Tag Archives: Tolstoy

What do we Live For?: The Character of Pierre in War and Peace

I find myself both repulsed and intrigued by Tolstoy’s character of Pierre in War and Peace. He is the pampered, illegitimate son of Count Bezukhov and when the old count dies Pierre inherits his vast fortune. What disgusts me about Pierre is his weak and feckless nature. He allows his friends to draw him into also sorts of unnecessary trouble, he is manipulated by Prince Vasili into marrying his beautiful yet shallow daughter, Helene, and he is repeatedly duped by his steward about the state of his business affairs. The plot that revolves around his cunning and manipulative wife, Helene, is especially difficult to read. He knows the better choice in all of these matters, but can’t help but let himself be influenced and even exploited by all of these people. Pierre’s character stands in sharp contrast to Prince Andrei and Count Rostov, whose military ambitions I have written about in my previous post. But just when one thinks that one can bear no more of Pierre’s story, Tolstoy puts profound thoughts into the head of this most pathetic character. The trouble with Pierre’s wife causes him to reevaluate his entire existence. I will share a few of Pierre’s thoughts as he flees Moscow and the torment which his wife has inflicted on him:

No matter what he thought about, he always returned to these same questions which he could not solve and yet could not cease to ask himself. It was as if the thread of the chief screw which held his life together were stripped, so that the screw could not get in our out, but went of turning uselessly in the same place.

‘What is bad? What is good? What should we love and what hate? What do we live for? And what am I? What is life, and what is death? What Power governs all?’

‘Can anything in the world make her or me less a prey to evil and death?—death which ends all and must come today or tomorrow—at any rate in an instant as compared with eternity.’ And again he twisted the screw with the stripped thread, and again it turned uselessly in the same place.

I look forward to seeing if Pierre really learns his lesson and grows or if he is, at his core, the same feckless man no matter the circumstances. I don’t know if I have ever enjoyed a work of fiction so much. I will be happily immersed in reading War and Peace this weekend. (I might take a few hours off, though, on Sunday night to cheer on the Philadelphia Eagles.)

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The Kingdom of This World: Why Men Fight in War and Peace

The Battle of Schöngrabern. 1883.

As I am making my way through War and Peace, I can’t help but notice the similarities of theme, narrative techniques and even characters between Tolstoy’s epic and Homer’s Iliad.  I was glad to see in Steiner’s essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky a small section explaining what Steiner feels is Homer’s significant influences on Tolstoy, not just in War and Peace, but in all of his writings, even his autobiographical pieces.  Steiner writes:

The Homer of the Iliad and Tolstoy are akin in yet another respect.  Their image of reality is anthropomorphic; man is the measure and pivot of experience.  Moreover, the atmosphere in which the personages of the Iliad and of Tolstoyan fiction are shown to us is profoundly humanistic and even secular.  What matters is the kingdom of this world, here and now.

This concentration of what Steiner calls an anthropomorphic reality is particularly evident in Tolstoy’s descriptions of why upper class men, accustomed to rich and pampered lives, voluntarily go to war and sacrifice their comfort for the Russian monarchy.  I have written in a previous post about the Ancient Greek concept of kleos (“glory” or “fame”)  which theme Homer weaves throughout his narrative.  In Bronze Age Greece kings and wealthy men also leave behind their families and relatively comfortable lives in order to fight at Troy and win kleos.  Homer’s Bronze Age warriors, however, want fame not only in this life but also in the next; they will give up their mortal existence in exchange for eternal glory.

Tolstoy’s heroes in War and Peace have motives similar to the warriors in the Iliad.  But I would argue that the men who are fighting the French in Tolstoy’s epic have incitements for battle that are more deeply anthropomorphic—of the here and now, as Steiner would say—than the Homeric heroes.  Tolstoy spends a great deal of time laying out both Prince Andrei’s and Count Rostov’s reasons for volunteering to fight in the war.  In my initial post, I discussed Prince Andrei’s dissatisfaction with his marriage and the boredom he feels while attending insipid society balls and parties.  Tolstoy, at first, describes the Prince as a man that wants something more exciting and meaningful in his life but it is not just boredom that is his driving force to step onto the battlefield.  We learn that Prince Andrei’s hero is, ironically, Napoleon himself, the very man against whom the Russians are fighting.  The Prince craves the recognition, fame and glory that is bestowed on this most famous of French commanders.  As an adjutant on General Kutuzov’s staff he prepares for the battle of Austerlitz and daydreams of earning his mark of greatness, no matter the cost:

‘Well then,’ Prince Andrei answered himself, ‘I don’t know what will happen and I don’t want to know, and can’t, but if I want this—want glory, want to be known to men, want to be loved by them, it is not my fault that I want it and want nothing but that and live only for that.  Yes, for that alone!  I shall never tell anyone, but, oh God! What am I to do if I love nothing but fame and men’s love?  Death, wounds, the loss of family—I fear nothing.  And precious and dear as many persons are to me—father, sister, wife–those dearest to me—yet dreadful and unnatural as it seems, I would give them all at once for a moment of glory, of triumph over men, of love from men I don’t know and never shall know, for the love of these men here,’ he thought, as he listened to voices in Kutuzov’s courtyard.

