Monthly Archives: January 2016

33% done with War and Peace


“Stolypin gave a deep bass guffaw as he munched a piece of bread and cheese. Gervais laughed softly with a hissing chuckle, and Speranski in a high-pitched staccato manner.” – Tolstoy uses a group of three for comedic effect to show how banal and silly these men are – at least to Andrei.

Why such a sudden shift in Andrei? He’s met Natasha, someone real, and now he sees how fake everything else is.

33% done with War and Peace


“In Natasha’s eyes all the people at the ball alike were good, kind, and splendid people, loving one another; none of them capable of injuring another—and so they ought all to be happy.” If only this truly were the case then heaven would be on Earth. And though she is naive, and is at a ball where everyone is fake and escaping reality, she sees people as they ought to be: good, kind.

She cares for Pierre

32% done with War and Peace


“… who would have felt very much ashamed had she not been assured that this was absolutely necessary”. Tolstoy is showing us here more of how unnecessary all this show is, and you can’t help but think about the millions of serfs limping around hungry in the cold night, but Natasha is genuinely happy and Tolstoy does not judge her for it. This is a silly, but wonderful moment for everyone, even Andrei.

32% done with War and Peace


“Only then did she remember how she must behave at a ball”= Can’t be yourself. “she felt her eyes growing misty, she saw nothing clearly” Because it’s all fake. Later, at the play, she will see how fake it all is, and it will be there she will meet her near destruction.

“repeating the same words to the various arrivals, “Charme de vous voir,” (Delighted to see you). No, they’re not delighted to see you.

32% done with War and Peace


Costuming is what they’re really doing getting ready for Natasha;s first ball. This may be how high society does things, but it’s not uniquely Russian. They are going through all the same motions and wearing the same costumes as everyone else, including old Peronskaya. Later we’ll get them dressed up in the old pagan costumes after the winter hunt during which there’s a man who is a woman, even. Perceptions

32% done with War and Peace


Natasha relates people to colors and shapes, is this a form of synesthesia, could Tolstoy have had this, too? It would fit with the ongoing theme of perception.

“You flirt with him too,” (Pierre): FORESHADOWING!

Tolstoy writes young women so well, all their energy and active minds, but also the childlike in them, too. Natasha in her youth is such a wonderful character because we can feel how alive she is

31% done with War and Peace


This uncertainty Boris feels about Natasha (and thus his hard earned social position) is why I feel Boris is not a bad person. If he was truly an opportunist he wouldn’t have thought twice about the vibrant Natasha (like Berg, though he’s not a bad person, either, just dull). Boris is passionate, but he tries to tamp it down so he can advance in society, but he’s tested here, and that’s not a bad thing.

31% done with War and Peace


This chapter contrasts the sensible but passionless Berg with the passionate but insensible Rostov’s. Since this chapter directly follows Pierre’s introspection about what it means to be good we have to assume Tolstoy is trying to show us something. But is he saying it’s better to be sensible and boring or passionate and irresponsible? Neither because this is a marriage chapter so he’s saying middleground

31% done with War and Peace


I’ve always wondered what really goes on behind the scenes money wise with people like this. Tolstoy was writing about how things really were so the Rostov’s finances would have been something many families would have worked through – but how did these people keep getting money and, more importantly, credit? I suppose Tolstoy is showing us how unsustainable the upper-class lifestyle is, but it was doable.

31% done with War and Peace


Poor Pierre. His introspection and self-doubts and ability to see fault in himself is so powerful that it’s a wonder he doesn’t suffer from depression. But you have to admire his active mind, and his desire to be a better person. In this way he represents Tolstoy’s dream to see all people of his class thus enlightened with the important things in life and to put away vanity and trifles.

31% done with War and Peace


I wonder if Hélène thinks Pierre will attempt another dual, this time with Boris, in hopes he’ll be killed this time?

We see Pierre as others see him, as a good-natured crank. But we know better, we’ve taken the time to know this man and we empathize with him. Now imagine people who in real life we think are a bit odd and try to imagine what their inner turmoil is.

Yet we get no empathy for Hélène.

30% done with War and Peace


Why is Hélène so concerned about getting the marriage back together? Probably because it looks bad in society.

The words of Alexeevich are not bad advice:

“… man can only know himself by comparison”. In fact you could boil the entire point of the novel down to that very line. Everything is relative, as Einstein would prove 36 years after the novel was first published.

