Welcome one, welcome all, to week 8 of my weekly progress reports for War and Peace. If you’re curious about how last week went, then you can pop on over and see my week 7 progress. It’s becoming something’s an amusing fact to me that I seem to constantly be falling behind with this read along for one reason or another, which is why this post is coming to you a few day’s late. And I’m off on holiday to the US this coming Saturday so that’s yet another chance to fall behind but do not worry, loyal readers, I will cart Tolstoy’s masterpiece on a trans-Atlantic flight because I refuse to be beaten entirely now we’ve come so far and are so close. Will this work out well for me? Tune in next week to find out! (Ooo the suspense!)
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?
In my last post I summarised the many trials and tribulations of Volume III Part II and officially broke the 1000 page mark. I truly have reached the point of no return now. So here’s how week eight aka Volume III Part III looked…
- This section opens with a tangent… obviously, but at least it’s vaguely relevant unlike someone’s I know (looking at you, Hugo). Tolstoy treats us all to some philosophising about history and how you can never have a beginning to an event because it flows from the previous happenings within a grand inexplicable narrative of existence. I quite like these interludes – they serve to remind me I’m, in fact, not reading a Russian soap opera in book form, but instead one of those ~important books~
- “The first thing history does is to take an arbitrarily series of continuous events and examine it separately, whereas in fact no event can ever have a beginning, because an individual event flows without any break in continuity from another. The second thing history does is treat the actions of a single person, king or commander, as the sum total of everybody else’s individual will, whereas in fact the sum of individual wills never expresses itself in the actions of a single historical personage.” (p. 912)
- The upshot of the little philosophy break is to illustrate how silly it is to try to assume military history is a simple cause and effect or that battles are won (or lost) by their commanders who assume hero like status in the annals of history. To illustrate the sheer idiocy of military history, we have the various factions of the Russian forces deciding on tactics, and it’s a predictable shit show. Tolstoy reminds readers that what may seem like a genius bit of tactics or a stupid plan actually was probably a result of circumstance more than anything else:
- “The circumstances encountered by a commander-in-chief in the field bear no resemblance to any circumstances we may dream up as we sit at home in a cosy study, going over the campaign on a map with a given number of soldiers on either side, in a known locality, and starting out at a specific moment in time.” (p. 916)
- Tl;dr: it’s easy to criticise but you try running a battle, ok?!
- In the end (although what is an “end” really?! See, I’m getting it, Tolstoy), Kutuzov orders a retreat and “the generals began to disperse with the solemn and silent wariness of people going their separate ways at the end of a funeral” which is just a depressing analogy if ever there was one (p. 922)
- It’s all well and good to order a retreat but there’s some people who can’t retreat or leave behind their homes, see: the poor, obviously. The rich of Moscow can take their sweet time and pack up their houses before evacuating, but their poorer counterparts have no such luxury, typical. It’s all strangely calm though, calm before the storm perhaps?
- “The people were waiting philosophically for the enemy to arrive. There was no rioting, no disturbance of the peace, and nobody was torn to pieces; they calmly awaited their fate, sensing within themselves sufficient strength to do what was necessary when the crisis came. And once the enemy began to get near, the wealthier elements of the population went away, leaving their property behind, while the poorer people stayed on, setting fire to all that was left and destroying it.” (p. 923)
- Speaking of poor rich people, Helene is in a pickle. She wants to divorce her inept husband Pierre but however can she do this? She becomes Catholic, duh. (It’s like a reverse Henry VIII and look how that worked out for him.) So she becomes Catholic so that her previous views were sworn to a false religion, but now thank goodness she has repented and seen the light etc … and also conveniently untangled herself from a loveless marriage, crafty bitch. (p. 928)
- Helene isn’t fooling anyone though, let alone good old Marya Dmitriyevna who is the best, confronting Helene about the rumours of her wanting to remarry with such a savage takedown that it made me love her even more:
- “So I hear it’s in order now for women to go from one living husband to another! I suppose you think this is something new. But they’ve beaten you to it, madam. It’s a very old idea. It’s done in every brothel”
- In the end, Helene asks Pierre for a divorce by letter… hahahahaha it’s the old fashioned version of breaking up via text (p. 932)
- After Borodino, Pierre meets up with some soldiers and pretends to be lowly to get some food from them. They take him back to the village and he finds his groom and all is well but then he hears the French are advancing AND that Anatole and Andrey are reportedly dead – SO MUCH BAD IS HAPPENING
- And then to top it all off… Pierre then disappears from Moscow – wait, what, where’d he go??
- As they’re still one of the “wealthier elements of the population” the Rostovs stay in Moscow until the last possible minute and put off packing up the house (I feel u). Whilst telling us about this, Tolstoy also feels the need to mention that Petya is now a young man and dotes on Natasha to the point that he’s like in love with her… you aren’t Targaryens, calm it down War and Peace.
- Quite understandably, Countess Rostov is a bit worried about both her sons being at war so she gets Petya transferred to a regiment training near Moscow so she can keep an eye on him.