These words could just as easily have been spoken by Achilles or Hector in the Iliad.

Count Rostov, at the tender age of eighteen, also volunteers to be a part of the cavalry in the war against the French.  Rostov is more naïve and youthful than Prince Andrei, but he too is seeking fame and glory.  But there is a major difference between the type of fame that Prince Andrei and Rostov crave.  The Prince wants to be know by all men, but Rostov wants to be known by one man, in  particular, the Russian Emperor Alexander I.  Rostov gets his first glimpse of the Emperor while the army is on parade in front of their beloved leader.  Rostov can only be described as smitten at the sight of his sovereign and his sole motivation for fighting in the war is to distinguish himself and gain the notice of Alexander I.  The description of Rostov’s love for his Emperor, as the troops prepare for the battle of Austerlitz, is striking:

And Rostov got up and went wandering among the camp fires dreaming of what happiness it would be to die—not in saving the Emperor’s life (he did not even dare to dream of that) but simply to die before his eyes.  He really was in love with the Tsar and the glory of the Russian arms and the hope of future triumph.  And he was not the only man to experience that feeling during those memorable days preceding the battle of Austerlitz; nine-tenths of the men in the Russian army were then in love, though less ecstatically, with their Tsar and the glory of the Russian arms.

At the end of the tragic and horrendous battle, Rostov finds himself alone with the Tsar, but like a nervous lover, cannot bring himself to approach this great man:

But as a youth in love trembles, is unnerved, and dares not utter the thoughts he has dreamt of for nights, but looks around for help or a chance of delay and flight when the longed-for moment comes and he is alone with her, so Rostov, now that he had attained what he had longed for more than anything else in the world, did not know how to approach the Emperor, and a thousand reasons occurred to him why it would be inconvenient, unseemly and impossible to do so.

Tolstoy’s description of soldier as lover stuck me as an inverted example of Ovid’s theme of Militia Amoris (“soldier of love”) that he incorporates into the Amores.  The feelings of love and admiration in this context of battle deepen, I think, the anthropomorphic reality that pervades War and Peace.  But, like the Homeric heroes and Ovid as a lover, Tolstoy hints that, although these men have lofty, mortal goals, things will not turn out well for them.

 

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Flinging Open the Doors of Perception: My Initial Thoughts on War and Peace

George Steiner, in his book Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, writes: “Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers.”  Having read the first few hundred pages of War and Peace, I can already tell that this epic will reshape how I view other authors and works of literature.  There will be a marked difference in my reading life before Tolstoy and after Tolstoy.  I have to admit that I was apprehensive because my experience reading Anna Karenina several years ago was not as pleasant as I had hoped.  In retrospect it was a matter of choosing to read a book at the wrong time.  But my foray into War and Peace could not be more pleasurable.

Prince Andrei, the first born son of a stern, wealthy, bellicose old man, has especially captured my attention.  In the opening scene of the book he is attending a party with his pregnant, young wife, referred to in the test as the “little princess” and it is evident that he has no real affection or patience for her.  The Prince is dignified, taciturn and eager for a military career and his wife’s incessant and trivial babbling about social gossip irritates him.  When the Prince’s friend, Pierre, visits their home this young husband has some shocking advice for his single friend about marriage:

‘Never, never marry, my dear friend! That’s my advice: never marry till you can say to yourself that you have done all you are capable of, and until you have ceased to love the woman of your choice and have seen her plainly as she is, or else you will make a cruel and irrevocable mistake.  Marry when you are old and good for nothing—or all that is good and noble in you will be lost.  It will be wasted on trifles.  Yes! Yes! Yes!  Don’t look at me with such surprise.  If you marry expecting anything from yourself in the future you will feel at every step that for you all is ended, all is closed except the drawing room where you will be ranged side by side with a court lackey and an idiot!…But what’s the good!’ and he waved his arm.

It seems that both Prince Andrei and his wife feel stuck in this marriage and have realized too late, already with their first child on the way, that they are ill-suited for one another.  The little Princess would rather be in Moscow or Petersburg, going to parties and balls, and visiting with her friends, but instead she is forced to live in the country with her crotchety, old father-in-law and her pious sister-in-law, while her husband goes off to war.  Although the little Princess is depicted as being shallow and insipid , I still sympathized with her as well as Prince Andrei; both are stuck in this marriage for the sake of family and propriety and neither one of them are getting their needs met.  It’s interesting that Tolstoy wrote these words when his own marriage—one that would prove to be rather tumultuous—was only in its first few years.