30% done with War and Peace


But what is Tolstoy really saying here? He’s telling and showing us that the only thing you can get a lot of people to agree on is to go to war. People will quarrel in society, backslide in religious organizations, corrupt at work, and all of them will be able to perfectly justify themselves and will even judge you for the same even though we all think we’re quite virtuous and possessors of the only truth

30% done with War and Peace


Pierre tries to get a roomful of people to agree to his point of view on universal philosophy (through Masonry). He’s young, and naive. But his aim isn’t. He is not wrong for trying, and he’s astute in noticing “the endless variety of men’s minds, which prevents a truth from ever presenting itself identically to two persons.” True wisdom begins here, in knowing everyone is an individual.

30% done with War and Peace


Speransky is to Andrei as the Freemasons are to Pierre. There really isn’t that much more to say about these chapters since Tolstoy does a lot of telling, though in the service of influencing Andrei and buttering him up – not to mention drawing him into active, but banal company. The truth is not here, either; Andrei and Pierre are still just as lost, if at least invigorated.

30% done with War and Peace


The character of the Tsar Alexander is interesting because Tolstoy almost always describes him in terms of whom is influencing him. First it is the man who helped him by the tree during the battle, again when Napoleon surprises him with the awarding of a medal, and now by Speransky’s influence. We get the picture of a nation that is unsure of itself, just like all the characters in the novel are. They are young.

29% done with War and Peace


I don’t understand why Andrei tries to submit a proposal for the reform of military law. Maybe it’s the awakened youthfulness in him (mirrored by the reformer Speransky), but Arakcheyev is right to argue that there isn’t anyone to carry out the current laws as it is – which we’ve seen with Denisov’s affair. Andrei has been to far long out of circulation to think this would work. It’s like he wants to fail.

29% done with War and Peace


The transformation that Pierre says happened to him (and that he believes happened to him) we actually get to see in Andrei. This works because Andrei is not a passionate person, he’s cold and distant and hides his few emotions and so it’s easier to see a transformation than in someone like Pierre. And we feel it much the stronger in Andrei, too.

Again perception. The old oak has bloomed and quite changed.

29% done with War and Peace


Though we get not so subtle juxtaposition of the “lush, wet, bushy vegetation with silver-lit leaves and stems here and there” with Natasha, she is not actually seen. In fact she is still a child in the window above wishing she could fly off into the night. She is innocent, he is not. She is the silver-lit, he is dark. And them not seeing each other defines their relationship for the forced time apart.

29% done with War and Peace


Earlier in the novel Tolstoy says something to the effect of: as long as one has eyes they have to be looking at something. And that is true here, too when spring is all around and Andrei, though oblivious to the beauty, will inventively succumb to nature. Even the old oak, bitter and weary, knows it will soon bloom in spite of its ill temper. You can’t deny nature, and really, why should you?

29% done with War and Peace


Russian literature has a reputation for being dull, dreary, and depressing. And in some ways that reputation is deserved: Dostoevsky and Tolstoy dealt with heavy themes, especially the former, but in all Russian literature there is an almost magic realism and fantastical element hidden just beneath. Here we get a paragraph from the point of view (as Andrei imagines it) of an ancient, bitter oak tree).

28% done with War and Peace


Here Tolstoy is showing us how arbitrary men can be. A day before Russia and the French are at war, the next they are friends and pinning medals on each other. Yet what about the men who died the day before, are dying now, or are arbitrarily refused pardon? But it’s complicated, too because we’ve been shown everything leading up to this. It’s not all arbitrary, but it feels that way to those who don’t know.

28% done with War and Peace


Alexander says “… the law is stronger than I”. And this is a loaded sentence because it’s directed at Tolstoy’s contemporaries and the tsar of his time and reminds us of the Decembrists and even echos loudly in 1918 to the communists who revolted against the tyranny of the tsar. This is an “ideal” statement similar to the myth of Washington who is claimed to have said “I cannot tell a lie”, ironically.

28% done with War and Peace


The people we were friends with in youth rarely, if ever, remain friends with us when we become adults. Once we’re about 20 we have a better idea who we are and what we value and wish to pursue and we surround ourselves with people who share our passions. Boris and Nikolai no longer share anything in common.

Tolstoy uses the phrase “blue spectacles of conventionality” to describe Boris. I like that.

28% done with War and Peace


I’ve always been grateful to Tolstoy for at least giving us some news about Tushin, He’s not a major character, but he’s my favorite minor character. Sad, too about him losing an arm, yet he’s not despondent about it, and I like that he sits with Denisov even though Vasska has bored them all with this story.

