And this chapter is the last one where you get some sense that things could have been fixed. Natasha is desperate for Andrei to arrive – but as with his first wife having a baby, he seems to be running late . . .
In the meantime, along comes Helene, with her invitation to a party to meet her brother.
I’ve got to admit, this chapter (along with the last one) does drive home the fact that the Kuragins are a funny breed. Neither Helene nor Anatole seem to have a moral bone in their body, and the fact that they might be destroying something or causing trouble never seems to enter their mind.
There’s always something rather fascinating about people that you know will go beyond limits that you normally would never cross. There’s a fascinating wonder about what might happen if you hang around with them, and a sense that you might have new experiences.
But common sense should tell us that some people are just plain dangerous to hang around . . .
But then we’ve got to pity poor Natasha. She doesn’t have Tolstoy in her ear, giving her reams of information about the people she hangs around with and what really goes in their lives. If she did, then we mightn’t have these kinds of problems . . .
Reading for Saturday 29 November
This chapter would be rather amusing if it wasn’t for the dire consequences we can see it’s going to have. Tolstoy gives us a bit of background on what Anatole Kuragin has been up to since we last met him. (Not much good, by the sounds of it.)
Oddly enough, while this chapter has Dolokhov in it, it never refers to the time when Dolokhov tried to woo Sonya. But I can’t help thinking that that would have been in the back of Dolokhov’s mind when he sees his friend keen on Natasha. By manipulating Anatole, he gets a double chance to have a shot back at the Rostovs (after the spectacular card game where he fleeced Nikolai, for those who can remember back that far).
This chapter is again very clever (and quite terrifying) both for what it says and what it does not say. If you were to analyse, to try to turn it into a movie scene, you’d be relying heavily on your actors, because all that’s really happening here is that Anatole joins Natasha and Co in their box and has a few chats about nothing and invites her to a costume ball.
But look what’s going on underneath . . . Natasha knows that no matter how innocent the conversation, she is well and truly cheating on Andrei with this guy. The little argument that she has in her head when she gets home about “I didn’t do anything” vs “Then why do I feel so guilty?” is quite human and quite spot on.
I think it’s a sobering reminder that affairs and cheating can not simply be defined sexually. They’re also defined by what goes on in your mind as well . . . Tolstoy may well have been thinking of the words of Jesus himself, when He said (slightly paraphrased by me), “If you look at another woman lustfully, you’ve committed adultery in your heart.”
The saga continues tomorrow . . .
You may be distracted by other things in this chapter, but this is actually a very funny description of an opera by Tolstoy. Especially back in the days before surtitles, where for the most part, you had a vague idea of the plot and were just supposed to sit back and enjoy the singing.
But let’s face it – we’re not really noticing the opera. In fact, one can only wonder if things would have gone differently in this chapter if the opera had been interesting and everyone had been riveted on the action.
THEN MAYBE WE WOULDN’T HAVE NATASHA GETTING KEEN ON ANATOLE “RATBAG” KURAGIN!!!
What on earth is this?!?!?
Like a train wreck in slow motion, the most disastrous thing imaginable (who cares about Napoleon invading?) starts to unfold.
Andrei, finally happy after years of miserableness (many chapters and months for us), finds the girl of his dreams, has to wait a year – and then THIS HAPPENS!
While it’s lost some of its shock value, I can still remember that feeling of, “Oh no! . . .” the first time I ever read it.
Everything just has an air of seediness about it. The low-cut dress of Helene’s, the way Anatole makes eyes at Natasha . . . Dolokhov sitting back and watching it all. It’s all the lowlifes of the Russian aristocracy, all having fun at a boring opera, and Natasha is about to step into the middle of it . . .
See you tomorrow, without a doubt.
No, it’s not the Marx brothers film – it’s the centre of the Russian aristocratic circle, the opera.
I must admit, it was hard to pay close attention to this chapter, because I was so horrified by the concept of people arriving in the middle of and talking through the overture to the opera!
I know that this happened, from what I’ve heard about in my reading of the history of opera – but still, could we stomach such a thing nowadays?
Anyway, I was a bit calmer when I heard they all shut up when the curtain opened.
But let’s ignore that – again, we just have a myriad of detail. Natasha and Sonya’s clothes, the fussing in the boxes, Boris and Julie and – of course – the one and only Dolokhov.
What I find most interesting is Helene Bezukhov showing up (Pierre’s wife). I’m not sure why (okay, well, I do think I know why, but I won’t say anything today) but there’s something sinister almost about her presence. Putting Natasha and Helene together in a chapter (and this is their first chapter together) is a contrast between Innocence/Righteousness on the one hand and Guilt/Philandering on the other. They’re poles apart . . . and yet Natasha looks at Helene and thinks that she’d be the type of woman a man would want to fall in love with . . .
