Tuesday, January 31, 2006

War and Peace (Book Two, Part One)

Early 1806: a time of peace, after defeat at the Battle of Austerlitz, where Andrey had been left for dead by Napoleon. Word on the street in Moscow is that he is dead, although he died a hero. At home, his wife is in labour, engaged in the “world’s most solemn mystery”: it would kill her to tell her Andrey is dead. Luckily, without any kind of fanfare, Andrey just walks in, all “didn’t you get my letters”.

The birth of his son is something of a mixed blessing; when he tries to see his wife, there is this awful scene:

The most pitiful, helpless animal cries could be heard from within the room. “Go away! You can’t come in!” said a frightened voice on the other side… The screams died down, and a few seconds passed. Then suddenly the most fearful scream - it couldn’t be hers, she couldn’t have screamed like that - came from inside the room… The screaming stopped and he heard a different sound, the wail of a baby.

“Why have they taken a baby in there… “[Der!] But “he went into his wife’s room. She was dead…”
So much happened in a very short piece of writing - it provides an interesting contrast with the pages he can spend on nothing, such as the argument in an earlier chapter over whose responsibility it was to set fire to a bridge ("you just told me to bring equipment for a fire, you didn't say anything about starting a fire..."). But it was sweet that his grumpy old dad, when he sees his son "put his rough old arms around his son’s neck in a vice-like grip, and without a word sobbed like a child”.

The big story in this part, however, is that of Pierre, a fellow said by his mum to be too noble for the corrupt world. His marriage is not going well - he is convinced that in his many visits, Dolokhov has “compromised” Hélène. Certainly, Dolokhov doesn’t help, saying things like “I’ve never met a woman not for sale”. The tension rises when they find themselves seated opposite each other at one of the numerous formal dinners these people seem to be endlessly attending. When Dolokhov makes a toast to “all the pretty women and their lovers”, it is too much: Pierre challenges him to a duel.

Now Pierre is a fat fellow who has never held a firearm in his life while Dolokhov is a soldier, yet he loses. Divine intervention? Pierre blames himself - for (he thinks) killing his foe and for marrying when he really did not love. This seems to be an important turning point for Pierre, as it starts him on the path of trying to sort out right from wrong. After attacking his wife with a marble table top (as you do when you’re conscience stricken, I’m sure) he gives a whole bunch of properties and buggers off to Moscow.

This all has strange consequences for young Rostov. He is home from the war, his family has received him with much love, his dad organises a dinner party with military precision. The timing seems to get a bit screwed up in this part: it starts in early 1806 but suddenly it is November, and Rostov is playing cards with Dolokhov, who did survive the duel. Not only that, but despite his mysogyny, he has fallen in love with Sonya, Rostov’s cousin. She can’t accept his proposals because she’s in love with her cousin.

So, Dolokhov is pissed off with the Rostov family, can't hang out with Hélène, bored out of his tree, expecting nothing from life and can’t see any point in not being cruel. Rostov has just promised his dad he'll live within his means, which are about 1200 roubles: he quickly loses 800, then another 800. But he keeps playing, and playing: Dolokhov keeps winning, until he is 43,000 roubles up (1000 roubles per year for the combined ages of him and Sonya). Dolokhov expects payment tomorrow. Imagine going home to tell your dad that! He’s certainly not feeling good, thinking he deserves, wants a bullet in the head but then he hears his sister Natasha singing, and it has a magical restorative effect.


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