Denisov bit off more than he could chew, tried to dig in, but he’s not strong enough to endure it.

27% done with War and Peace


Anyone who has had to deal with the VA will understand this chapter quite well. We make a lot about heroes and about how we honor those who serve, but this is the reality for many who serve in war: neglect, poor treatment, bureaucracy, and death alone.

Tolstoy inclused this chapter to make his case against “great men of history”. He shows us the reality.

This scene foreshadows what will happen to Andrei.

27% done with War and Peace


Denisov was trying to be too much like Rostov, and he probably thought he could get away with it, too just like Rostov probably would have. Thing is he went a little too far and he regretted it. Though I can’t say I blame him for trying to feed his troops. Still, if we remember the letter sent to Andrei, we know how complicated matters are, how difficult logistics are, and Denisov didn’t have all the facts

27% done with War and Peace


Mashka’s sweet root is actually Acorus calamus and when eaten it can be hallucinogenic. Thematically this is interesting because of how important perception is to the novel, how who the person we think we are is the person we try to present to the world and how that can be seen differently to all the people we know, all of them doing the same thing. We think everyone is watching us, but they’re not.

27% done with War and Peace


Why does Denisov well up in tears at the end of this chapter? I think it’s because of how much he loves the Rostov family, how even their impetuousness is endearing to him, how like a brother Nikolai is to him, and even his failed proposal to Natasha strengthened his feelings towards the family. Dolokhov fled from the Rostov’s at his failing, but Denisov is family and he loves his family even when it hurts.

26% done with War and Peace


Tolstoy’s observations of how people behave behind other’s people’s back is honest – when a person leaves our company it’s common for everyone to talk about them, usually unflattering gossip. It’s human behavior. Yet this doesn’t happen to Pierre, they speak well of him because he’s a good person. And as a character we feel his goodness, not because we’re told it, but Tolstoy shows is. Pierre equals good.

26% done with War and Peace


Tolstoy isn’t just picking on the Mason’s, his contempt for organized religion goes straight for the humble beliefs of the peasant Orthodox. Here we see through Pierre how the wonder-working ikon story told by the old woman is a scam, though Tolstoy never actually says so. Pierre’s innocence is to question the truth of such a thing, but he’s not cynical, he truly doesn’t understand how she doesn’t see it.

26% done with War and Peace


Only the Uncle chapter is superior to this small chapter with the 2 friends on the ferry. You can actually feel the change in Andrei, feel the goodness of Pierre as he, misguidedly, tries to pry the cynicism from him. And it’s no accident of setting: that flooded river is symbolic of life and death, the ferry our journey on it, the passing of it is change. And Andrei changes inwardly, silently, unlike Pierre

25% done with War and Peace


When we dig deeper into their argument past Pierre being right and Andrei being wrong, we see that Andrei’s “wrongness” has produced positive results whereas Pierre’s “rightness” has actually hurt more people. His serfs are worse off and more exploited than ever, whereas Andrei’s are at least in a predictable situation. This is why Andrei isn’t a bad person, he’s just cynical though always sensible.

25% done with War and Peace


Pierre and Andrei arguing about what is good and what is the meaning of life is a wonderful moment of friendship. The chapter begins with them having grown distant from each other and unable to at first find something in common. But this philosophical argument is wonderful in how cynical Andrei is and how naive Pierre is. And funny that though Pierre can’t express what he feels, we know he’s right and Andrei isn’t.

25% done with War and Peace


Later in the novel Mary will try to give the peasants all the grain in the stores but they refuse it, are in fact nearly hostile to her. And so even she who knows the serfs, knows what they endure has a hard time doing good. Pierre, then, is totally out of his element and is useless. This is Tolstoy’s condemnation of the rich class who think giving money is the same as doing good. They do more harm actually.

25% done with War and Peace


“Prince Andrew was the first to move away, ruffling his hair against the muslin of the curtain”: A Terrance Malick visual moment.

I’m trying to think of why this is a significant chapter. It begins with Bilibin’s letter full of sarcasm and disgust at the stupid situation of military politics, and ends with the child’s fever finally breaking. Does this represent Andrei seeing the final truth of war?

24% done with War and Peace


Andrei is bitter, to the point that he even thinks his father is making fun of him not being in a winning battle. Though we don’t get his thoughts I think his attitude is a combination of feeling guilty about his wife dying, nervousness at raising this small child, disillusionment at having been in a battle that went badly, and a lack of direction. And he never really has direction until he falls in love.