This chapter is so well done, that you can just feel the awkwardness like an extra character in the chapter. Tolstoy breaks out all his detailed writing style to immerse us in the experience. We draw up to the “gloomy old house”, the count starts acting awkwardly, the flurry among the servants.
So by the time Marya is being unpleasant and the old count makes a crazy entrance in his dressing gown, we can only cringe . . .
It’s especially hard that Princess Marya, who we know is normally the most kind-hearted of women, now finds herself not liking Natasha. We would have thought that they would be good friends for each other – but not at the moment . . .
Can I take this opportunity to say to the Davis family (now in the Atherton Tablelands above Cairns), that you’re the most delightful in-laws that I could possibly have, and I’m very glad to have married into your family?
Now, you might have to cast your mind back for this character, but if you remember Natasha’s Dad and his Daniel Cooper dance way back in Book 1 – this is the rather large old woman that he was dancing with.
Still friends with the Rostovs, despite all their financial difficulties, she is looking after the girls while they’re in Moscow. There’s not a lot that happens in this chapter, but the standout thing for me was that Marya Dmitryevna is clearly of the old school of Russian aristocrat.
She immediately draws a distinction between Natasha and Sonya, based on their social standing, and treats them differently because of it. Poor old Sonya . . . I’m almost wishing at this stage that some other person would show up and woo her, but I don’t think there’s really any characters of that type around.
There’s Boris, but there’s no way we’d want to let him loose on her. There’s Ratbag Kuragin, but I don’t think that’s a good idea. Nor would I wish Hippolyte on anyone.
There is Pierre, but he’s married, and I don’t think he’d be her type.
And so that really does only leave us with Nikolai . . .
Complicated, isn’t it? A novel with more characters than you can shake a stick at and we can’t get someone decent to pair up with Sonya . . .
Well, we’ll come back tomorrow to see how Natasha goes meeting her prospective father-in-law.
Now here’s a gem of a chapter that I just don’t remember at all from reading last time. After having been included as only a minor character for so long in the book, Tolstoy now shines the spotlight on Julia Karagina and her courtship by Boris Drubetskoy.
While Boris doesn’t have the over-the-top flair of, say, Dolokhov (and where’s he disappeared to? It feels like he should make a reappearance . . .), nonetheless, his calculating style is highly amusing to read about – unless you’re a die-hard romantic.
I couldn’t help but think of Julie and Boris as being a kind of early 19th-century goths. Writing poems about death and melancholy, and getting a perverse joy out of the whole thing.
And here’s Boris – torn between knowing that he just has to say the word, and “her Penza estates and her Nizhnigorod forests” will all be is and a slight twinge of annoyance that he’ll be marrying a girl that he doesn’t love. We also see Anna Mihalovna (his mother) at work here as well, and realise that he’s just a chip off the old block . . .
It’s a funny chapter – if someone like Natasha or Princess Marya was being courted in this fashion, we’d be horrified and want to yell, “No, get away!” – but because we’re not particularly attracted to Julie Karagina, and the way Tolstoy spins the tale, I couldn’t help but get a chuckle out of this chapter.
And here we have a very short, but very human chapter. I love this description of the conversation between Pierre and Marya because of the awkwardness that Marya feels in telling Pierre how she feels.
There’s something that I can completely relate to in this – does anyone else know that feeling? You’d love nothing more than to share how you feel with someone you’re talking to – and yet, there’s always that invisible barrier that makes us pause, rather than express what we think.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what causes this fear of other people, but it’s there and real in most people.
Also, in a larger sense of the novel, this chapter is a remarkable contrast to the last one. In the last one, everyone was being as fake as possible – in this chapter, we are in a far more real space.
Of course, this chapter doesn’t just work emotionally – plotwise, we see that Boris is now making a move on Princess Marya and that the engagement of Andrei and Natasha is still under a cloud as the 12 months draws to a close . . .
Well, here we go. In true epic novel style, the wheels have completely turned, and Prince Bolkonsky, once a total hermit and completely unpopular – is now the place to be seen in Moscow.
This chapter points out again the total hypocrisy of the upper class. It must be clear to everyone that the old man is off his rocker and most unpleasant – witness the story about the French doctor. But because of the growing anti-French sentiment, he’s all of a sudden become very popular . . .
The fact that Boris is there – and Boris only follows power, if you remember – is a sure sign. If we remember, the last time Boris was at a dinner party was when he was dining with French soldiers following the peace treaty at Tilsit . . .
There’s not really anything particularly uplifting about this chapter, and believe you me, times of change and trouble are just beginning for our Russian friends.