originally written 12/15/2010
I decided to try to finish the Russian novel War and Peace by the end of the year [obviously I didn't make it]. At the rate I’m going it seems very unlikely that I will, but perhaps I’ll surprise myself. Why now? Well, after reading Life and Fate I just wanted to see how it measured up. Plus I always think I should broaden my reading. If you’ve read TTZ as of late, you’ll know of a column by a certain Susie Who? This is someone who is a casual viewer of Doctor Who who isn’t a sad fan like Us, but knows enough about the series that a certain affection for it is notable. This is my Susie Who? of War and Peace.
So, during the first 100 pages of volume 1, we spent most of our time with aristocrats in St Petersburg. There was a guy named Prince Basil, and one named Prince Andrew who was tall and handsome but put on airs of being sarcastic and bored with everyone. (There are a lot of princes and princesses in this book.) He was about to go to war (it’s 1805) against Napoleon, upsetting his young wife the Princess (Lisa). (Tolstoy refers to her as being beautiful and enchanting but with a slightly hirsute upper lip. I wonder if this really translated very well??) They’re at a small party held by another Princess (I think) where there’s a strong, acerbic woman named Maria. There’s also a young, awkward guy named Peter.
Peter, for some reason, I imagine being played by a young Colin Baker or possibly a very young Liam Neeson. He has little spectacles and curly hair. He has been brought up “abroad” and has just come to St Petersburg, being financed by his very ill father the Count Bésoukow, a very rich man from Empress Catherine the Great’s court. Peter is his “natural” son, ie illegitimate, and so is at the center of plots to see him disinherited so the Count’s shrewish sisters, chiefly Catiche, can take all the riches. Peter falls into bad company in St Petersburg (his friends are drunkards and daredevils who love bears!) and so gets banished to Moscow to his father’s deathbed. Naturally he inherits the lot and so all the relatives hate him.
Peter makes friends with Boris who is the Princess Droubetzkoï’s only son, and from the beginning of the book she has been doing nothing but scheming to get him into the army (honourably of course). I don’t know yet if she is just a schemer or just a very determined, threadbare woman. Boris is nice and is in love with Natacha, whose brother is Nicholas Rostow (I think). Their house is full of love triangles and their bossy older sister Vera who’s a real kill-joy. I believe Boris and Nicholas are off to war as well.
Prince Andrew and his wife Lisa go to Andrew’s father’s house out in the country (Prince Basil was trying to marry his son to Prince Andrew’s sister Maria (no relation to the other Maria mentioned). My goodness, what a character is Maria. She is so pious, so dull, I just want to wring her neck. She lets her eccentric father walk all over her—I don’t like him much.
Where I am now, Prince Andrew as aide-de-camp to a general is in Austria fighting, so there has been some military action at last.
So we are mostly following Prince Andrew here and Nicholas Rostow. At first Rostow finds another officer stealing from his colleague and makes it known; however, he is punished for this and has to apologize to Bogdanovich, his superior. Also there is Dogolow who is quite haughty even though he was degraded due to his earlier misconduct in St Petersburg (with Peter from before).
Prince Andrew participates in a small victory but realizes soon how petty it actually is in the scheme of things when he goes to Brünn on the Danube and stays at the house of his diplomat friend. He has a short audience with the German emperor and then, as the French take Vienna and everyone has to evacuate Brünn, he rushes to re-join his regiment.
There’s a lot of fighting and confusion. At the end of it Rostow fears for his life, gets wounded, and runs into the bushes. He is discovered by a guy named Touschine who is kind to him and helps him get back to the Russian camp, where Prince Andrew is.
Right, we headed back to St Petersburg for awhile to catch up with Peter, who is now the richest man in Russia. Prince Basil has done his best to inveigle himself into Peter’s affections so that a) Peter will continue to help him out with money and position and b) so that Peter will marry his daughter, but we’ll come back to that. Peter was pretty astonished at first that everyone now listened to everything he said instead of treating him like an embarrassing and unsightly problem. Prince Basil’s friend Anna decided to match-make Peter and Basil’s daughter Helen by, believe it or not, basically thrusting Helen’s bosom in Peter’s face. Peter knew from that moment that, though nothing good would ever come of it, he was destined to marry Helen. Because he was a nice guy but weak-willed, Peter basically let the marriage happen to him.
I was wrong about Princess Maria, Andrew’s sister. She’s still an idiot, but a sympathetic one. Prince Basil took his son Anatole to see the old Prince, Maria and Lisa (Andrew’s wife). Because Maria had been so sheltered, she didn’t really know how to react to a man—she even realized she wanted to experience “earthly passion” in addition to religious devotion. This scared her, and she thought Anatole was extremely handsome. The marriage was being negotiated, but Maria’s governess, the young Frenchwoman Amélie Bourrienne, went a bit too far in her flirtations with Anatole. So Maria said she would never marry.
Then it was back to Count Nicholas Rostow at the front. Rostow had a major thing for the young Czar Alexander and really wanted to impress him with his patriotism and ability to do his soldierly duty. There’s a council of war after Napoleon calls for negotiations, and preparations are made for a Russian attack. However, in the fog they are surrounded and it’s a total rout. This is Austerlitz, by the way. Sadly, poor Prince Andrew is shot in the head and lies dying on the battlefield. Napoleon himself has him taken to the French doctors, but Andrew catches a fever and dies (we assume). Rostow is quite disillusioned but he’s the one who comes home a hero.
Oh, let’s see—back at home Rostow was joyfully reunited with his family and became a very fashionable layabout during the period when he and his best friend Denissow were on leave. Rostow decided he was too good for Sonia while she didn’t want to marry anyone but him. Natasha had pretty much forgotten about Boris. One of Rostow’s other friends was the scandalous Dologhow from earlier.
Peter had been correct in thinking that his getting married to Helen would be a bad idea; he pretty much was cuckolded by her and Dologhow who was meant to be his friend. At first Peter did nothing but glower around about this, but then he shouted in public at Dologhow and challenged him to a duel. Peter had never even held a gun before. Everyone tried to talk him out of it, but he went through with it. He actually hit Dologhow, but both survived. After this whole miserable experience—Peter in anger tried to strangle his wife—Peter was converted by the Freemasons (!) and went wandering around freeing his serfs even though his steward was pulling the wool over his eyes.
Prince Andrew did NOT die and wandered home on the night Princess Lisa was giving birth to their son. However, she died in childbirth, and Prince Andrew lost all spark for life. Peter came to visit him and they argued about faith for awhile.
Poor Rostow got into a huge gambling debt with Dologhow who, again, was supposed to be his friend, and Rostow ran back to the war in disgrace.