Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Initial thoughts

I honestly don't know where to start. I feel like the 148 pages of part 1 barely constitute an introduction to characters and events. I'm having trouble picking out anything that is really discussion-worthy. In case you're having similar difficulties, or if you're just shy, I'll try to start some kind of ball rolling here.

A summary of the difficulties I rambled about on my own blog, hoping it would point me in some direction (but no such luck):

1. I'm not loving this book. It's entertaining, and it's certainly not hard, but I'm not captivated (yet?). Anyone else?

2. I've learned quite a bit about the rise of Napoleon. Comments the characters make in passing are sidetracking me. I'm assured that understanding them is not crucial to appreciating the novel — I could skip right over them — but I can't help but want to know. I'll post a few notes on the historical references in days to come, and I welcome any insight from those of you who actually do know something about the Napoleonic Wars.

3. Do your editions have introductions and/or notes? Have you read them? I'm almost wishing I hadn't read the introduction to my book (John Bayley), as I feel my impressions are quite strongly coloured by it.

4. The big question: "What's this novel all about anyway?"

Matt (who's read W&P before) ventured an answer in previous comments: "the meaning of a man's soul - the tension between one's free will and fate; sort of like if you're put into the position, you have decide whether this is really your passion or merely because it's expected of you."

I'd have to agree there are tensions, but don't think I'd call it "fate" just yet. To this point I see the struggle between following one's desires and doing one's social duty. I think that's clearly true for Andrei, Pierre, and Boris.

Andrei, coming to Pierre's defense and in reference to Napoleon, says, "Besides, in the actions of a statesman one must distinguish between his acts as a private person and those as a general or an emperor." (Chapter 4)

Perhaps this is applicable to anyone, statesman or not: distinguishing between acts of free will and those performed in fulfilling a social/political role.

So? How far have you gotten? What do you think so far?


Anonymous rachel said...

I'm finding it harder to jump into than previous readings. Not sure why. I think I've lost a certain amount of patience for extensive descriptions (even amusing ones, like Count Rostov and Marya Dmitrievna dancing the "Daniel Cooper"). But this is a big book with a broad scope, and it takes time to set things up.

A recurring preoccupation in this book, IIRC, is big vs small -- the largeness of Napoleon in history vs. his diminutive stature, the army vs the individual soldier, men vs women, "great" society vs those who see through it (Andre), fat Pierre vs everyone smaller.

I remember previous crushes on misogynistic Prince Andre, rather than feel them this time around. His wife's pregnancy elicits more sympathy from me than previously, I suppose.

Was that all disjointed anough?

3:35 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Hi all-

1. The entire Part 1 of Book 1 sort of introduces characters, their relationship with one another, and their social bearings. It also affords a gleam into the backdrop against which the novel sets -- the invasion of Napoleon.

2. Neither am I very captivated even though this is the third time reading it. Sometimes I read certain parts of it just for fun. :)

3. What is this novel about? Hmm...I really can't narrow to a singular answer. I think so far (I'm on p.265, Book 1 Part 3 Ch.5) it's about how one's happiness in life depends his/her own decision, whether it's the decision on marriage, or going to war, or whatever circumstances that are pivotal.

4. I enjoy the reading, so I'm moving along. :)

3:49 PM  
Blogger Raehan said...

I'm 40 pages into it. I'm not bored, but that's all I have to say for now. I'll be back.

Btw, the print in my book is teeny-tiny. I'm almost wishing I had got the audio-book. I've been using e-books with my real-time bookclub and enjoying the freedom of it.

4:19 PM  
Blogger Krakovianka said...

This is a first-time read for me, and I'm finding W&P more engaging than I thought I would. The characters seem very real. I printed out the diagram of family relationships from the Tolstoy studies link, and I'm sorry I did, because close examination of it has spoiled a few things for me, as I already know who will marry whom, and if A marries B, then present spouse C must die, and I liked that don't print it out if you don't want spoilers.

I felt that the first few chapters were like a slide under a microscope--a close look at a little slice of society.

The whole drinking scene, with Dolokhov perched on the roof was interesting, and may be the precursor to a larger senseless wager later on.

