In some ways, War and Peace is starting to remind me of classical music in its structure. Classical music often returns to the same familiar themes, but they will be varied or made more elaborate every time you come to them.
And here we have another evening with the Rostovs, which in many respects, is like many of the other evenings we’ve spent with the Rostov family so far in this book. Things are happy and friendly (in fact, it’s nice to see that the family seems to have bonded a bit better and come back together after all the goings-on), Natasha is singing again, their home is always open to Pierre, and even old Shinshin is there to crack jokes.
But at the same time, everything is a touch more complex – Pierre is fighting really hard with his feelings with Natasha, and decides that this is the last visit. The war is looming, and everyone knows it is far more serious than the last one they lived through. Petya, once the innocent little boy, wants to run off and join the hussars like his big brother. And even Natasha is not perfectly light and happy – she is still recovering and, most moving of all, wondering whether Andrei will ever forgive her.
In fact, it’s kind of like life, isn’t it? The longer we know people, the better we know people, the more difficult, complex and richer our relationships become. We see people we’ve known for ages do things that sadden us. We have conversations with people that we’d never have when they were only casual acquaintances. Things are far less superficial, and that’s what this evening with the Rostovs feels like to me. We’ve seen beyond the rich aristocrats who throw parties to the human beings underneath.
And . . . seeing as tomorrow is New Years’ Day, that’s my other day off. So I’ll see you all back on 2 January 2009. Have a fantastic New Years’ Eve, everyone. Don’t do anything diabolically dangerous, silly or that you’ll regret. And don’t insult any French people you might meet, just because you’ve been reading War and Peace.
I’m not sure exactly when strange theories started to circulate about the “number of the beast” in the Book of Revelation, but for the last few centuries, at least, people have taken great delight in making it stretch to all sorts of people, from Napoleon to Hitler to the Pope and so on.
And Tolstoy is having his own little joke with the idea here by having Pierre calculate his own name (by varying the spelling and finally settling on a grammatically incorrect phrase to make it all work).
But I think this chapter captures some of the madness that must have been in the air in 1812. Pierre is no longer thinking about deep philosophical questions. He has only the two things on his mind, Natasha and the impending “showdown” that he believes must come between him and Napoleon. If you multiply this kind of madness out by the rest of the population of Moscow, it must have been crazy days indeed . . .
Reading for Monday, 29 December
I’m now back in slightly cooler and much less humid Brisbane, so hopefully this will be the last of the blog disruptions for a while.
In this chapter, Natasha and the rest of the Rostov family go to church to pray for the war. I should point out that there was a mention of Denisov in this chapter – Natasha said that when they prayed for the army, she thought of her brother and Denisov.
But the far more interesting part of this chapter is the way that religion and politics mix together. I’m not sure how they got to this mode of thinking, but – at least as far as the deacon praying is concerned – the Russians are now God’s chosen people, and the French are now “God’s enemies”.
I can understand how this kind of thinking would come about – on a religious note, if I understand my history correctly, the French would have been quite secular by this stage, compared with the more devoutly Orthodox Russians, so there was certainly a religious difference that existed between the two countries on that level.
But this prayer takes it to a whole new level, with all the Old Testament imagery of Israel defeating its enemies being read straight onto Russia and its enemies, with no real question of whether it fits, whether the Bible was actually talking about Russia at the time and really no explanation for why Russia, of all countries in the world, would be God’s new Israel . . .
But that hasn’t stopped other nations thinking that way, and there’s quite a relevance to this chapter to modern-day history, I think.
Well, I’m caught up. How amazing is that? And here’s this very quite but beautiful chapter where we see Natasha’s slow recovery from her depression.
It’s interesting to read that she’s written off Pierre still being interested in her. On the one hand, I’m rather glad that they’re not going to start an affair, because nobody really wants to think of Natasha as that kind of girl (oddly enough, the fact that Pierre regularly is out drinking and carousing never seems to take away from his character, but we’d hate to think of Natasha involved in that life).
But even more interesting was the fast of St Peters that Natasha goes through with her neighbour. I thought this was really interesting, and I’m not entirely sure how it works. But I love the idea of the ritual, that kind of reminds you of cleansing.
So each day, dressed modestly, Natasha and Madame Byelov head off to church in the wee small hours. And day by day it builds up, until finally, they hit the final Sunday when they can go take Communion, dress in white, and feel cleansed of their sins.
It’s a strange but beautiful moment in the story. What’s even stranger, however, is the little superstition Countess Rostova has of spitting at the end. It’s not so much the spitting that I find strange as the fact that a family that can believe so much in an all-powerful God is still so superstitious on the side. But Russia, I think, can be a strange place.
Reading for Saturday, 27 December
Now this chapter is rather amusing. We switch back to the unwell Natasha and Tolstoy uses this as an excuse to spend an entire chapter taking a sledgehammer to the medical profession.