Battle of Eylau is important to be mentioned here because it shows a weakness in Napoléon’s Grande Armée no matter how uncertain that may be. There might be hope yet at a time when Pierre and Andrei seem to have lost all hope in life, though at least Pierre has something to reevaluate his life with.

24% done with War and Peace


I really hate Hélène, she’s such a bad person. Her whole family are bad people. The timing here is noted in that the very next chapter after Pierre kicked Vasili, Hélène invited Boris in. Pierre is smart to get away from these people, but Boris needs these people to really advance in society. And so Tolstoy is offering us a choice: favor in society, or favor in family. Which is more important to you?

24% done with War and Peace


Boris should have been given more attention, if anything because Tolstoy really didn’t need to just tell us what he was up to, we had already figured out he was opportunistic and only looked for relationships that could further him. I compare him to Dolokhov but without the violence. However, his path takes him into society, something Tolstoy despises. Better to be a Rostov, whom Boris now ignores.

24% done with War and Peace


Though Pierre is under the influence of the Masons, he still does the right thing by cutting ties with Vasili. He could have handled it better, and in fact is still acting rashly as he did with Dolokhov, but he’s learning who he is and how to do things that are for his own good as he wants it, not as others want it.

Dueling was still going to happen whether or not the tsar approved.

23% done with War and Peace


Oh if only it were that easy? Perform such and such ritual, pledge a bit of money, and your life will change forever and you will be free of all your vices and insincerities.

Yet for Pierre he really does feel a change in him because he so wants to, he’s just not found the right way about it. He will fall much further as the novel goes on, but he’ll never lose his kind heartedness.

23% done with War and Peace


Now the reason why these mysterious secrets won’t have any effect on holding Pierre (long term) to the Mason’s is because he doesn’t really care about all that. He only wants to be good and do good, nothing else to him really matters (and he’s correct), but the Mason’s have got to him first and are trying to corrupt him just as their ceremonies are corrupt. No real truth is secret, not even in science.

Tolstoy is warning us against those who only want to take advantage of us – this is why he got into trouble with the Orthodox church because his view of organized religion was quite low. Tolstoy didn’t stand on ceremony and hollow ritual, he felt all that replaced the truth people were really seeking. And though I think he actually had a more nuanced view of what these rituals were about, I think he felt many people would only get caught up in the ritual and lose sight of the teaching tools they were meant to be. Easier to worship a cross than who actually hung on it.

23% done with War and Peace


half chapter update

This is how we know the Mason’s are false: they claim to possess a knowledge that nobody else has, a powerful knowledge that not every Mason will attain. They hold this “knowledge” over the heads of desperate people, like Pierre, because they know he will never attain this knowledge yet will always feel as if he is at fault for not attaining it and will try harder. It’s a scheme.

23% done with War and Peace


I never fully trusted Bazdéev the first time I read this, I think maybe because Tolstoy has him wearing that death’s head ring and because it seemed so convenient that here was this person offering out a hand of the brotherhood to someone whom everyone else had been wanting something from.

Yet Bazdéev’s arguments are not all bad: virtue and charity are noble pursuits, but his path is misguided and secretive

23% done with War and Peace


half-chapter update

Tolstoy’s genius can actually be seen in full in this chapter where Pierre meets the old Mason. The first time I read the novel I thought that what this old Mason was teaching was what Tolstoy was teaching because it’s a very convincing argument – only later do we learn how false it is. Tolstoy gives us the opposition’s best argument and then over 1000 pages tears it down.

23% done with War and Peace



What’s interesting about Pierre is what’s also interesting about Hamlet: they question everything and seem unable to make up their minds for what seem to be good, logical reasons. Their questioning covers all the ground most of us cover only partially when we reflect; few people are so reflective to such a degree. Yet we can relate to uncertainty and a feeling of “what is the point of life?”

23% done with War and Peace


While she’s the only one with a level head in the family, the Countess Rostova is a drag. She could have let Denisov down a bit easier in tone, but it parallels her son’s flippant attitude to losing 43k rubles. She is always “in character” and he, too tries to be someone he’s not which is why he’s having such bad luck in life. Tolstoy is affirming us to “be ourselves”, even if it still fails, like Denisov.

Though I should say that Denisov puts on an act too, he’s not as confident as he acts (that lisp of his) and so he over compensates. But like Nioklai, he too is young and trying to figure it all out. That’s why Dolokhov has been successful up to this point because he knows who he is, what he is, and is realistic about getting what he wants. That’s why the encounter with Pierre was a shock to him since he had never lost before when he really should have won.