I think Pierre is the most interesting character so far, although he seems none too bright at times. Can anyone in his situation (illegitimate son educated abroad) really be so naive and clueless?

4:32 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

This is my second reading of War and Peace. The first was more than thirty years ago. I find it now, as I did then, a huge sprawling canvas of a work, like an impressionist painting, throbbing with life. It is like a metaphor for Russia, itself. Tolstoy seems to have the ability to bring us into the minds of so many diverse charcters, and then, by knowing them, to understand their motives as they confront their various fates and face their own humanity. And all this during a time of historical turmoil. It is the human experience, and it is as valid now, as it was then.

6:46 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

By the end of Part 2 in Book 1, we see extensive scenes of domestic life, familial dealings, and seditious plot of seizing a count's fortune. All these are juxtaposed with scenes of the war. It might be a presentiment of the imminent changing fortunes of all the characters.

To me it seems that fate and "decided happiness" dominate the characters' confrontation of their humanity. Princess Andrei has found the sensation and joy fighting the war--it's more than an patriotic act for him, it's about fulfilling life other than his boring marriage. Princess Maria has to decide if she would marry Anatole Karagin. She realizes that her conforming to fate will only deprive her of all power of thought and make her incapable of anything but her habitual compliance to her father.

7:54 PM  
Blogger Isabella said...

Karen: I'd been wondering the same thing about Pierre. He's knowledgeable, but socially dim. I suppose that's because he's been removed from society, for his education and maybe also because he's illegimate, — he has little awareness of its workings. Still, his naivete does seem somewhat exaggerated.

Thus far, I'd say Andrei holds the most interest for me. We tend to think of fighting for one's country as a duty, whereas Andrei genuinely wants to go; as Matt says, he finds fulfillment in it, beyond fulfilling a civic obligation. And in so doing he's eschewing his duty to his pregnant wife.

9:38 AM  
Anonymous rachel said...

I think of Pierre as a geek. It explains the social awkwardness, despite good education. Some of us are simply unteachable, in the social sphere.

10:50 AM  
Blogger Krakovianka said...

Pierre as a geek--ha ha. That's funny, but probably not an inaccurate assessment! I wonder if he'll improve?

Prince Andre and his sister are also very interesting to me. Their father is the original obsessive-compulsive, anal-retentive Russian, yes? But I may be getting into book two with that discussion--can't remember exactly where book one ended!

2:57 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

1) I think I'm lucky. I picked this up at just the right time, I was due a long, meandering work of literature to just wallow in and loose myself. I am really enjoying it for it's slowness, it's rich detail, and I've been really surprised by the humor and wit Tolstoy had. I wasn't expecting that.

2) I too, am finding I didn't know as much about Napoleon as I thought I did. I look forward to your post on the historical references, Isabella. I'm sure more insight will enrich the novel.

3) My edition does not have any notes. It does have an introduction, which as a rule, I don't read unless I've read the book before. I've had too many books spoiled that way.

4) I'll have to get back to you. I'm going to have to read more.

3:35 PM  
Anonymous Danielle said...

I am all of 20 pages into W&P! Sorry, I am a little behind (I had to finish The Moonstone over the I didn't pick this up). Too soon to tell for me, but I am curious about all these people. And just how important is it to keep them all straight? Should I keep looking at the list of characters in the back of the book or just go with the flow and they will sort themselves out as I go?? This is my first read by the way, and I broke down and got the Briggs translation--a lovely paperback copy from the UK!!

10:11 PM  
Anonymous rachel said...

Danielle -- it is useful to keep them all straight. As annoying as it is to keep flipping to the list, if you do so diligently at first, it takes less time than you might imagine to learn who they all are (with nicknames!). It's like having a job in a deli: at first, you think you'll never be able to distinguish Maple Smoked Turkey from Honey Baked Turkey, let alone remember all the PLU#s or sale prices. But (this is gruesome experience talking) it takes less than a week to learn the commonest ones, and two weeks to learn about 95%.

