Weaknesses

Most of the fine things said about Tolstoy are true. However, Tolstoy does have his weaknesses, and the scope of War and Peace gives him room to display them.

There is his Russian populism, accompanied by assertions about every Russian:

.. this slender, graceful countess, brought up in silk and velvet, so foreign to her, who was able to understand everything that was in Anisya, and in Anisya’s father, and in her aunt, and in her mother, and in every Russian.

(Volume II, Part Four, VII). Or

that clear, unostentatious, and meek voice in which only clergy reading in Slavonic read and which affects the Russian heart so irresistibly.

(Volume III, Part One, XVIII). Perhaps, but I suspect that when Tolstoy’s heart was so affected he made a quick recovery; he doesn’t give the clergy in general much time. (And how does Natasha understand this prayer from the synod if it is in Slavonic; and if it is in Russian, then how does the priest manage the voice?) One hears about the dumb but vital nationalism of the muzhiks, who did not bring hay to the French in Moscow. Yet the muzhiks of Bogaruchovo seemed to need some hussars to make them think right.

There is his military nationalism, which for example presents the Prussians and Austrians as quick to surrender. Neither, particularly Prussia, had a hinterland the size of Russia’s. Felix Markham writes in his life of Napoleon that it was the Austrian resistance at Wagram that first caused Napoleon to doubt that battle was always the answer. There is at least a hint of Russian distinctiveness in the scorched earth policy and brutal partisan warfare; both were prefigured in the Peninsular War. Nowhere does he mention the massive subsidies Britain gave to Russia, and without which Russia could not have brought nearly so large an army into the field. That doesn’t make for interesting fiction, I agree.  Yet the reader who remembers history finds the picture of Russia against the world incomplete.

There is his view of women. Tolstoy is very good on girls (Natasha, Sonya), and good to very good on some mothers, notably the senior countess Rostov and her daughter-in-law Princess Marya. I don’t find Natasha as mother much of a presence. We hear that she is devoted to Pierre and her children; we hear that she breast-feeds her babies. But there isn’t much there, and he insists that there shouldn’t be. He is not good, in War and Peace, on fast women. One gets no sense of what, looks apart, attracts anyone to Elena Bezukhov. We can stipulate that men are easily pleased, and will represent as witty and clever any sufficiently attractive woman. Yet Tolstoy doesn’t make us feel that. In fact, he does not show us her stupidity, just leaves us to take Pierre’s word for it. And he shows women who aspire to think much in the way that Fielding shows them: they are a bit ludicrous, they are sterile.

Well, Randall Jarrell quotes somebody’s definition of a masterpiece as “a great work of art that has something wrong with it.” There is enough wrong with War and Peace. If I read it again, I will probably skip the tedious stretches of historical reflection. I will roll my eyes at many of the Kutuzov passages. But I suspect that whole dozens of pages will seem as remarkable as when I first read them years ago.

The Marriage Market

Boris Drubetskoy is having a hard time nerving himself to take Julia Karagina for a wife:

But in Julie’s presence, looking at her red face and chin, almost always dubbed with powder, at her moist eyes, and the expression of her face, which showed a permanent readiness to change at once from melancholy to the unnatural rapture of married, happiness, Boris was unable to utter the decisive words–despite the fact that he had long considered himself the owner of the Penza and Nizhni Novgorod estates and had allocated the use of the income from them.

In Chapter VII of the first part of Tom Jones, fielding writes of Captain Blifil that

In his opinion of the female sex, he exceeded the moroseness of Aristotle himself: he looked on a woman as on an animal of domestic use, of somewhat higher consideration than a cat, since her offices were of rather more importance; but the difference between these two was, in his estimation, so small, that, in his marriage contracted with Mr Allworthy’s lands and tenements, it would have been pretty equal which of them he had taken into the bargain.

 

Bald Hills, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Otradnoe

The next time I read through War and Peace, I shall have to look more closely at locations. Having just read through Volume II, Parts Two through Four, the contrasts are striking.

