One-Year War and Peace E1.11 – A Husband’s Return

Reading for Thursday, June 11

Here we have another bizarre chapter, where Natasha is waiting for Pierre to return from business and gets all upset when he doesn’t come back. Is this because him being away reminds her of the time that Andrei went away for a year and she betrayed him? I don’t know, it’s not mentioned, but it could be . . .

I must admit, it was hard to concentrate too hard on the subtleties of this chapter, because I was too busy noticing the interesting cultural understanding of breastfeeding that we get from this chapter (and the previous one). In the previous chapter, Natasha is portrayed as being quite radical for breastfeeding her own children instead of having a wet nurse.

And in this chapter, she “overfeeds” her baby and makes it ill. Certainly, if you give a baby too much breastmilk, you can give them a stomach-ache and they might start throwing up a bit more . . . but you can’t give an illness to a baby by giving them too much breastmilk.

How do I know all this? My wife is training to be a counsellor for the Australian Breastfeeding Association, so I’ve heard a fair bit of info about breastfeeding over the last few years . . . in fact, I’m hearing a fair bit as I write this.

Anyway, that’s a bit of a digression, but it goes to show the shifting and changing attitudes towards breastfeeding in society. (It went completely out in the 50s, when formula came in and now it’s starting to come back in again.)

Meanwhile, Pierre arrives back home and proves that he is good with the kids – which you’d kind of expect. Nikolai can’t see the value in babies, which slightly irks me – but hey, this is Nikolai . . . would he really act any differently?

One-Year War and Peace E1.10 – Under Petticoat Government

Reading for Wednesday, June 10

Now, I must confess, this is the first chapter that has had me scratching my head a bit. I’m not sure whether it would have infuriated the 19th-century equivalent of feminists back in the day, but here we have Natasha who has devoted all her time and energy to her children as a mother.

Now, I don’t have a problem with this – what I find a bit sad is that it sounds like she gave up the sparkly life-loving part of her personality to do so. Surely, Natasha would be a Mum who was full of energy and excitement and would convey that to her children and those around her?

Maybe she is like that . . . but it does sound a bit like Tolstly is saying she gave up the fun-loving part of her nature to become completely family-focused. It’s just sad, because it makes being family-focused sound so boring . . .

Sigh . . . oh well. Maybe this is why they never filmed the epilogue for the Bondarchuk film.

One-Year War and Peace E1.9 – A Rostov Domestic

Reading for Tuesday, June 9

Now we’ve actually jumped quite a few years forward here, because Nikolai and Marya now have two kids. Who are named, bizarrely enough, Natasha and Andrei. (Though the translation refers to little Andrei as Andryusha, which is a bit like a Russian nickname for Andrei, so you may not have realised straight away what his proper name was.)

This is on top of Andrei’s surviving son, who was also called Nikolai. Maybe it’s just Tolstoy’s way of showing how history repeats itself?

I don’t know.

I tell you what I do know, and that is that Nikolai is quite a sook, and I really was feeling sorry for Marya in this chapter.

But then again – hasn’t he always been? Do we expect him to change? Not really . . .

One-Year War and Peace E1.8 – Fisticuffs and a Barren Flower

Reading for Monday, June 8

And here we see more of the domestic side of the Rostov home – but this time Nikolai’s fiery temper and his habit of getting into punch-ups with unruly peasants. Marya is horrified, but from memory – it’s been a while since we read that chapter – the way they first met was Nikolai punching up some peasants who didn’t want to help Marya escape from the attacking French.

So the very habit that sewed the seed of romance is now the seed of marital discord. But rather amusing marital discord (well, at least I found it funny).

What’s far sadder is what’s happened to poor old Sonya. She just seems to have accepted her place and lumped it. Despite what I (or any other readers) thought she might have deserved, she’s really turning into an old maid at the Rostov’s place . . . and that’s pretty much where this chapter leaves us.

