War and Peace Newbies Read-Along | Week Six, Part Two

Welcome one, welcome all, to the sixth (and a half) of my weekly progress reports  for War and Peace. You may have seen my previous post which was meant to summarise week 6’s progress, but in fact was a post of two halves because I’d fell behind with the weekly schedule. This post is officially part 2 for week 6 and it’s a little late (to say the least), but I’m here now so let’s all just appreciate that – ‘better late than never’ and all that jazz.

For those who have no idea what I’m going on about at all, you may want to head on over to the blog of the War and Peace Newbies Read-along host Laura from Reading In Bed. Every week I’m doing a short progress post or wrap-up of my thoughts so far on the book, all very low key, probably in the form of bullet points, and likely not always coherent. So don’t expect eloquence or a comprehensive guide to the novel is what I’m trying to say – at best, my approach is scatter-gun and what catches my eye probably isn’t the most important detail in the text. Expectations lowered accordingly?

So, in my last post, I summarised the action (and boy was there action) from Volume II Part V- so much drama! This was how I felt about Volume III Part I which, for the most part, felt longer and more introspective for some reason, so I had less observations overall but here they are…

  • This section opens with a resituation of events in terms of the overall historical timeline – we’re in 1811/1812 and I can feel another history dump and I’m not happy about it…
  • All that being said, Tolstoy has some great ruminations of the ’cause and effect’ pattern that we like to apply to war, you know, for understanding and sanity’s sake. He discusses whether we are all just pawns, essentially, of the inevitable playing out of the world – it’s a common theme, especially explored in literature and theatre, of having the world as a stage and all the men and women (merely) players. (Cheers, Shakespeare.) But Tolstoy does something extra interesting with it in casting people as the slaves of history:
    • “Although on a conscious level a man lives for himself, he is actually being used as an unconscious instrument for the attainment of humanity’s historical aims. A deed once done becomes irrevocable, and any action comes together over time with millions of actions performed by other people to create historical significance. The higher a man stands on the social scale, the more contact he has with other men and the greater his impact on them, the more obvious are the inevitability and the element of predestination involved in everything he does. ‘The hearts of kings are in the hands of God.’ Kings are the slaves of history. History – the amorphous, unconscious life within the swarm of humanity – exploits every minute in the lives of kings as an instrument for the attainment of its own ends.” (p. 670)
  • We quickly go from a quote that intrigued me, to one that just made me roll my eyes and laugh. Napoleon is out and about and men keep throwing themselves at him to show their devotion to him and his cause. It must be tiring, truly, poor Napoleon, he’s the Gretchen Wieners of War and Peace. 
    • “This was nothing new for him; he needed no reminding that his presence anywhere on earth, from Africa to the steppe-land of Muscovy, always had the same devastating effect on men, sometimes driving them to acts of madness and self-sacrifice.” (p. 674)

  • What proceeds are seven chapters followed about war and the Napoleon and negotiations and diplomats and… I just… don’t give a shit. I was reading the words, I understood the words, but I cannot for the life of me tell you anything about those seven chapters.

  • We come back to Andrey to discover that he wants to challenge Anatole on account of the disgrace he brought upon Natasha and also Andrey and he mainly seems to want to challenge him because he feels he should… but his heart doesn’t really seem in it.
  • Life back in the Bald Hills is basically the same. Marya tries to give some advice to her brother, saying that God makes people do things so he ought to forgive and forget people – he responds that women can forgive and forget but not a man. I would so side-eye him if I were Marya, luckily I am not.
  • Andrey decides to go back to war to try to find Anatole because that’s clearly the answer for everything in this book.