In the first few hundred pages alone we get thoughts about marriage, love, life, war and death.  I have not been this captivated by a work of fiction in a very long time.  It is difficult to capture the brilliance of the entire books with these posts, but I am hoping to update my blog every few hundred pages with a focus on particular passages, like the one above, that catch my attention.  I also feel so lucky to have come upon George Steiner’s book length essay on Tolstoy which I will read eagerly alongside War and Peace.

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Review: A Very Russian Christmas

a-very-russian-christmasThis fascinating collection of Russian Christmas stories, many of which have been published here in English for the first time, is a glimpse into the celebration of this holiday from a simpler age which is long past.  Christmas in the twenty-first century has become the season of massive and ugly consumerism, a time when obscene amounts of money are spent on the latest and greatest toys and gadgets.  The Christmas tales in A Very Russian Christmas, penned by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Teffi, Chekov, Korolenko, Zoshchenko, Lukashevich, and Gorky bring us back to the holidays of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when children were thrilled to receive fruits and small trinkets that decorated the Christmas trees.   In these stories we encounter festive gatherings of different classes of people, reflections on what it meant to live a good life, and lastly, and most importantly, merry making that involves lots of vodka.  Lots and lots of vodka.  Klaudia Lukashevich describes young, Russian children who are eager with anticipation for the Christmas tree to be decorated and are so excited about celebrating Christmas with their extended family:

And now it appears—a shapely green tree, to which so many legends and recollections are tied…Hello, you sweet, beloved tree!  In the midst of winter you bring us the evergreen smell of the forests and, drenched in little lights, you delight the children’s gaze, just as according to ancient legend you brought joy to the gaze of the Holy Infant.  Our family had a custom for major holidays to make each other presents, surprises, to unexpectedly bring great happiness and joy.  Each quietly prepared his handmade gift; we memorized poems; for the New Year and for Easter we placed the handmade present under our napkins…We were engrossed in this tradition and it brought us much happiness.  The gifts were simple, inexpensive but they caused much delight.

My favorite story in the collection is, not surprisingly, from Chekhov who is the undisputed master of the short story.  In “A Woman’s Kingdom,” he gives us the character of Anna Akimovna who, despite living in a lavish mansion and being surrounded by wealth and luxury, suffers from a deep loneliness.  Anna’s parents and uncle are deceased and at the age of twenty-six she is an heiress and the reluctant owner of a large factory.  Other than an old aunt who lives in the lower part of her home, Anna has no other relatives and has not married or had any children.

When Christmas comes around Anna is surrounded by people who pay their respects to her as a member of the upper class and as a prominent owner of a successful factory.  Many people beg her for money which makes her feel uncomfortable and perplexed as to how best to help the lower classes.  Chekov vividly sets the perfect festive scene in his story as Anna dons her most beautiful dress, greets dozens of guests, and has a lavish dinner with rich food, wine and vodka.  Even though Anna is surrounded by people and engages in a variety of holiday activities that would be the envy of many, she is always the loneliest person in the room.  Throughout the course of Christmas Day as Anna is taking part in the festivities, she begins to think about one of the factory workers she has recently met and experiences feelings of hope about the prospect of getting married.

A lawyer who is an old family friend visits for Christmas dinner and Anna shares her feelings of loneliness with him.  He offers this humorous and hopeful advice to Anna:

The fin de siècle woman—I mean when she is young, and of course wealthy—must be independent, clever, elegant, intellectual, bold and a little depraved.  Depraved within limits, a little.  For excess, you know, is wearisome.  You ought not to vegetate, my dear; You ought not to live like everyone else, but to get the full savor of life, and a slight flavor of depravity is the sauce of life.  Revel among flowers of intoxicating fragrance, breathe the perfume of musk, eat hashish, and best of all, love, love, love…To begin with, in your place I would set up seven lovers—one for each day of the week…

Anna’s retort is that she is “lonely, lonely as the moon in the sky, and a waning moon too…”  The only thing in the world that will make her happy, Anna believes, is a deep and abiding love that comes with a marriage.  Chekov makes the point that all of our feelings and emotions—hope, love, kindness, compassion, loneliness— are heightened and even exasperated during the holidays.  Anna feels her loneliness more keenly as she greets her guests, but she also feels more hopeful that she will find true love.  As Christmas Day ends, however, and the clock strikes midnight, Anna loses hope for marrying a factory worker and becomes resigned to her loneliness.

I especially enjoyed the Christmas settings in these stories which described celebrations among family and friends, interesting holiday traditions, cold and snowy weather, and a spirit of hope.  New Vessel Press, one of my favorite small presses, has published their first hard cover book filled with stories from Russian masters who show us what it means to celebrate a very Russian Christmas.

I would like to wish all of my readers, followers, fellow bloggers, and bibliophiles a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

 

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