Launched at Last

Launched at Last (Pages 1 to 43)

It’s Sunday, time for the first installment of my journey through War and Peace. (It’s probably a little self-centered of me to call it my journey, since some of you will be breaking new ground with me and some of you will be revisiting places you’ve been before, but I’m going to stay with good old First Person Singular because I can’t document your perceptions.)

You’ll see below that I didn’t get as far as I had thought I would. Instead of the end of Volume I, Part One (which would be page 111 in my hardbound copy), I got to the end of what I guess I can call Chapter IX of Part One, which is only page 43.

That doesn’t trouble me. I’ve found that books are like roads. They have different speed limits. Or like music. They have different densities of texture. Or like foods. They are rich or light or in between. As you encounter them, they teach you – if you are willing to learn – how to experience them. Some work best at speed on a generalized, wide-ranging level of attention (some mysteries, some science-fiction, some other light reading; much Baroque music; some vegetables or salads). Some are dense and want you to slow down, pay close attention, go small bit by small bit (Thomas Mann, Schoenberg, short ribs).

Tolstoy is on the dense, rich side of things. He wants a lot of attention and doesn’t need speed. If he were a classical conductor, he would be one favoring breadth and letting you hear and understand the inner voices and the back-and-forth among all the elements of the music. No shining surfaces here.

So the train is more of a local and less of an express than I had expected. Not a problem. You get to see more of the landscape that way.

Before I go off into substance, I want to send verbal flowers to Pevear and Volokhonsky. I don’t have any way to compare what they came up with to the original Russian. I can say that the end product in English is beautiful, unobtrusive writing. There’s an individual voice there but it helps the story and the back-and-forth between English (standing in for Russian) and French (standing in for French) is elegantly handled, especially in the electronic edition from Kindle (of which more at the end of this note).

Major Characters

Since it’s the beginning of the book, everyone we meet is appearing for the first time. Here are the Principal Characters who show up so far.

Anna Pavolva Scherer – She is “renowned”. The maid of honor and intimate of the empress Maria Feodorvona.

[Stuff about this character: As of 1805, the date when Tolstoy’s narrative starts, Maria Feodorovna was not really empress, but the Dowager Empress, a title created for her.

Maria was a German princess, born in 1759, as the eldest child of the Duke and Duchess of Wurttemberg. She had a wide-ranging education and seems to have been a strong-willed and brave woman. She became the second wife of Czar Paul I, the child of Catherine the Great and (perhaps) Czar Peter III (1754-1801). She appears to have been a devoted and enthusiastic wife but, when Paul was assassinated, attempted to take on the role of ruling empress as her mother-in-law (and enthusiastic supporter) Catherine the Great had, upon the assassination of her own husband, Peter III, in 1762. It didn’t work out well this time around. Maria had no political support for her idea and her son, Alexander (1777-1825), took the throne as Alexander I. Although Alexander had a wife, Maria seems to have run things at his court. She was a larger-than-life personality who was the center of literary salons and who imposed detailed rules of etiquette on those within her power.

Anna, as far as I can tell, is fictional. But in the middle 1800s, literate Russians would have known of Maria and of the atmosphere of her presence. Think of someone who had been a confidante of Jacqueline Kennedy and you probably have something like a similar idea, both in terms of reflected glory and social clout. She’s also 40 years old. This seems to be an age that is well over some horizon in the evaluation of women. Her features are described as “outworn”.]

Prince Vassily Sergeevich Kuragin. He’s also fictional. He doesn’t have the brand-name identification that comes from association with the Dowager Empress, but he has attributes that show that he is Important. Embroidered court uniform, a description as a significant man who has grown old in society and at court. A busy social schedule that will take him from Anna’s reception to that of the British ambassador (and, of course, the British ambassador is important in this time when Napoleon is making a stir all over Europe).

Princess Elena Vassilievna. She’s the daughter of Vassily. She is a beauty.

Princess Elizaveta Karlovna Bolkonsky (“the little princess”). She’s the wife of Prince Andrei Nilolaevich Bolkonsky. She has an upper lip too short for her teeth, invoking rodents or Will Smith, and slight black mustache. She is considered perfectly attractive. She is very pregnant.

Prince Ippolit Vassilievich Kuragin. The younger son of Prince Vassily and a man with some problems, either cognitive or social.