  • Once again, Tolstoy is reminding me why I keep powering through reading this book – he occasionally just makes me have a moment of affirmation of why this book is great and worth being hailed as a classic:
    • ” ‘And I’m off to the army. But why? I don’t know, but here I am longing to catch up with a man I despise, to give him a chance to kill me and sneer at me!’ [Andrey] had known circumstances like these before, but then they had been all intertwined, and now they were all unravelled, a series of disparate and senseless eventualities coming upon him one after another.” – I feel like this echoes the structure of the book a lot, we just had a part of the volume before where everything seemed to be coming together and tying up, a cause and effect, and the strings were almost visible, but now they’ve been tangled up or cut off entirely in the wrong places and everything seems disparate again. That’s just some wonderful structuring going on.
  • In less sincere terms, we have a bit of casual stereotyping regarding the characters of various European nationalities because why the hell not? (Forgive the length of the quote, I had to mark this one down for posterity’s sake!):
    • “Prince Andrey was able to draw on his experiences at Austerlitz and use this brief encounter with Pfuel to form a clear impression of the man’s personality. Pfuel was one of those hopelessly opinionated, arrogant men who would go to the stake for their own ideas, self-assured as only a German can be, because only a German could be self-assured on the basis of an abstract idea – science, the supposed knowledge of absolute truth. A Frenchman is self-assured because he sees himself as devastatingly charming, mentally and physically, to men and women alike. An Englishman is self-assured on the grounds that he is a citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and also because as an Englishman he always knows the right thing to do and everything he does, because he is Englishman, must be right. An Italian is self-assured because he gets excited and easily forgets himself and everybody else. A Russian is self-assured because he knows nothing, and doesn’t want to know anything because he doesn’t believe you can known anything completely. A self-assured German is the worst of the lot, the most stolid and the most disgusting, because he imagines he knows the turth through a branch of science that is entirely his invention, though he sees it as absolute truth. Pfuel was clearly this kind of man.” (p. 706-7)
  • Meanwhile, over in the Rostov camp, Nikolay receives a letter from his parents that fills him in about Natasha’s illness and breaking off of her engagement to Andrey, and they plead for him to come home. He doesn’t even entertain the thought of going home, despite his parents’ pleas. I have come to the conclusion that Nikolay Rostov is basically a dick, despite his confusingly pretty face in the BBC miniseries. I mean he tries to justify his inaction in a separate letter to Sonya but, to me, it smacks of self righteousness so I don’t believe it: “But now, at the outset of a campaign, I would feel a sense of dishonour not only towards my comrades, but also in my own eyes, were I to put my own happiness ahead of my duty and my love for our fatherland.” (p. 712)

  • Nikolay somehow wins a St George’s Cross for bravery… by accident, I think, I can’t really remember. But neither can Nikolay really grasp how he was brave so it’s ok.
  • At home, meanwhile, Natasha is pretty much deathly ill. Doctors keep prescribing her all sorts of medicines and treatments, everything under the sun, but it seems she is suffering from depression? (I mean, that’s the vibe I’m getting?) However, thankfully, she gets better, but in doing so she seems less childish/happy/carefree than she once was and becomes more withdrawn and quieter. This prompts Pierre to come and sit with her more  and I’ve read enough to know where this is going…
  • Part of Natasha’s recovery is helped by religion, specifically going to Holy Communion, and she seems to see a shot at redemption of her previous wrongdoing (her previous wrongdoing here meaning having hormones and being caught up in a hot guy paying her attention).
  • Pierre, when he’s not mooning quietly after Natasha, is caught on the idea that Napoleon is the devil incarnate because if you assign a certain value to each letter and then spell out l’empereur Napoléon you come to 666 which means he’s the beast prophesised in the apocalypse.

  • Elsewhere, a 15-year old Petya (who is… the youngest Rostov and apparently has grown up, wow), is following in his older brother’s footsteps by idolising the Tsar from afar (ooh I made a rhyme!). Basically Alexander is at the palace and there are thronging crowds outside and Petya rushes into them and gets crushed a bit but it’s ok at the end of the day because they all stand outside whilst the Tsar is inside eating dinner and then he dutifully comes outside to say hi to the plebs. What follows is a kind of weirdly gross scene where part of a biscuit he’s eating falls from the balcony and people scramble to catch it. Naturally, when the Tsar notices this, he goes and gets more biscuits and chucks them down into the crowd who scuffle to catch them.
  • In diplomatic circles, all the important people in Moscow gather to respond to the Tsar’s pronouncement about the state of the war and there’s a lot of men talking but not saying much. Pierre, as one of those men who talk but don’t say much, says something and he’s deemed outspoken and causes quite the stir.
  • Count Ilya Rostov is also in attendance as “the only person who liked what Pierre said, just as he had liked what the naval officer had said and the senator. He always liked what the last speaker had said.” (p. 751) – Ilya is the sort of chap who is bemusedly agreeable and whilst frustrating as a character, I can’t help but assume that I would instinctively find him endearing and quite like him.
  • We end on the Tsar’s resolution being passed by the Moscow assembly. We started with a look at history and the main players of Napoleon and Alexander and now we end with Alexander’s decision being ratified by the big wigs of Moscow. I don’t know what’s to come but I can only assume it means more war. If I knew/cared more about military history, I’m sure I would recognise this is a Very Important Moment in the book but I don’t so I will continue to be blissfully unaware, as always…

And on that very fine note, this is (finally) the end of my wrap-up for week 6… kindly pay no attention to the fact I’m posting this as week 7 comes to a close, I’m behind to say the least. Here’s to hoping something miraculous happens and I manage to catch up, stay tuned to see if I do!

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