Reading for Monday, 23 February
The madness continues in this chapter. Rastopchin, rather than dealing in any military way with the threat of invasion, has taken to punishing individuals and groups that are unpatriotic. (Hmm . . . we wouldn’t be like that nowadays, would we?) So Pierre gets a warning as a Mason and various individuals are targeted.
But for me, the highlight of this chapter is the end. In the kind of circumstance that could only happen in the middle of a war – Pierre decides to make a mad dash out into the streets. This is not just simply leaving his house. This is leaving behind the aristocracy, and all its hypocrisy and conventions.
This, my friends, is the equivalent of Truman Burbank breaking out of the TV studio in The Truman Show. And it’s also the beginning of Pierre’s odyssey through the tail end of this book.
Reading for Sunday, 22 February
Sorry again about the delay. One of the reasons for that is that I’ve actually been trying to work out exactly what happened in this chapter. With no suitable footnotes, I’m not really sure what the background story is to the Vereshtchagin incident.
From what I understand, a fake proclamation (was it meant to be from Rastopchin or Napoleon?) appeared around town – probably something about Moscow about to be captured by the French. Either way, they traced it back to the uneducated Vereshtchagin, who refused to offer any other explanation other than that he made it up.
Either way, I think this chapter is designed to show the madness that is Moscow on the eve of invasion.
Reading for Saturday, 21 February
And why not have a dream sequence I say? Everything that has built up over the past 10 books, plus the events of the recent Battle of Borodino, all play themselves out in Pierre’s head in this bizarre chapter. The strange thing is that he (and we) almost believe that he had found a good philosophy of life there – if only he hadn’t been woken up.
And then finally at the end, proving again that less can be more, in just a couple of sentences Tolstoy gives us the news about Andrei and Anatole. The good thing about Leo Tolstoy is that he doesn’t kill characters off willy-nilly, so when he does, it’s always got a much stronger effect than you would expect.
Not a lot to comment on in this chapter because it is so short, except that it’s interesting how the class distinctions have largely broken down in the light of the battle. (Well, at least they’ve broken down for Pierre.)
It’s also unusual because it contrasts so much with the previous chapters, where we see the Petersburg crowd totally out of touch with the reality of the war (Helene’s much more interesting to them). But here, Pierre experiences the real thing in all its devastation.
Reading for Thursday, 19 February
And as Helene’s shenanigans continue, we see that the hypocrisy (to use Carly’s most apt word) of the situation is quite deep-seated and spreads throughout the Russian aristocracy. At first, I was thinking that this was a bit much, and that surely most people wouldn’t go swapping gossip on who husband number 2 is when husband number 1 is still alive.
But then, when I walk to the train station of a morning and see all the gossip magazines lined up in a row, I think to myself, What’s changed? Nobody ever shakes their head in sadness that Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt can’t seem to keep a relationship together – we just are curious to see who’s next. I’m guessing this is very much the Russian version of that.
And, of course, it doesn’t really surprise us that the vignettes detailed here of Helene’s Dad and her rarely-seen Mum show that this kind of thing runs in the family.
But, in the end, it’s the last sentence that reminds us that what is the gossip and amusement of Petersburg has been the sadness and burden of Pierre for many years.
I was a couple of days behind on my reading, and dog-tired from the two concert nights, so I woke up rather late this morning to find the following text message on my mobile phone, from my friend cafedave, who has been reading along faithfully with us (albeit silently as far as the blogosphere is concerned).
The text read simply:
No way! Helene is converting to Catholicism to get an annulment!
It’s something about first thing in the morning that this message didn’t make a lot of sense. I was lying there thinking, “I don’t know any Helene. Do I know a Helene? Maybe Dave meant to send this message to his wife talking about someone they knew and he accidentally sent it to me.”
So I was about halfway through the response text when it suddenly dawned on me what it was all about . . .