The household and estate of Bald Hills fears and respects Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky. The only resident who has the standing to judge him is his daughter, and filial piety and religion prevent her from doing so. Moscow respects what it supposes Prince Nikolai stands for, and flatters him. Yet he does not show to advantage there; he shows signs of senility, which may be aggravated by the demands of society.

In fact, Moscow is only so good for the Bolkonskys. Prince Andrei has the happiness of falling in love with Natasha Rostov. A bit later, Princess Marya has twin distresses: seeing her father at a disadvantage; and discovering that her friend Julie Karagina is just not that interesting.

Pierre is slightly ridiculous in St. Petersburg. He fits into Moscow. This I think is because his want of discipline matches the Moscow temperament. He is another aging, retired gentleman-in-waiting, one of the many in Moscow. St. Petersburg must have plenty of those too, yet somehow they don’t set the tone there. It is also possible that we are to understand that Moscow has better, more homely qualities than St. Petersburg, and appreciates a good heart above clever conversation. It is in St. Petersburg that Dolokhov commences an affair with Elena Bezukhov. In Moscow he falls in love with the more wholesome Sonya.

Otradnoe is a paradise–the original meaning of the word is “hunting park”, isn’t it?–if something of a fool’s paradise. The happiness of the hunt and of the mummers’ visit is beautifully depicted and convincing. At the same time, there are the pressures of money and time. The Rostovs don’t have the money they should, and can’t figure out how to get it from the estate. The parents’ best notion of financial rescue is to marry off Nikolai to Julie Karagina; this is hard on Nikolai and on Sonya. Time weighs on Natasha both as simple boredom, and time spent with her family when (as an aging woman of sixteen) she might be married to Prince Andrei.

 

Volume II, Part One

Volume II, Part One is framed by Nikolai and Sonya’s love. It is there in Chapter I, when Nikolai and Natasha discuss it, and again in Chapter XVI when he pays forty-three thousand rubles to Dolokhov, who has skinned him at cards out of spite at Sonia’s refusal of his offer of marriage. A remarkable length of time elapses in  these few chapters: Chapter I occurs at the beginning of 1806; the duel takes place in March; and Chapter XI on take place in the Christmas season.

I am struck by the examples of the women who are in it, or how they are imagined by the men around them.

There is Sonya, a beautiful girl of sixteen, whom Nikolai will not renounce. On the other hand he sees himself as too busy for love. (And what does it mean to say that he is “going there?”) Dolokhov apparently sees her as the exemplar of

that heavenly purity and faithfulness that I seek in a woman. If I had ever found such a woman, I would have given my life for her … And believe me, if I still value my life, it’s only because I still hope to meet the heavenly being who will resurrect, purify, and elevate me.

That the faithfulness applies to Nikolai Rostov does not improve Dolokhov’s temper. And there is nothing to indicate that Dolokhov has previously gone looking for such a woman where he might be in danger of finding her. Her moral character and her devotion of Nikolai are not put into doubt. We do not see her from the inside though: she has almost fewer lines to speak than Elena Bezhukov.

There is Elena Bezhukov. Is she Dolokhov’s mistress as the town gossip says, and a depraved woman as Pierre decides? Probably, given her form in the book. Yet she is one of the characters we see not at all from the inside.

There is the Princess Lise Bolkonsky. Chapters VII through IX take her from a silly, self-absorbed woman to a mother suffering in childbirth, and kill her. She ends as victim, really as an archetype, with the face that says

I love you all, I did no harm to anyone, why am I suffering?

and

Ah, what is that you have done to me and why?

The old prince, who received the news of his son’s presumed death with anger but no tears, bursts into sobs over the death of his daughter-in-law. Prince Andrei feels that

something snapped in his soul, that he was to blame for something he could neither set aright nor forget. He was unable to weep.

Natasha, the book’s darling, begins as just Nikolai’s little sister, in between little girl and young woman. Later in the year, she shows the sense to find Dolokhov bad company, and to see that he is in love with Sonya. By the second-last chapter, Denisov will have made a proposal of marriage to her. Yet she remains a girl, falling on back on her mother to manage the refusal of Denisov.

