Monday, January 16, 2006

War and Peace (Part 1)

I should really have done this as I read through Ulysses last year, put some comments down as I read by way of aide memoire. Ah well, since I enrolled last night for my Honours dissertation, I'm sure things are going to get more geeky and intense here as the year goes by.

I ended up opting for the Penguin version of War and Peace, translated by Anthony Briggs. Apart from the truly cheap looking Wordsworth Classics version, it was all the UBS had and I wanted to get reading, as bookclub meets to discuss it in just under four weeks. So far, I have read one section, around 120 pages. It is good at setting the scene, putting the events into some sort of historical context and introducing the main characters. Strangely enough, it isn't the Russian names that have proved difficult to keep track of, rather Tolstoy occasionally simply refers to a character as the "princess", when there might be three in the room. Yes, it is that sort of book: these are people with a very high profile: the first person we meet is some sort of lady in waiting to the Empress.

We learn fairly early on that Bonaparte (or, if you want to express your contempt for him, Buonaparte) is posing a very real threat to Russia and that its allies cannot be relied upon:
Buonaparte was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He has got splendid soldiers. Besides he began by attacking Germans. And only idlers have failed to beat the Germans. Since the world began everybody has beaten the Germans. They beat no one - except one another. He made his reputation fighting them.
Russia is thus facing war with him, leading people to work out where their allegiences lie and whether they themselves will go to fight. There is an interesting tension provided by the fact that despite Buonaparte having control of France, there are a few French people about and, thanks largely to Catherine the Great, to speak French is how to be posh in early 19th century Russia.

So far, four big family names feature:
  1. Kuragin - Vasily is the father, he has three children, Hippolyte, the debauched Anatole and the heavenly Héléne;
  2. Bolkonsky - the patriarch is Prince Nikoláy, who is a cranky old sod with a very rigourous routine. He lives in the country out from Moscow. His son, Andrey is married to the cutest princess imaginable, Lise. He hates marriage rather than her. His sister, Marya, lives with her dad but there is a plot to marry her off to Anatole as a means of calming him down. Might be why marriage is regarded with disfavour by some of the men;
  3. Bezukhov - the old count actually dies in this opening part. He has a string of illegitimate children, but Pierre is his favourite and is given a deathbed acknowledgement as his heir. This REALLY annoys Vasily, who was also a contender. As the old count is taking his last breath in the next room, he and his cousin and some woman called Anna are in an unseemly scramble for possession of what is believed to be his last will;
  4. Rostov - another big Moscow family. There is a big dinner party to celebrate the name days of mother and daughter Natalya/Natasha. The younger is a mere 13, but is in love with a young outsider, Boris, who has just been given some sort of position in the war machine. They plan to be engaged in four years.
There is quite an emphasis on changing of the guard, what with the old count dying and Prince Nikoláy thinking he is the last of the old timers left. There are a couple of paintings of Catherine the Great hanging around - one wonders how long that will continue.

Now, Anatole is the great dissapointment to his faily, what with his drinking, gambling and refusal to be serious. He only has to make a suggestion and Pierre jumps in - leading to a great story:
Those three got hold of a bear somewhere, put it in a carriage, and set off with it to visit some actresses! The police tried to interfere, and what did the young men do? They tied a policeman and the bear back to back and put the bear into the Moyka Canal. And there was the bear swimming about with the policeman on his back!

Pierre is not all bad, however. Here he is with his father dying:

As to the last meeting between father and son, it was so touching that she could not think of it without tears, and did not know which had behaved better during those awful moments - the father who so remembered everything and everybody at last and had spoken such pathetic words to the son, or Pierre, whom it had been pitiful to see, so stricken was he with grief, though he tried hard to hide it in order not to sadden his dying father. "It is painful, but it does one good. It uplifts the soul to see such men as the old count and his worthy son," said she. Of the behavior of the eldest princess and Prince Vasili she spoke disapprovingly, but in whispers and as a great secret.
Of course, now that he has 4000 serfs and millions of roubles, mamas are forgiving him his lack of manners, his belief in Bonaparte, and are simply seeing him as a suitable match for their daughters.

The chapter finishes with a fairly gruff sort of parting between Prince Nikoláy and his son, Andrey, who is going off to war. Lise, who is pregnant, is to be left with her father in law. She is, naturally, dead scared but Andrey is no comfort at all (although he does ask his dad to at least make sure there is a doctor on hand for the birth).


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