Pierre (Piotr Kirillovich Bezukhov). Illegitimate son of Count Kirill Bezukhov (a famous courtier from the time of Catherine the Great who is now dying in Moscow). He is a massive, fat young man with a cropped head, in spectacles, light-colored trousers of the latest fashion, a high jabot (ruffle in the front of his shirt), and a tailcoat. Sounds like pictures of the composer Schubert. He had been educated abroad. He was somewhat larger than the other men in the room.

It’s hard to know what fat means in Tolstoy’s world. The description in the book sounds pretty dire. My mental image was of someone like Hurley in the television series “Lost” , but is that really what Tolstoy would have imagined? Michael Eades, physician and crusader for sanity in the world of diet and weight loss (at least in my view), suggests that we modern Americans are probably fatter than any society ever was in human history. Read what he says here <;. Probably the only serious competitors (from what I can tell) are the Polynesians and it’s hard to tell how far back in history their massiveness went.

So is Pierre as huge as a sumo wrestler, big Polynesian, or some guy wandering around in a running suit in The Mall of America? I don’t know, but I’m inclined to doubt it.

This brings up another important point. Why is Pierre fat? That might seem like a silly question, but it’s really not. In fact, it’s an important one. Stay with me on this.

We are dealing with a fictional character. Someone who never existed outside of Tolstoy’s story. Everything about him is something that Tolstoy created and gave him. Therefore it was supplied by an author who was using it as an aid to our understanding the meaning of the story.

Sorry, boys and girls, it’s really true. In a work of fiction, the details that the author (or screenwriter) reports are ones that he or she has selected to guide our perceptions (in non-fiction, too, but that’s another discussion). Human perception can take in an extraordinary number of sense impressions. If they all proceeded unfiltered up the stairs to conscious awareness, we would be overwhelmed and stuck in a state of sensory overload. Bad for us. Good for any human-eating predator in the neighborhood. So we have filters. We see what some hidden part of ourselves decides we need to see.

So how does this work out in fiction? I don’t know about you, but I suspend disbelief. Aragorn in the books has dark hair and shining gray eyes. Why? Because that’s what he looked like. Mona Lisa Vito is short, voluptuous, and foul-mouthed. That’s just who she is.

Not so fast says Curtis White, one of my favorite grouchy, strange geniuses. White wrote a wonderful book called “The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think For Themselves”. Partly wonderful because of its deep insights (see below). Partly wonderful because of its sheer strangeness (well, maybe you believe that Radiohead is/are kinda like late Beethoven, Wagner, late Bruckner, Mahler in his last couple of symphonies is matching music to the Big Issues of being human – in which case disregard that “strangeness” stuff I just said.).

Anyway, Professor White (who apparently teaches what I imagine are very puzzled students at Illinois State University) spends part of his book vivisecting the movie “Saving Private Ryan”. Even my command of the language is not adequate to paraphrase his examination of the subject, but I will venture to pull a few sparks from his conflagration. Everything an artist puts into an image – whether it’s a writer narrating a scene, a director creating a scene, or a graphic artist rendering one – is there as an aid to a narrative driven by the story the artist is trying to tell. When the aged WW II veteran appears in “Private Ryan” with three bosomy blonde granddaughters in tow, that’s not because some chronicle-writer wanted to document what that guy’s descendants looked like. It’s because the director wanted to tell us something, get us to see this world in a certain way.

So, when Tolstoy tells us that Pierre is of a size and girth that seem excessive in his society, it doesn’t mean that he thinks that this character’s belt size and inseam matter, but that he wants to drive a line in our perception between the mainstream of the society that he is presenting and this character. What the implications of that line are remain to be seen.

Fyodor Ivanovich Dolokhov. A Russian officer. We meet him as a participant in a drunken party at the home of Ippolit Kuragin. Dolokhov bets that he can stand in the opening of a window (we don’t know how far up it is from the ground, but the implication is that it is high and the ground beneath is paved and therefore dangerous to fall onto) and drink a whole bottle of rum. He does and survives.

Princess Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskoy. She’s elderly (whatever that means) and is concerned about the prospects of her only son. She is poor, though part of one of the best families of Russia. She wants to get Prince Vassily to help her son find a position from which he can advance. Anna and her family are fictional.

Countess Natalya Rostov (who has a daughter with the same name). The countess is 45 years old, has a thin Oriental type of face, and seems worn out by having had 12 children. Her slowness of movement and speech makes her seem important.