Prince Andrei’s Friendships

On another look, I am not wrong in seeing Prince Andrei as preferring
friendships in which he can patronize the friend. In Volume I, Part
One, VI

Prince Andrei looked at [Pierre] with kindly eyes. But in his
friendly, gentle gaze, a consciousness of his own superiority still showed.

We have just read, after a consideration of Pierre’s views, that

In the best, the friendliest and simplest relations, flattery or
praise is necessary, just as grease is necessary to keep wheels
turning.

In Volume One, Part Three, IX, when Prince Andrei is helping Boris to find a position on the staff,

Prince Andrei always became especially animated when he had to guide a young man [in this case Boris] and help him towards worldly success. Under the pretext of this help for another, which out of pride he would never accept for himself, he found himself close to the milieu which conferred success and which attracted him.

(He would never accept help, yet somehow Prince Andrei is one of Kutuzov’s adjutants, and his father is one of Kutuzov’s comrades from the wars of Catherine the Great. In fact, Kutuzov may be his uncle; his wife’s remarks in  Volume I, Part One, VI suggest this but are not clear.)

His liking for Captain Tushin is of the same sort. Both are captains
(and one has to read far into the novel to learn Prince Andrei’s
rank); yet in that “more essential subordination” which Boris has just
perceived, Prince Andrei outranks generals, let alone artillery
captains.

In Volume I, Part Two, III, we find that the officers with whom Prince Andrei serves fall into two groups: the smaller group looks up to him, and “with these people Prince Andrei was simple and pleasant”; the larger group dislikes him, but respects and even fears him. This may be part of what it is to be a Bolkonsky, since that seems to be the case with his father. Kuragins may hold them cheap, but not the rest of the world. It does not make for equal friendships.

Prince Andrei’s superiority to his contemporaries may be necessary to the book. He is the exemplar of intelligence and energy, which will be seen as deficient compared to wisdom. For those of us who take an interest in things of the mind, the renunciation of worldly goods gets a nod of approval, and may or may not make us question our lives. But Prince Andrei, in Volume IV, will be questioning the value of intelligence, erudition, wit, qualities that we at least respect and perhaps pique ourselves on.

Tolstoy and Pascal

In Volume I, Part One, VI, Pierre and Prince Andrei are talking:

“Well, what makes you go to war?” asked Pierre.
“What makes me? I don’t know, I have to. Besides, I’m going . . .” He paused, “I’m going because this life I lead here, this life–is not for me!”

In Part II of The Pensees, “The Misery of Man Without God”, Pascal writes

One would not buy commissions in the army at such a price, if it were not found intolerable to remain in the city.

Which leads to the consideration that the revolution in Pierre’s character after his captivity perhaps comes from his discovering perforce “how to remain quietly in a room”, the inability to do which Pascal regards as the source of all human misfortunes.

Volume I, Part Two: Kutuzov, Bagration, Prince Andrei

Kutuzov is the wise man of War and Peace, one beyond considerations of cleverness and reasoning. Obviously he has the intelligence to articulate his skepticism of the Austrian staff’s plans, and to extricate his army when the campaign turns against the allies. But that is not really what he is there for. We see some of this in his inspection in Chapter II, in his encounter with Dolokhov:

“I ask only one thing Your Excellency,” he said in his firm, sonorous, unhurried voice. “I ask to be given a chance to wipe out my guilt and prove my devotion to the sovereign and to Russia.”

Kutzov turned away. The same smile of the eyes flashed over his face as when he had turned away from Captain Timokhin. He turned away and winced, as if wishing to express thereby that all that Dolokhov had said to him and all that he could say had long, long been known to him, that it all bored him, and that it was all by no means what was needed.

(But is that fair? Kutuzov’s previous remark calls for a reply such as Dolokhov made.)

Prince Bagration plays somewhat the same role at Schöngraben as Kutuzov will play later:

Prince Andrei listened carefully to Prince Bagration’s exchanges with the commanders and to the orders he gave, and noticed, to his surprise, that no orders were given, and that Prince Bagration only tried to pretend that all that was done by necessity, chance, or the will of a particular commander, that it was all done, if not on his orders, then in accord with his intentions. Owing to the tact shown by Prince Bagration, Prince Andrei noticed that, in spite of the chance character of events, and their independence of the commander’s will, his presence accomplished a very great deal. Commanders who rode up to Prince Bagration with troubled faces became calm, soldiers and officers greeted him merrily and became more animated in his presence, and obviously showed off their courage before him.

