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War and Peace 2013: Entry 3--Reading One

N.B.: This post will discuss only the events of the first twelve chapters of the book. Unlike with The Odyssey, the eventual resolution of the story is not necessarily common knowledge, so I will make every attempt to avoid spoilers as we go. Also, there seems to be some weird chapter numbering going on with some of the free/cheap Kindle editions of the novel. I will be updating the reading assignments with last lines, which should help alleviate confusion. 

Tolstoy throws us in at the deep end. Anna Pavlovna gets not only the first bit of dialogue, but the first line, as well. Cleverly, however, Tolstoy has her speak of events in the recent past. There is a strong sensation in War and Peace of being suddenly dropped into a foreign place (even for Tolstoy's initial Russian readers, as the novel is set in the past, which is, as we know, another country) and being made to figure things out as we go. He doesn't give us a chance to catch our breath, which is nicely reflected by Anna's dialogue with Prince Vasili, which streams forth from her, dropping names and events, but barely giving Vasili a chance to respond. Also, these opening exchanges begin to touch on the question of history: after all, if journalism is the first draft of history, certainly gossip among the elites is the second.

He then slowly starts to expand the group of characters, first by having Vasili and Anna discuss them, and then by having them start entering. Tolstoy uses this first salon at Anna's very skillfully to introduce us to several main and supporting characters whose lives we'll follow throughout the course of the book. Indeed, by the time we've finished the twelve chapters of this first reading, we've essentially met all of the main characters of the story. That he does it through essentially entirely social scenes is no accident; it allows Tolstoy not only to introduce us to his characters, but to the world they inhabit.

There is, in fact, only one character we are, however briefly, allowed to see alone with his thoughts: Pierre Bezukhov. Pierre is clearly meant to be someone we immediately love and find slightly comically endearing. He's very earnest, but somewhat indolent and oafish. His entry in the St. Petersburg high society is our own, and his unsuitability to it and refusal to bow to its pressures makes us like him immediately far more than many of the more "civilized" attendees at Anna's party. He is full of life, which is a trait Tolstoy clearly values highly and feels we should to. The other person bounding around full of life if young Natasha Rostov, who we glimpse spying on the adult world before making a precocious entree into it herself with her cousin Boris.

Before we go to further, a note about all the Princes and Counts that litter the story. These are mainly hereditary titles, however none of them have any real connection to the Imperial Family--the princes are not, as it were, next in line for the throne. They are frequently descendants of great families of the past, and often titles were originally connected to land ownership. Theoretically, princes were above counts who were above barons. However, by the time of the Napoleonic Wars (the setting for the story), things had gotten quite confused, with many counts having more land and money than princes and so on. Broadly speaking, all of our main characters are either of noble families or are members of the landed gentry, but very few of them are actually part of the inner circle of the Emperor, such as Prince Vasili. Also, I am playing pretty fast and loose with the term "title" above. Russian nobility carried no titles, such as "Lord" or "Lady." Hence, a lot of nobles are called "Prince" or "Count" to their face, almost the way we would use professional titles.

Also, names are quite fungible. Russian itself allowed for many variants of both first and last names, depending on intimacy and gender--Lise (the pregnant one with the downy upper lip) is married to Andrew Bolkonsky, and has taken his last name, but as she is a woman, it changes to the feminine form "Bolkonskaya." Also, because both Russian and French were widely spoken, there are French and Russian versions of the same name, such as Pierre/Peter, Andrew/Andrei, etc. It can be confusing at first, but after a while you'll barely notice it. Lastly, there are the diminutives, much like an American father whose name is Bill might call his son William "Billy," so, too, does the youngest Rostov daughter (the one who hides her face in her mother's dress) get addressed as Natasha, though her name is Nataly (Natalia).

Going forward, these four main families: the Buzukhovs (Pierre, etc.), the Bolkonskys (Andrew, etc.), the Rostovs (Nicholas, Natasha, etc.) and the Kuragins (Vasili, etc.) will be very important to the book, so if you can keep them (relatively) straight, you shouldn't worry too much.

Oh, and we get the story about Pierre and his friends tying a policeman to the back of a bear and chucking them in the river. Which, animal cruelty issues aside, does actually sound rather funny.

If you want to get in touch, you can follow the project on Twitter (@WandP2013, #WandP2013), or leave a comment here.

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