Yes, indeed, we do have a convert to Catholicism in the amazing Helene. Maybe it’s because we’ve been in dark battle mode for so long, but there’s something subtly amusing about this whole chapter. The way she plays the two lovers off against each other, the Jesuits who hope to get a donation, and the priest who knows exactly what she’s after but doesn’t want to admit that the system can be corrupted so well.
Oh dear . . .
Reading for Tuesday, 17 February
And here we zoom out again for the big picture of everybody leaving Moscow. In probably the first time that Tolstoy has taken his philosophy from out of the battlefield context, he shows us that the leaving of Moscow by everyone was inevitable as well (despite what the single individual, Rastopchin, would try to do to the contrary).
One person started leaving, somebody else did as well, and the fervour spread to the crowd. And it was that crowd that was going to determine what happened, not what Rastopchin did.
Granted, it does all sound a bit crazy, and things have certainly escalated from the time when everyone was doing their best to think about anything besides the impending invasion.
And certainly, there’s nothing more diverting from the invasion than the events of the next chapter . . .
Reading for Monday, 16 February
Two concerts of Gidon Kremer and his hand-picked orchestra, Kremerata Baltica, have wreaked havoc with any attempts to get on here and blog.
But I’m back now. And in this chapter, we find that Kutuzov has to actually make his decision. And Tolstoy slows time down for a beautifully detailed recreation of what that meeting would have been like. Was there really a little girl in the room listening in? Did Kutuzov really sit with his face hidden in shadow so people couldn’t see how disappointed he was?
I don’t know – but it feels real. And there’s nothing more awe-inspiring than when Kutuzov says that he will have to pay for the broken pots. Ultimately, whoever said we should abandon Moscow was going to be considered a coward. But in the Tolstoy-painted version of reality, there was no other choice that could be made. It was going to inevitably happen because that’s the way the crowd was moving.
And, we’re left again with Kutuzov pondering the continuity/discrete sections dilemma – at what particular point did he lose Moscow? (Not realising that there was no particular point – it was a smooth slide that led inevitably there.)
And here from the theoretical constraints on a general, we zoom in to Kutuzov as a character, surrounded by different parties, all arguing for different things – and knowing that the only thing that’s going to happen is that they have to abandon Moscow.
He knows that no matter what he orders, it’s going to happen, but there’s still the political game: do you want to be known as the general who gave in?
What I think is most interesting is listening to Kutuzov, trying to work out where it all went wrong? In very Tolstoy style, he can’t pin an exact moment or event that caused it . . .
And here, as we move from the philosophy back to the battlefield, we are left again with Kutuzov and Napoleon, both so swept up in the chain of events that nothing they can do can change anything.
While I’m still not quite convinced that the generals were as powerless as all that, nonetheless, Tolstoy’s reasoning is starting to convince me, if nothing else because of how often he beats me over the head with it in every chapter. (I might have said this elsewhere, but it’s starting to remind me of Oliver’s Stone’s JFK. Yes, it’s fiction and conjecture – but the conviction of the filmmaker is so strong, that you can’t help but believe that this is what really must have happened to JFK. So also with Tolstoy. Surely, we think, this must be what it was really like in the Napoleonic wars – this must have been what the generals were thinking.)
Most fascinating of all is Kutuzov, surrounded by little messages on all sides, all of which require him to make a decision. Can he really be said to make the best decision under the circumstances? Or does he really just make one decision out of many that he has to make because he has to do something? If later, it turned out to be a disaster, the history books will say that he chose badly. But if things turned out well, we’ll say that he did a good job and was a wise general.
But, really, at the time, did he really know whether one choice was better than another? I sometimes imagine that if time travel was ever invented, it would be fascinating to take people from different points of history and put them together. (E.g. letting Bach meet Beethoven, Beethoven meet Mahler.) It would be kind of fun to put Kutuzov and Tolstoy in a room together and see whether Kutuzov agreed that really nothing he personally did made much difference – or whether he’d get highly offended at the idea and take Tolstoy to task.
(Either way, I reckon Leo wouldn’t change his mind – because even if Kutuzov did think that he was personally responsible for winning the war, Tolstoy would still think he was deluding himself . . .)