Yet in the next chapter, XVIII, Bagration will give positive orders that have an effect on the battle: to call down two battalions of chasseurs, and to have the troops now in the front line make room for them. We hear in the first sentence of Chapter XIX that this secures the retreat of the right flank.

Prince Andrei is still at the stage of intelligence, not wisdom. Kutuzov values his efficiency as a staff officer, and of his peers, some like, some fear, and all respect him. He “was one of the rare officers on the staff who placed his main interest in the general course of military operations”; the merits of this attitude will be called into question later in the book. Just before the fighting at Schöngraben begins, he is working out plans for the battle, “only in general terms.”

He suffers from vanity. At the moment he hears of Mack’s defeat, “he vividly pictured to himself what awaited the army, and the role he was to play in it.” In Chapter IX, on the way from Krems to Brünn, on waking “He would recall once more all the details of the victory, his calm manliness during the battle, and reassured, would doze off ….” Approaching the palace at Brünn,

He vividly pictured again all the details of the battle, not vaguely now, but in the well-defined concise account which, in his imagination, he was giving to the emperor Franz.

War and Peace repeatedly calls into question the possibility of a well-defined concise account of a battle, or of picturing all its details. The interview with the emperor goes off as such interviews apparently do at the court, with the ritual of a certain number of questions asked and answered.

We also learn in Chapter XIII that what Prince Andrei feared most in the world is “what is known as ridicule“, that is to say ridiculousness. In Chapter XI, “he (it had to be admitted) had almost been jealous over his wife” in regard to the foolish Ippolit Kuragin. Given his professed trust in his wife’s fidelity (Part One, Chapter VI), that sounds like vanity also. His feeling of humiliation in seeing the state of the retreating Russian forces is one that would not occur to a Kutuzov or Bagration.

We do see a different side of Prince Andrei, a gift for sympathy and friendship.  In Part One we saw it with Pierre. Here we see it with the quick liking he takes for Captain Tushin. Is it significant that both men are in some ways his inferiors, Pierre initially in social standing, always in will power, Tushin in social standing and perhaps rank? On the other hand, he is friends with Bilibin, his peer in social and official standing. Bilibin’s straining for epigram makes his company a little tedious to this reader; it does not seem to create in Prince Andrei the impatience that ordinary social chatter does.

Volume I, Part Two: Dates, Times, Faces

First, the dates: Tolstoy gives dates in the Russian calendar, and not always consistently. (The staff hears of Mack’s surrender on October 11; the same day is October 8 with the hussars.) In the western calendar:

1. August 26, Napoleon leaves Boulogne.
2. September 11, Mack invades Bavaria.
3. October 20, Mack capitulates at Ulm.
4. November 14, the French take Vienna.
5. November 16, the battle at Schöngraben.

Second, much of the action also takes place in what is now the Czech Republic, so that the place names have changed: from Brünn to Brno, from Olmutz to Olomuc, from Znaim to Znojmo.

Tolstoy describes the faces of men facing enemy fire, or about to: at the Enns,

On each face, from Denisov’s down to the buglers, there appeared around the lips and mouth one common trait of a struggle between irritation and excitement.

At Schöngraben,

… and on all faces he recognized the feeling of animation that was in his heart. “It’s begun! Here it is! Fearful and merry!” spoke the face of every soldier and officer.

In his memoir of enlisted Navy service in WW II, Alvin Kernan writes of the sharpened features of men living with tightly controlled fear, though he says it shows most on noses.

 

The Death of Count Bezukhov

For Anna Mikhailovna and Prince Vassily, the count has become his own estate while he is still living and even conscious. The question of how long the count will live is of professional interest to the physicians (and at a lower level the undertakers). The servants and one of the Mamontov princesses attend to his comforts. But it seems chiefly the priests, who offer him a “Blank Confession”,  communion, and Extreme Unction, who regard him at least hypothetically as a moral agent and that too may be a professional trait; Tolstoy gives us no insight into what any priest is thinking, except that one cleric in the salon does a little shop talk.

Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskoy gives an early example of relating an event not as it happened but as it should have happened according to the conventions, when she tells the Rostovs and her other friends of the count’s death. Her role in saving, and according to the older princess influencing, the will is curious. One has to regard her as an agent of justice when she prevents the fraud Prince Vassily has in mind. But is the eldest princess correct in saying that she had previously induced the count to write a new will and request permission to adopt Pierre? If so, are we to understand that she acted for abstract justice or because she regarded Pierre as an easier touch than the other prospective heirs?

I wonder, as Charles does, what Prince Vassily means by “I’m over fifty”?  The first time, spoken to the princess, he says “I know how hard it is for you to speak and think about these things [the inheritance]. It’s no easier for me; but I’m over fifty, my friend, I must be ready for anything.” This seems to refer to death and inheritance. Yet in a world nominally Christian, should the awareness of age and the approach of death encourage what the law would regard as fraud, and what the prince himself must perceive as wrong, given his discomfort?  It makes more sense to consider it as conversational device to justify the discussion. When after the count’s death, he says to Pierre “I’m over fifty, my friend . . . I’ll . . . Everything ends in death, everything. Death is terrible.”, then he does seem to feel the approach of death morally.

In rereading the pages to try to understand this, I became distracted by the number of times Prince Vassily pulled down this or that person’s hand. He is not described as short, so a downward pull on a woman’s hand, or on Pierre’s while Pierre is sitting hands on knees, would require a bow, which I think would bring his face uncomfortably close to the other party’s. In the first chapter we seem him kiss Anna Pavlovna’s hand and present her with his bald shining pate; but where is the bald pate or flat face when he is pulling down her hand or Pierre’s or the eldest princess’s?

Volume I, Part I, Chapters I through VIII

Ways of talking:

“How can one be well … when one suffers morally? Is it possible to remain at ease in our time, if one has any feeling?”, said Anna Pavlovna. “You’ll stay the whole evening, I hope?”

The last question reveals the truth. In The Life of Johnson, entry for October 19, 1769, one finds

I told him that I had dined lately at Foote’s, who shewed me a letter which he had received from Tom Davies, telling him that he had not been able to sleep from the concern which he felt on account of ‘This sad affair of Baretti,’ begging of him to try if he could suggest any thing that might be of service; and, at the same time, recommending to him an industrious young man who kept a pickle-shop. JOHNSON. ‘Ay, Sir, here you have a specimen of human sympathy; a friend hanged, and a cucumber pickled. We know not whether Baretti or the pickle-man has kept Davies from sleep; nor does he know himself.

In this case, Prince Vassily’s insincere court manners seem more to the point than the enthusiasms of Anna Pavlovna Scherer, for whom “[b]eing an enthusiast had  become her social position.”

Pierre disturbs the reception because he does not know how to speak there. He speaks both with enthusiasm and with the wrong opinions. His opinions are naive and offensive; per se they are not as ridiculous as the viscount’s story about Napoleon and Enghien. Prince Andrei has his own weakness for Napoleon, but knows how discuss him with detachment, making distinctions. Prince Andrei has the advantage of knowing how the conversations work, and the corresponding disadvantage, that they bore him.

Bondage and freedom:

Prince Vassily considers that his children are the fetters of existence; yet his only apparent concern with them is to see the sons solvent and the daughter married. Prince Andrei considers that in marriage, “like a prisoner in irons, you lose all freedom.” His bondage seems to consist in putting up with trivial conversation for some hours every week. He is not held back from joining an army then forming to march to Austria, and from all appearances he is generally the free partner in the marriage; his wife fears him, and is bound for Bald Hills and the intimidating company of his father, willy-nilly. On the other hand, Count Rostov, with apparently four children (living, of twelve his wife has borne) and a dependent niece, heavily in debt, does not seem to feel himself fettered. Incompetence in money matters helps him feel free. Pierre is freest of all, and it does him no good.