Reading for Tuesday, June 16

And here we have the last appearance of Natasha and Pierre. This chapter is actually a little bit oblique, because it feels as if it’s setting things up for some historical events that were to occur in the future (of which Russian readers may have been well aware), whereas I’m not so sure.

We have three strands – the first two intertwine simultaneously, and this is Natasha’s happy prattle about her husband – which gives us a glimpse of the old Natasha, actually. There’s hints about a few things – that Pierre might have been unfaithful, that despite how much she loves him, his ideas may not be all that accepted in public. It’s hard to say – they’re glimpses only in this strange, overlapping conversation.

Pierre meanwhile has one big idea that he keeps returning to. As Ian pointed out in a comment a few posts back – it’s Pierre’s big idea that “if vicious people are united and form a power, honest men must do the same. It’s simple, you see.”

It’s those words, if anyone has seen the Sergei Bondarchuk film – and if you’ve been reading with us this far, you owe it to yourself to see it – that open and close the film.

But the final strand is young Nikolai Bolkonsky, dreaming of his father. His dream is abstract, but it shows him siding with Pierre over Nikolai Rostov – representing really that he is fighting against the tradition of the past and fighting for a new future. And overseeing this is his father, Andrei, who is proud of him – at least in his dreams.

The question is – did this young boy grow up to be one of the soldiers in a Russian uprising somewhere?  I’m just referring now to my notes way back i Volume 1 of my four-volume translation tha talked about the year of 1856. I’ll give you these quotes:

Count Leo Tolstoy once said that those who were not alive in the Russia of 1856 did not know what life was. If any one event of that year seemed to Tolstoy to signal a sea change in Russian politics … it was the announcement at the coronation of the new emperor, Tsar Alexander II, that the Decembrists could return from their long exile in Siberia. The Decembrists were a somewhat chaotic coalition of reform-minded officers and gentlemen who had taken to the streets at the last change of power in 1825, trying to turn Senate Square in Petersburg on the night of December 14th into a Russian version of the Place de la Révolution. Although their bungled attempt at a rising is often seen today as a slightly slapstick prelude to the much more serious revolution of October 1917, Tsar Nicholas did not see anything comical about it at all, questioning hundreds of suspected conspirators, exiling dozens and executive five. Tolstoy was one of many in the late 1850s and early 1860s who also took the Decembrists quite seriously, regarding them as an earlier generation of resolute constitutional reforimsts and hoping that their amnesty meant a return to the reforms first begun under the new tsar’s great-grandmonther, Catherine the Great, nearly a century before.

Not long after the Decembrists were welcomed back from their exile in Siberia, Tolstoy began work on a book that would eventually become known as War and Peace. It was to be set in the present and its hero was to be one of those early reformists, returning with his family, considerably sadder and somewhat wiser, to the drawing-rooms of Moscow and Petersburg after so many years away. However, Tolstoy soon discovered that he could not write this volume until he had written another volume set in 1825, describing the events that led up to the rising. Even then, he thought, his hero would be a grown man whose formative years would have been those of the Napoleonic Wars and yet another volume was needed to tell the whole story.

So it may be that Pierre and young Nikolai were representative of this force for change that was about to break out in 1825. We finish up the story in 1820, so in five years’ time, Nikolai would be 19 – well and truly old enough to take part in a revolution, and Pierre could have been in the same boat.

So that’s my reading on the dream that finishes this thing off – it’s a nod by Tolstoy to the Decembrist uprising of 1825 – the original inspiration for the book and, as we have seen, never really making an appearance in this story.

However, I don’t think you need to know all that history to “get” the ending. It’s enough to know that history keeps rolling on – people think about ideas, it inspires them to action – and then things happen as a result. History moves on.

We have the second part of the epilogue to go, which is entirely devoted to philosophy, where Tolstoy will expound one more time, his ideas on history.

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One thought on “One-Year War and Peace E1.16 – Natasha and Pierre’s Last Bow

  1. You certainly raise an interesting question there, Matt, about the young Nikolai and what would have become of him. Aside from the issues of Russia’s subsequent history, which you raise, is, for me, the simple fact that Tolstoy breathed such life into his characters – even ones such as young Nikolai – that we cannot help but wonder what they’re doing when we’re not watching.

    I really did love this chapter, though – and it seemed such a fitting conclusion to the story, if not yet the book, of War and Peace. First there was that delightful scene between Pierre and Natasha, where he was pondering the meaning and nature of change, and she was talking about the kids … the quintessential image of the big world and the little world coming together to make the one picture.

    But it was the final paragraphs, describing young Nikolai’s dream of his father, and how he “felt weak from love: he felt strengthless, boneless and liquid” – which seemed so heart achingly beautiful to me – and then finally, his almost ecstatic hope to be someone of whom his father would be proud. If this nervous, uncertain, frail young man is Tolstoy’s final symbol of the future, then, despite its fragility, it is a hopeful, uplifting image indeed.

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