Not Quite Writing on War and Peace

respect-your-readers readingThere are days when I goof around.

Not necessarily online.

I deleted the email feature from my Nook tablet. And I also closed my Twitter account.

I have a little more time now:  maybe an hour a day.

It was gray and gloomy and rainy today.

A good day to go online, you might say.

I took a walk, until it began to pour.  Then, drenched and drinking tea at home, I read.

I am absorbed in War and Peace, which I reread last spring:  you cannot read it too often.  I have so many translations on my Nook that I can switch from one to the other if the language becomes a little awkward.  This time I am reading the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation.

I read for pleasure, obviously, and know Russian culture only from novels, but one doesn’t think about War and Peace as Russian, once one grasps that the upper classes often speak French.  in other ways it seems very 19th-century European.  I know the book so well that I can skip scenes, concentrating on one set of characters or another, though I usually read straight through.  It is very hard to put this down.

I prefer the peace scenes.

When I first read WAP many years ago, I identified with Pierre, because as a young woman I talked very seriously at parties. When I read the first chapter, where poor Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a maid of honour of the empress, tries to interrupt Pierre in his earnest conversations and  get  him to chat more lightly with the groups, I had to laugh.

War and Peace in my bicycle helmet one summer!

War and Peace in my bicycle helmet one summer!

These days I am a little weary of Pierre, especially during the Freemason scenes.  And so this reading, for the first time ever, I identify with Princess Marya Bolkonsky, who was based on Tolstoy’s mother.  It’s not that she and I are alike, because that isn’t quite how fiction readers identify:  it’s more that I understand why she is the way she is, and why I am the way I am.  She is not socially graceful, like Tolstoy’s more sympathetic heroine, Natasha, who sings, dances, and chatters happily until she goes though a love-related depression.

Marya grows up in a serious household of intellectual men, and doesn’t think about marriage, living in the country as she does.  Her raging father makes her do math and practice piano every day.  He intimidates her, though she loves and respects him.  She is deeply religious, almost Zen (well, Christian!) in her refusal to judge others, and is also very kind to the hangers-on who live with them, like her companion, Mlle. Bourrienne.

Her brother, Prince Andrei, a discontented man married to a woman he doesn’t respect, comes home to Bald Hills before the war to say good-bye and to leave his pregnant wife, Lise, with the family.  He sneers at Lise, and practical, generous Marya points out that we all have little weaknesses, and that Lise grew up in society, so expects a social life unavailable in the country.

He also detests Mademoiselle Bourrienne, her companion.  Marya’s long laudation of Mlle., and his short response, a defense of his sister who is so devoted to her cruel father, are characteristic of them.

Mary says,

Oh, no! She’s a very dear and kind, and, above all, a pitiful girl. She has nobody, nobody. To tell the truth, she’s not only unnecessary to me, she’s even an inconvenience. You know, I’ve always been a wild creature, and now more than ever. I like being alone … Mon père likes her very much. She and Mikhail Ivanovich are the two persons with whom he’s always gentle and kind, because he’s their benefactor. As Sterne says, ‘We love people not so much for the good they’ve done us, as for the good  we’ve done them.’ Mon père took her as an orphan sur le pavé, and she’s very kind. And mon père likes her way of reading. She reads aloud to him in the evenings. She reads beautifully.”

“Well, but in truth, Marie, I wonder if father’s character isn’t sometimes hard on you?” Prince Andrei asked suddenly.

Prince Andrei is right about her father, but she will not see it.  And Mademoiselle Bourienne is disloyal to Marya, as we see later:  she makes out with Prince Anatole, the man who has come to Bald HIlls to propose to Marya, and Marya catches them.

Fascinating characters, and it is very much a character- and plot-oriented book.  It is so difficult to explain why one loves a classic, and War and Peace is simply too big to do justice to unless one breaks it down.

But I do love reading it.

I simply can’t write about it.

4 thoughts on “Not Quite Writing on War and Peace

  1. I *should* follow up my read of Anna Karenina with this, shouldn’t I? But I will have to wait until that particular reading muse grabs me!


  2. I have only read War and Peace once, but I understand your need to go back again and again. It’s the “big” books that I enjoy, losing myself in with their multiple plots and characters and the very different world. I have read Anna Karenina three times and respond to different things each time (also Bleak House twice and MIddlemarch at least three times).


  3. Karen, one of these days! You have your own big books going.

    Nancy, yes, I love the classics. One doesn’t want a steady diet of contemporary, unless one finds the good ones: and it’s not always from reviews we discover them. Dickens and Eliot are also favorites.


  4. Pingback: Do I Have a Crystal Ball? The Tolstoy Renaissance – mirabile dictu

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