How can he condemn in Nikolai what he has often been guilty of himself?  But yet there is that beautiful moment when Nikolai finally begs his forgiveness.

Then, in the meantime, we have the somewhat amusing (as long as you’re not Denisov) proposal to Natasha and its subsequent refusal.  I’ve always had some pity on a guy who gets steeled up to ask the question, only to be given the flick.  And by the girl’s Mum, no less!  Still – he probably could have thought of the age gap before proposing to a 14-year-old . . .

I’m fast appreciating Tolstoy’s way of wrapping up the individual parts of War and Peace.  Each part almost starts to feel like a little novella with characters that we’re familiar with, rather than one big whole.  But isn’t that what life feels like?  A series of little moments, rather than a big epic story?

One-Year War and Peace 4.15 – Surrounded by Normality

Okay, I’m officially a day behind, and this is Thursday’s chapter.  You’ll have to bear with me while I catch up over the next couple of days.

Have you ever been in the situation in this chapter?  You’re absolutely devastated by something, but somehow the rest of the world goes on around you regardless?  Nikolai comes how, contemplating suicide, devastated by what he’s done to his family, but no one else knows or has any idea.

What’s interesting is that the little details of life in the Rostov house at the beginning of the chapter are all kind of peripheral.  Yes, Natasha and Sonya are singing, but we’re barely paying attention.

So the details that Denisov is head over heels in love with Natasha, and she’s flattered by the attention, are there, but kind of peripheral.  [As a side note, obviously Natasha meant what she said back at the beginning of the book when she said that she didn’t care about Boris any more, because he doesn’t seem to have made an appearance at all . . . Oh well.  How many of you keep in contact with that crush you had when you were 12?]

Then, as Natasha sings, Tolstoy swings the camera back off Nikolai for a bit, and we realise that Natasha, far from being the little girl that she was introduced to us as, may actually be growing up.  Thus, in this simple act of detailing the maturing of Natasha’s singing voice, Tolstoy sets up the much larger and more grown-up part that Natasha is to have in this novel from here on in.

She has stepped out of the sidelines of being a supporting actress and is heading for the limelight . . .

Of course, in the meantime, Nikolai while being blinded by the beauty of the singing is still delaying the moment when he has to have a chat with his Dad . . . Hasn’t this been a great Part 4? One more chapter to go.

One-Year War and Peace 4.14 – 43,000 Roubles

Like Ian, I still have no idea what card game this is that they’re describing, but does it really matter?

The fact that Dolohov decided that his age plus Sonya’s age is 43 and then decided to fleece Nikolai for 43,000 roubles is just priceless – right down to the 21 roubles that is over that he lets Nikolai win right at the end.

Astonishing and Nikolai just takes it – not able to stop himself.  I was reading this and thinking, “Well, all you have to do is get up and go home, son.”  But then again, if it was that easy, there wouldn’t be so many signs up around casinos and pokie rooms saying, “Do you have a problem with gambling?  Call this number.”

As always, Dolohov never does things by halves, and he’s always in control of the situation.

And those of you who remember Count Rostov’s second mortgage of his estates will realise that Nikolai’s foolishness is not just going to affect him, but his entire family . . .

One-Year War and Peace 4.13 – The Card Game

I have mentioned previously, the famous Russian film of War and Peace which serialised the book as four movies over a period of about five years.  All up, it adds up to about seven hours of cinema.  There was no way that they could fit the entire book into that time period, and certainly, compared with the level of detail that we’re getting out of reading it slowly, I’m pretty sure it would seem fast and chaotic by comparison.

But nonetheless, it remained true to the spirit of the book by lifting out all the really memorable set pieces and showing them almost word for word as Tolstoy described it.  So if you think back over some of the more quirky and memorable scenes, we have Dolohov drinking rum on the windowsill, Pierre’s “proposal”, Andrei’s charge at Austerlitz, etc.

And for the most part, if I’d had to cut War and Peace down to seven hours, I agreed with their choices.  But if they could have added anything in – I would have loved to have seen this card game (which would, of course, have involved the whole Dolohov/Sonya subplot, so it’s not that easy.

I remember this card game scene as clear as a bell from the first time I read the book, and I’ve always thought that it was one of the most brilliant scenes in all literature.  Here’s Dolohov, snubbed and spurned by Sonya, turning his anger right onto his faithful “friend”, Nikolai – by wiping him out at cards.

The irony of it all is that Nikolai knows exactly what’s happening, but can’t help himself.  (Another Tolstoy character carried along by fate.)  And I won’t say any more, because it continues into tomorrow’s chapter and things get even better there.

See you then!