There’s a certain worry about getting near the end of a book like this, because if you don’t like the state that a character is in, you know there’s only a few more chapters to fix the problem, and if they don’t get fixed – that’s it. Forever and ever, that character is going to be stuck in that situation. (A facet of fiction that is played with in a rather light-hearted and amusing fashion by author Jasper Fforde in his zany fiction The Eyre Affair.)

So if this is the last we hear of Sonya, that’s it for her . . . sigh . . .

One-Year War and Peace E1.7 – Nikolai as Tolstoy?

Reading for Sunday, June 7

I can’t remember where I read it, but I’m pretty sure that I heard that Tolstoy, in his later years, freed all his serfs on his family estate. Whether I imagined it or not, it feels very much like this chapter, where we read about Nikolai and how he manages his peasants, is very much Tolstoy’s view of how they should be treated.

Treat them like humans, put their welfare first, and lo and behold, you have well-managed estates.

Oddly enough, this is starting to be the mantra in the world of employment as well. Treat your employees well, and they just might make your business profitable.

But only Nikolai would pretend that he’s not doing this for any humanitarian reasons at all. Anyway, I must run, it’s time for church.

One-Year War and Peace E1.6 – Love Blooming

Reading for Saturday, June 6

We kind of all knew this chapter was coming – Marya and Nikolai finally get together. (I think that’s definitely the nail in Sonya’s coffin lid . . .)

It’s, of course, completely like Nikolai to be too proud to marry her for her money and also completely like Marya not to push him after he showed an interest in her.

I think the nice thing about how this panned out was that at least we’re pretty sure that they are getting together because they like one another – it’s not another Pierre and Helene we’re setting up here.

But still, I reckon she’ll have her work cut out for her . . . don’t tell Marya I said that, though.

And now for another installment of the Busoni. Despite the majestic main theme that the orchestra set up, you might have noticed (if you watched the video yesterday), that the pianist actually didn’t play around with that too much. Which is what a piano concerto is about, really. The orchestra plays a theme, the pianist elaborates on it.

But, from what I’ve been able to work out, there’s not a lot of that – at least in this movement. In this second video, the movement continues and we realise that yesterday the pianist was only warming up. In this video, Busoni flogs him within an inch of his life. There’s nothing quite like a pianist having to keep up with a monstrously complex piece of music – enjoy!

One-Year War and Peace E1.5 – The Decline of the Rostovs

Reading for Friday, June 5

And so at last Pierre and Natasha are married. Oddly enough, the wedding is almost an incidental event in this chapter (despite the long build up – we’ve been waiting almost the entire novel for this!).

Instead, it’s the decline of the Rostovs that we witness. Old Count Rostov dies from depression and the guilt that he squandered the family fortune. Then we’re left with Nikolai trying to pay off the family debts and gradually finding himself in trouble as well.

But possibly the darkest moment in this chapter is his relationships with Sonya. From one of the most innocent of friendships at the beginning of the book, there’s nothing there now. We kind of expected this, but it does seem a bit hard on Sonya. Still, there’s a few more chapters to go – something might work out for him.

In the meantime, while you’re waiting for the next post, I’m going to post up this YouTube – it’s not really a video, but it’s the only place in the world where you can currently hear this amazing performance by Marc-Andre Hamelin and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Switzerland of the Piano Concerto by Ferrucio Busoni. It’s an obscure piece of music, but it’s completely epic. It’s in eight parts and runs for more than an hour (and what piano concerto runs for more than an hour?), so we’ll just do it in parts. Here’s Part One:

War and Peace – The Advantage of Reading it Slowly

As I said in the original post, there is a lot to be gained by reading War and Peace slowly.  So I thought I would explain a little bit about why I think that is.

A lot of novels are plot-driven – so the conversations and events that are recorded in the novel all contribute to the plot.  Anything else is usually cut.  So if the scene was the opening soiree and War and Peace was plot-driven, you wouldn’t need to know who everyone is at a party – you only need to know about the two or three main people.