The other 5% is only ever ordered by that weird old man (the only human in the world who can stomach head cheese and pimento loaf), and he's only in on Thursdays before 8. Yeah, you learn that pretty quickly too.

10:56 PM  
Blogger Sam said...


Not sure which translation your using, but in mine Andrei is a prince, not a princess. :)

1:14 AM  
Blogger piksea said...

I've been noticing a lot of the big and small stuff, too. All those descriptions of soldiers with tiny little white hands and itty bitty footies, it can be a little disconcerting.

Also, does anyone else find the descriptions of the little princess, Lise kind of strange? Does she have a cleft palate, or maybe a hare lip and a moustache? How charming and appealing can that possibly be?

I'm over halfway through book two and until the first soldier went down from the French grapeshot, I think I preferred it to book one and all those society people scheming for a dying man's money.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Nick Zegarac said...

Trust me on this one - War and Peace is a rich vibrant tapestry of life in crisis and turmoil. But at 148 pages you've just begun the journey. Ultimately, the novel unfolds not as a tragic melodrama but as history painted in the faces of the living. You have to get to the end and, perhaps, re-read some of it later to understand and appreciate the full sweep and impact. But it will be well worth your time effort and indulgence to do so.

3:25 PM  
Anonymous Danielle said...

Okay, Rachel, I think you are right (though I wanted to be lazy-LOL). I am trying to keep the various princes and princesses et al straight. Maybe I need to write it out on a card, so I won't have to keep flipping to the back!

3:45 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Oops I mean Prince typing is bad. :)

I'm reading Briggs and Edmonds, comparing selected passages. I'm on the part where Prince Andrei reunioned with Pierre after the battle of Austerlitz. p.465 on Edmonds.

10:22 PM  
Anonymous gina c said...

Two Questions loom large for me so far:

1. Who was Pierre's Mother? we hear that he has illegitimate siblings, so he wasnt a one-off, I hope we find out why the old Count wouldnt marry any of their mothers. Its intersting that the old Count had Pierre educated abroad, spending money on him and his future, and yet didnt marry his mother. Was she a serf of his? was she a nice girl who he ruined? hmmmm. Maybe i am getting too involved in details too early.

2. Why did Prince Andrey have such a negative hurtful attitude towards his wife? Surely since she was bearing his first child and potential heir, he could be a bit nicer to her. Did he suspect that she had been untrue to him and that the child was not his? she is referred to as the most seductive woman in Moscow in my translation (Briggs), and the odious Hippolyte Kuragin stands too close and embraces her in the pretense of putting on her shawl, and she allows this behaviour.... reluctance to make a scene or the familiarity of old lovers? I dont get the downy lip references either, does she have a moustache? Lise just does not work for me. She is compared to an angry nasty squirrel when in a temper (briggs again). Perhaps Andrey realizes he is tied forever to a rodent.... Poor Andrey. I read this book over 20 years ago for the first time and just now see that he is short. Most unlike Mel Ferrer in the Hollywood film! I am soldiering on, altho somewhat behind, have been out of town, must go back to work and catch up on my reading!!!!

9:34 AM  
Blogger Isabella said...


1.The old Count is called handsome a number of times. That and the tone of the women discussing him have me thinking of him as something of a roguish ladies' man. I hadn't read anything darker into it, and seeing as he dies before we really get to know him, I don't think it really matters. Pierre was his favourite — if he had reason for it we may never know it.

2. Andrei says, "My wife is an excellent woman, one of those rare women with whom a man's honor is secure, but, my God, what I wouldn't give not to be married now!" Seems to me simply he's discovered that married life is not for him.

I read an essay on Tolstoy by Doris Lessing dealing with his attitudes toward women, marriage, pregnant women, sex, etc. (He also had at least one illegitimate child.) I'll look it up, see if it sheds any light.

11:03 PM  
Anonymous Leah said...

I am rather behind but trying to catch up. I have just finished part 1 and like many of you feeling a little underwhelmed. But it is early days. Like Danielle I splurged and got the paperback Briggs tranlation from the UK, and it is proving to be a sound investment as it is a very readable translation.

Hopefully will catch up soon...

2:14 PM  

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