Count Ilya Rostov. Seems vigorous and energetic and weary. He has all those children and is preparing for a dinner for 80 people.

Natasha Rostov. 13 year-old daughter of the Count and Countess Rostov. Emotional and impulsive. Not so strange for a 13 year-old.

Boris Drubetskoy. Tall, blond, handsome with regular fine features and calm and handsome face.

Nikolai Ilyich Rostov. Son of the Rostovs, brother of Natasha. Curly-haired, not very tall, with an open expression on his face. His face, with a trace of black mustache, expresses impetuousness and rapturousness.

Sofya Alexandrovna Rostov (Sonya). Orphaned cousin of the younger Rostovs. She is a slender, dimunutive brunette with a soft gaze shaded by long lashes, a thick black braid wound twice around her head, and bared lean, but muscular arms. Tolstoy likes to compare her to a kitten.

Julie Karagin. A wealthy heiress. Likes Nikolai Rostov, provokes the jealousy of Sonya.

Countess Vera Rostov. Elder daughter. Good-looking, far from stupid, an excellent student, well brought-up, with a pleasant voice, but somehow disconcerting to others.


Next time, we’ll see what all these people are up to and see if we can get a hint of where Tolstoy is getting himself (and us) ready to go. Then it will be back to moving forward. This time at a more realistic pace.

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Introduction – what am I doing here?

Welcome to War&peace&me, a blog I’ve created to share my experiences and ideas as I read through War and Peace for the first time.

I’m no stranger to big books or to novels of ideas. One of my college majors was English and I’ve read many of the big novels, usually more than once. Moby-Dick, Karamazov, Ulysses, Doktor Faust, Don Quixote, Tristam Shandy, and so on. But War and Peace has always eluded me. It’s an intimidating book.

Its sheer size is an issue: almost 1300 pages in the edition I now have (a Christmas present from 2008), four volumes with an epilogue, 17 parts in all.

Lots of people to keep track of. There are 35 “principal characters” (out of 580 total) with Russian names listed in the introduction (Count Peter Kirillovich [or Kirilych, the list of Principle Characters helpfully adds] but there’s also a Count Peter Ilych; there’s a Denisov and a Dolokhov, a Tikhon and a Tushin. Then there are the names themselves – people often (but not always) have three of them: a first name, a patronymic [a middle name derived from the father’s first name] and a family name and tend to be referred to or addressed by first name and patronymic, as in Pyotr Kirilych. But the names can be inconsistent. Count Pyotr Kirillovich is Count Pyotr Kirilych or Pyotr Kirilych Bezukhov or Pierre. Got that? I thought so.

The form in which I first I encountered it: a ridiculously thick paperback with fragile pages and an English translation with a narrative voice that never caught my attention.

So War and Peace sat on a shelf, unread.

But it’s time to make a decision. I’m almost 60 years old. Am I going to read this book or not?

I had already done “not” and maybe it’s was time to reconsider. The book is famous, deeply loved by all kinds of people. It appears over and over again on lists of the greatest novels ever written. Virginia Woolf, who knew something about reading and writing, called Tolstoy “the greatest of all novelists”. He was praised by Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Chekov, Mann, Joyce, Proust, and Faulkner.

So, there must be something there and if all those very smart, very busy people could find the time to get through this book, so can I.

I’m going to post every week from that week’s reading. My plan is to cover a Part of a Volume every week, though it may turn out that some Parts have enough going on in them to take more than a single week’s posting. If I actually can do this at that pace, the whole enterprise should take 17 weeks, that is, until about September 19 if I post on Sundays as I plan to. Somehow, I think this schedule is not going to hold and that I may still be at this project as the year ends, but who knows?

I hope you enjoy joining me in this trip and that those of you who have not yet read the book will think about reading along with me. Those of you who have already read it may enjoy revisiting it, but please be careful – no spoilers!!
I have to mention that I’m using the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I’m looking forward to reading it. I enjoyed their translations of The Brothers Karamazov and Demons. The Knopf hardbound book is a handsome (and impressively large) thing.

I will probably supplement the physical book with the Kindle edition that I will read on my phone. I have mixed feelings about reading books on the phone. The iPhone screen image is clear and sharp and the navigation from page to page is easy and quick. It seems to me like a better experience than the Kindle itself. But I think it’s easier to read a book closely in the paper version. Maybe I can test that in this project as well.

All for now. Off to read…

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