Other novels are character-driven.  The characters are going on an internal journey.  That’s more the case with War and Peace, but even then, a character-driven book might only deal with one or two characters.

By contrast, I believe that War and Peace is life-driven.

What I mean is that its focus is on the everyday details of life – as if you were living through it.

Think about it – if you were at a party (as we all will be on 1 July), you don’t know who is going to play a significant part in your life or not.  There might be an enthusiastic, vivacious person there that you’ll never see again, or a quiet person who says barely a word but goes on to become your best friend.

The only thing you can notice, from moment to moment, is – the details.  The mannerisms. The conversations. The little happenings.

Our memories, in real life, are made up of thousands of these little details of moments in our life.  They may not be very important, and you’d leave them out if you were making a movie of your life – but these little details and moments make up your life and memories.  The older you get, the more of these memories you collect.

And that’s the magic of War and Peace.  By focusing in on the small details of life, at first it appears that Tolstoy is a bit all over the shop, just writing about whatever comes into his mind.  But, chapter by chapter, book by book, all these little details come together to form a vast picture of Russian life during the Napoleonic wars.

So, the benefit of reading this slowly is that the more time you revel in the little details and allow them to soak in, the more amazing will appear the final tapestry when you eventually close the book.

Maybe if you read it fast, you would grasp the whole plot better and keep track of the main characters – but life isn’t made up of “main characters” and “taut plotting”.  It’s made up of details – infinite, tiny details.  Welcome to the world of Leo Tolstoy.

War and Peace: The Challenge Guidelines

Well, now that we’ve almost got a full contingent, I might as well set down the guidelines for the challenge.

I was going to call these the Challenge Rules, but I thought that might be a bit harsher than was necessary.

So instead, it’s the guidelines.

1.  We’ll all read one chapter of War and Peace a day.

2.  I’ll blog about it, and you can all chip in with your comments (if you have any) and we can discuss the chapter.

3.  If you have read the book before, please don’t spoil things by posting about things that are yet to happen in the book.  In fact, I might just have a play with the blog settings so that I can moderate all comments on the blog.

And that’s it, really.  I’ll post tomorrow the “Least You Need To Know” stuff about the novel (and there’s not much of that).

One Year War and Peace: Two Down, Three To Go

Well, it’s all hotting up.  I have two volunteers now to try reading War and Peace in a year . . . what will the rest of the week bring?

The only thing I’ll comment on at this stage is that some people have been asking me if there’s any particular version they should be reading.

The main thing to avoid is getting an abridged version.  Generally, you can tell if you’ve got an abridged version straight away, because it will cut out the last twelve chapters of the epilogue (which are all philosophical, not fictional).  While it’s not essential to have this, the problem is I don’t know how many other chapters in the middle of an abridged version would be likely to be cut as well, so I wouldn’t read one.

Actually, why do publishers abridge classic novels?  . . . I’ve never gotten the point of that.  If they think it’s because we’re not likely to like a classic book if it’s unabridged . . . well, why are we going to like it if it’s abridged?

Hmm . . .

Anyway, back to War and Peace.  If you don’t have a copy, I’d recommend that you pick up the Wordsworth Classics edition, which you can get at a lot of bookstores in Australia (especially those bargain basement type ones) for only $5.95.  Yes, that’s right – less than $6 bucks, and you can have yourself a whole copy of War and Peace.  The translation that Wordsworth puts out is an old one by Louise and Alymer Maude.  It was the one I originally read (back when it was even more of a bargain at $4.95), and I got sucked right into it, so I think it’s a pretty good translation.

I might try a different one this time around, but the Wordsworth cheapo Maude is the one I’d recommend for beginners.  After all, what’s $6?  You can’t even rent a new release DVD for that much – and for that price, you can own yourself a brand new copy of War and Peace.

So, do we have three more takers? (Granted, if somebody – like my sister – actually goes out and buys herself a copy, I’d feel obligated to begin it anyway – but let’s see if we can get us some more readers . . .)