- Meanwhile Moscow is slowly evacuating and Sonya is the only one helping the staff to pack up the Rostov household cos she’s the real MVP of the Rostov family (p. 946)
- Everything’s finally packed up in the house but obviously, because she has a heart, Natasha tells the army they can bring the wounded soldiers nearby into their house to rest since they wouldn’t be using it. But of course there’s an officer around who is close to death and he must be important and it’s obviously a certain Andrey Bolkonsky because this book just can’t leave well enough alone (p. 952)
- The carts are all packed up and ready for the off but Natasha furiously confronts her mother about them not taking the wounded out of Moscow with them on their carts rather than their possessions (p. 957). So the poor household staff (and presumably Sonya) have to unpack everything so that the wounded soldiers can be packed into the carts instead, including aforementioned wounded Andrey. Importantly for the sake of plot, Natasha doesn’t know he’s there but the countess and Sonya do, so this probably isn’t going to end well.
- On their way out of the city, Natasha spots a weird Pierre dressed as a coachmen and being all cryptic and he’s staying on for no apparent reason other than maybe a death wish idk?? I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough, in an explanation that only makes sense to Pierre. (p. 963)
- It turns out that no one wants to be the one to tell Napoleon that actually Moscow has been abandoned, not that I blame them for this:
- “The faces of those conferring looked pale and worried. It wasn’t the fact that Moscow has been abandoned by its inhabitants (bad enough in itself) that alarmed them; it was the prospect of having to tell the Emperor, and now to tell him.” (p. 969)
- I’d recommend the old bad news sandwich technique, personally.
- Meanwhile, speaking of hot heads, Count Rostopchin (the governor of Moscow) finds a baying mob on his doorstep, whose blood is up and it seems determined to go fight the advancing French army. Looking down on these dregs of society (I feel like I’ve stepped into A Tale of Two Cities), his Excellency knows they need a sacrifice to get all their anger out. So he presents the mob with a handily recently disgraced Vereshchagin to vent their frustrations on, tells them all loudly and repeatedly that he’s a traitor to the Tsar and that he’s the sole reason Moscow is burning now, and then let’s them have at him. What’s a baying mob to do? It’s like the most extreme version of someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time because they beat Vereshchagin to death in a moment that epitomises the idea of Bakhtinian carnival at its bloodiest, then becoming surprised by what they’ve done:
- “It was only when the victim had stopped struggling, and his screams had fizzled out into a drawn-out, rhythmic gurgling sound, that the mob began to step gingerly away from the bleeding corpse that lay there on the ground. Everybody came up to have a look at what had been done, and they all shrank back in horror, amazed and accusing.” (p. 988)
- Tolstoy draws an interesting contrast between the occupations of major cities during the course of the Napoleonic Wars, trying to establish why Moscow was any different:
- “However convenient it may have been for the French to blame the ferocious Rostopchin, and for the Russians to blame that villain Napoleon, or at a late date to hand the heroic torch to their patriot peasantry, we cannot hide the fact that there could never be one single reason behind the fire […] Yes, it is true that Moscow was burnt by its inhabitants, but it was burnt by those who went away rather than those who stayed behind. Moscow was not like Berlin, Vienna and other cities that emerged unscathed from the enemy occupation. The difference was that her inhabitants, instead of welcoming the French with the keys of the city and the traditional bread and salt, preferred to walk away.” (p. 997)
- Pierre becomes obsessed with the connection between him and Napoleon, or as he puts it “the cabbalistic significance that linked his name with Napoleon’s” (none) and, after realising that people have fled the city so Moscow isn’t going to be defended, Pierre steps up as its protector, determined that he must meet the Emperor and kill him (p. 998)
- The house Pierre is staying in is taken over by French soldiers and he saves the life of one of them from a drunken Russian. So obvs they become best friends and start gossiping about their lives. One of the French soldiers talks of his undoubtedly many dalliances with women and makes Pierre recall his own love for Natasha. He also ends up telling the soldiers who he really is and his real name and about Andrey and Natasha and basically never tell Pierre anything because he will spill everything to some random French soldiers who are vaguely nice to him. (p. 1012)
- Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Natasha finds out about Andrey being wounded and with their gang so she goes and stands by his bedside and, let’s be real, she probably seems like a creepy angel to him because he’s all feverish and unconscious sometimes but that’s ok because this gesture of devotion is a sure sign that it must be love… love love (p. 1023)
- Pierre is still hung up on the idea of assassinating Napoleon but he thinks the people who tried previously got it all wrong. Then he ponders how best to conceal a pistol because obviously he can’t just go wandering down the street with a pistol on his way to assassinate the French Emperor OBVIOUSLY NOT HAHA HOW SILLY – he settles on a knife instead because it’s easier to conceal. (p. 1024)
(Also, generally speaking, knife doesn’t beat gun, Pierre, but sure.)
- Pierre ends up walking down the street and a desperate mother wails to him that she hasn’t got her child out of the burning houses when they were leaving and now the French are looting it but she can’t go in to get the kid so obv Pierre steps up to the plate and rescues her(ish- the soldiers put her on the grass in the garden outside) but then can’t find the servant or the mother. Has Pierre just accidentally acquired a small child? (p. 1029)
- Now filled with a sense of righteousness, Pierre attacks a French soldier who was nearby, innocently stealing an old man’s boots whilst his mate was touching a girl on the neck without her consent. Naturally, Pierre goes all HULK SMASH on them but, oh no, a patrol comes by and he’s arrested by the French, duh, but is quickly separated from the rest of the prisoners as he “seemed more suspicious than anyone” – I don’t disagree, tbh. (p. 1033)
Well that was it, folks, that was week 8 – still with me after all of that? We’re on the home stretch everyone, although a very long home stretch left to run still, admittedly. Will I remember to read whilst preparing for my US trip and when I’m traipsing around DC museums – who knows, you’ll just have to keep tuned and see!