Friday, December 9, 2011

War & Peace and Russian Soul

Up to now the book has been, with the exception of recounting scenes of war, somewhat dry: we linger in the salons of Petersburg and Moscow society, where snobbery and currying favor dominate, with jockeying for advantageous marriages and alliances that will lead to better positions. Tolstoy shows us how stultifying it all is - Pierre, now a Mason, walks through this phony maneuvering with the social clumsiness of a man who cannot conceal who he is.

But in Book II Part Four, Russia herself comes to life: Andrei Bolkonsky, whose wife died in childbirth, falls unexpectedly in love with the 16-year-old guileless Natasha Rostov, who in her enthusiasm, spirit and heartfelt honesty represents true Russia. The reader wants to stop the future for these two because their love is so painfully strong and direct - surely tragedy is drawn to such fortunates. Having secured her promise to marry, he goes abroad for a year in deference to his disapproving acerbic father.

Young as she is, she cannot stay gloomy waiting. And so we have the hunt: her brother Nikolai's passion for wolf-hunting galvanizes the household, and though it is not proper, no one can keep Natasha from joining in. She rides well, she doesn't impede the serious hunters, and afterwards they end up at the humble country place of their uncle. She eats the plain peasant fare with gusto, she dances a Russian peasant dance no one has ever taught her, she sings and plays guitar -
"She did [the dance] exactly right, and so precisely, so perfectly precisely, that Anisya Fyodorovna, who at once handed Natasha the kerchief she needed for it, wept through her laughter, looking at this slender graceful countess, brought up in silk and velvet, so foreign to her, who was able to understand everything that was in Anisya and in Anisya's father, and in her aunt, and in her mother, and in every Russian."

As though Tolstoy himself is enchanted by the vibrant young women of the Rostov household, he then gives us Christmas, when the young people join the mummers who come calling. With everyone in disguise, Nikolai Rostov, on leave from his regiment, sees his cousin Sonya distinctly as if for the first time, in her disguise as a Circassian man with a moustache drawn on her face in burnt cork. He is dressed as an old woman, and this pair who have grown up together fall completely in love. Though it is a disaster for his parents, who counted on him to rescue them from penury by marrying a wealthy woman, he must have penniless Sonya.

The joy we see in Natasha's vivacity and Nikolai's unabashed passions are tempered by their sense that never again will life be so wonderful. As readers, we have a similar dread: that not quite halfway through the novel, we have seen its most joyous moments. From here, surely tragedy and grief await us.

1 comment:

  1. It's so strange through, how even in tragedy, Tolstoy conveys glimpses of joy.