Granted, medicine has come a long way since the 1800s, and if history is any guide, there could be a lot of things that we do now that we’ll look back in 50 years time and say, “What on earth were we thinking?”
But is it really as bad as Tolstoy puts out? That because every individual is unique, there’s no real way of treating anything?
Anyway, as long as you’re not a doctor, or can take all of this with a grain of salt, it’s actually quite amusing as Tolstoy tells us about all the placebo benefits of consulting doctors. It makes the doctors feel special, it makes the family feel like they’re doing something rather than nothing, it gives Sonya a sense of purpose making sure Natasha takes her medicine, and it even gives Natasha something to do (trying to avoid taking the medicine).
All very amusing . . . but, in the end, it’s as her depression eases that she gets well.
Reading for Friday, 26 December
So, as I said earlier, I’m assuming that I didn’t have to read a chapter on Christmas Day (though with my skipping of days, that’s a bit all over the place.)
I really like this chapter, because it turns from a big gung-ho action sequence into a moving revelation, when Nikolai realises that the French soldier he has caught is terrified, frightened – in a word, a human being.
One of the things that worries me immensely about today’s culture, is that if you watch the vast majority of war movies, the enemy is always portrayed as just the person you’re shooting at. You don’t know anything about their background, and so they’re either portrayed as being horrendously ugly, one-dimensionally evil or – if it’s a WWII film – unable to speak English. With this kind of black and white view of war, then there’s always a good guy and a bad guy, and it’s as simple as that.
The problem is that war isn’t like that, and that the other side have stories and emotions of their own. I think we desensitise ourselves from war far too often. I’m not a complete pacificist, but I worry about dehumanising our enemies.
Reading for Wednesday, 24 December
And in this chapter, Nikolai gets the call to go off into battle. I won’t say too much about it, because the beauty is in the description and the way we are slowly drawn from the beauty of the rising sun on the road into the danger of the battlefield – all in one smooth arc of storytelling, exactly as if we’re watching a continuous take on a film.
The main difference is Nikolai – who was spectacularly scared when he went off to war seven years ago – is now brave and fearless, simply by thinking of anything but the battle.
Things change with time.
Reading for Tuesday, 23 December
I must admit, I don’t remember a lot of these chapters last time I read the novel (I think I was starting to speed-read by this stage and take in less). So a lot of these chapters I feel like I’m reading for the first time. But then, that is the joy of a one chapter a day regime . . .
Also, what’s making it trickier is that Tolstoy is setting up the vast background details of the war, so everything’s starting to feel a bit “plotless” again. Remember at the beginning of the novel, how everything felt a bit random and all over the place? However, by the time we got to the whole Andrei/Natasha engagement subplot, everything felt a lot more plotted and worked out.
Now it seems like we’re back to random territory again. However, that’s all okay.
So we find this rather surreal little interlude of the Russian soldiers all crammed into the little inn and chatting up the doctor’s German wife. I’m not sure that the doctor or his wife ever make a subsequent appearance, but that doesn’t matter. For the duration of this chapter, the scene feels as if it is straight from real life.
The real question is, would anyone want to leave their wife in a room full of Russian soldiers?
Reading for Monday, 22 December
And in this chapter, we find out what Nikolai Rostov has been up to. Despite all the goings-on in his family, he still likes the non-responsibility of the army life.
There’s not much to comment on in this chapter, but the story of the general and his two sons crossing the bridge is a highlight moment of the chapter.
However, there was a mention of Denisov in this chapter, in that the young soldier Ilyin is now to Nikolai what Nikolai was to Denisov seven years ago. I was just trying to remember, did they specifically mention what happened to Denisov? I’m assuming that, unless I hear anything otherwise, that he probably died in the hospital of the disease he had when Nikolai visited him.
Not sure . . . We may find out?
Reading for Sunday, 21 December
And now, with a turn of characterisation that he does so well, Tolstoy describes the “strategy” meeting between the different generals, and actually succeeds in making us feel a bit sorry for Pfuhl because “he was visibly in despair that the sole chance left him of testing his theory on a vast scale and proving its infallibility to the whole world was slipping away from him.”
Of course, by the end of the meeting in the room, no resolution is reached, and instead, via Prince Andrei’s stream of consciousness, Tolstoy provides us with the theory that there is no great “man of genius” in the world of war – it all comes down to what your men do on the ground.
Then, as another of those Tolstoy throwaway moments, we find out in the last paragraph, that Andrei wants to serve on the front, rather than be on the staff of the Tsar. Things are different now in 1812, than when Andrei first served. In 1805, he really wanted to do heroic things in battle so that he could move himself up the ladder and be regarded as a great man.
Now he has the chance for “greatness” and he’d rather go serve at the front. He seems more content just to get the war over and done with.
Well, that’s my reading of it anyway. Any other thoughts?