First impressions

The first and last time that I read War and Peace through was about 25 years ago; I have since picked it up to reread various sections. This time I have found the book hard to set aside. Yet I have set it aside at page 500-something for now, since I will be traveling for the next fortnight.

It occurs to me to wonder how much in those 25 years I have unconsciously quoted Tolstoy. For example, he is very good on the charm of young women and girls who are aware that they are young and attractive. This seems to me something I could easily enough have noticed independently, but reading Tolstoy makes me wonder. It is in a way like reading Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass, where Carroll’s version of dream logic is so persuasive that I have wondered whether he simply reflected the nature of dreams or whether my recollection of my own dreams has been affected by the reading. (I think the former.)

I have also noticed the inverse relation between beauty on first arrival in the War and Peace and good fortune later. The ugly ducklings sometimes turn into swans, but do in any case (if young enough) marry happily; the beauties at best marry duds.

We picked out Hadji Murad for our neighborhood book club to read last year or the year before. In re-reading that I was struck by how much it is about death: attitudes toward death by young men who don’t yet believe that they will die; the attitudes of those who expect it as an occupational hazard; the death of a Russian infantryman and Hadji Murad and his followers. War and Peace  takes a while to get to that point. Pierre is back in Moscow in 1810 or 1811 when this starts to appear.

2 thoughts on “First impressions”

  1. Although I am just again starting out, I remember War and Peace being far more concerned with life than death. Yet it is unlikely that one can pursue one subject without also soon delving into its opposite.

    I am now just under 100 pages into the book. War is immanent, and therefore also death. At this point, although there has been an important death, that of the wealthy Count Bezukhov, his death seems almost unreal. As readers we don’t really know him, and those around him mostly seem interested in how they can profit by his demise. The Count does not utter a single word in the book. Most of what we know of him we know by his surroundings, especially the portrait of Catherine the Great. When he dies, the most significant expression of grief comes from Prince Vassily, who had been intriguing just moments before to swindle Pierre from his inheritance. Once the Count is dead and the swindle prevented, Prince Vassily laments “‘We sin so much, we deceive so much, and all for what? I’m over fifty, my friend…I’ll…Everything ends in death, everything. Death is terrible.’ He wept.” Is Tolstoy being ironic here, or is he showing that people are not simple caricatures, but complex, even when far from noble? Even Pierre, his son, seems something of a naive fool here, and doesn’t know how to take in the reality of his father’s death. More than anything else, what the death seems to mean is the end of an era. As the courtier from Catherine’s court, and her likely lover, dies, that era gives way to another that will unfold in the pages to come.

    So our first introduction to death is fairly gentle. But it is just an introduction, and like so many others in the early pages of the book, it will be taken up again. I will return to the subject of death after the conversation between the friends Pierre and Prince Andrei on the ferry in Volume Two, sometime next month.

  2. I will need to go back and see Count Bezhukov’s death. I would say that it appears to me that Tolstoy is better with characters he respects than with those he doesn’t, and that Prince Vassily definitely falls into the second group. Are we meant to understand that the prince is for once sincere, or that he is saying what one says after such a death, or that he imagines that his pain from losing the inheritance, and from being caught trying to steal it, is actually pain over the loss of the count? The prince seems to be very good at forgetting what it is not profitable to remember.

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