War and Peace Newbies Read-Along Volume I, Part III: Hélène’s boobs destroy society

Et bienmes readers-along, si vous n’avez rien de mieux à faire, go to the master post for the read-along schedule and more.

Was I the only one surprised that this wasn’t a “Peace” section, given that Part I was all “Peace”, and part II was all “War”? The rest of the book seems to be mixed in this way. Maybe parts I and II were just Tolstoy easing us in.

Part III was a real mixed bag and I didn’t find a coherent pop culture parallel as I did in Parts I and II. However, I did notice two related themes that came up again and again:

  • the futile pursuit of things you can never really have, or at least, you can’t keep (youth, glory, status, beauty) and,
  • self-sabotage (marrying someone you know you don’t love, rushing into a battle you know you can’t win, everything Nikolai does).

Here are some quotes that struck me along the way. All quotes are from the Maude translation unless otherwise noted, because it’s easier to find online to copy and paste.

MARRIAGE PLOTS

It seemed so natural to Pierre that everyone should like him, and it would have seemed so unnatural had anyone disliked him, that he could not but believe in the sincerity of those around him. Besides, he had no time to ask himself whether these people were sincere or not.

Spoiler alert: this will come back to bite you, Pierre!

Her bust, which had always seemed like marble to Pierre, was so close to him that his shortsighted eyes could not but perceive the living charm of her neck and shoulders, so near to his lips that he need only have bent his head a little to have touched them. He was conscious of the warmth of her body, the scent of perfume, and the creaking of her corset as she moved. He did not see her marble beauty forming a complete whole with her dress, but all the charm of her body only covered by her garments. And having once seen this he could not help being aware of it, just as we cannot renew an illusion we have once seen through.

Remember that episode of South Park called “Bebe’s Boobs Destroy Society”? Well, this is basically “Hélène’s boobs destroy Pierre’s life”. Which I don’t quite get, because it’s implied that Pierre’s seen a few in his day… perhaps they did not “look like marble”?

Related image

Pierre after the party

“But she’s stupid. I have myself said she is stupid,” he thought. “There is something nasty, something wrong, in the feeling she excites in me. I have been told that her brother Anatole was in love with her and she with him, that there was quite a scandal and that that’s why he was sent away.

Okay, we need to talk about the incest thing. Apparently, there was a lot more written into early drafts (maybe Sophia did some editing!) and it’s certainly played up in the adaptation. The offhand manner it’s mentioned here is even more shocking than had it been a prominent plot point – like, yeah, she might be banging her brother, but whatever. Really?? I thought incest was one of those super-taboo things that transcends time and culture (unlike, say, marrying your cousins, which I’m used to tolerating in classic lit)??

Image result for war and peace helene anatole

Hélène just hanging out with her brother… in bed… as one does… ???

So anyway, Vassily tricks Pierre into marrying potentially-incestuous succubus Helene. Let’s see what that Anatole is up to… ah, Vassily is parading him around at the Bolkonsky’s, because one child married off to a fabulously wealthy but completely inappropriate spouse isn’t enough! Anatole is a cad, unsurprisingly, but I took more notice of how Tolstoy described the three women of this household – plain heiress and potential bride Marya, beautiful but poor friend Mlle Bourienne, and the “little princess” and mom-to-be Lise. First, it’s makeover time for Marya, in preparation for Anatole’s visit:

Both these women quite sincerely tried to make her look pretty. She was so plain that neither of them could think of her as a rival, so they began dressing her with perfect sincerity, and with the naïve and firm conviction women have that dress can make a face pretty.

Image result for makeover gif

Way harsh, Tolstoy! It gets worse:

As always happens when women lead lonely lives for any length of time without male society, on Anatole’s appearance all the three women of Prince Bolkónski’s household felt that their life had not been real till then.

and

The little princess, like an old war horse that hears the trumpet, unconsciously and quite forgetting her condition, prepared for the familiar gallop of coquetry, without any ulterior motive or any struggle, but with naïve and lighthearted gaiety.

I am absolutely squirming with how gross the latter quote is, but it is a compelling (and hilarious) image and I TOTALLY get what he’s saying.

Marya’s father, Old Bolkonsky, is awful, but speaks the truth about Anatole, and prevents Marya from making a mistake. Too bad he wasn’t there to counsel Pierre.

Speaking of old Bolkonsky, here’s some more fun with translation. The old man huffs and puffs and snorts a lot. Check out this line, first from P&V and then from Maude:

Snort… snort…” snorted Prince Nikolai Andreich.

 

“Fr… fr…” snorted Prince Bolkónski.

I mean… what was it in Russian? Why are the names different?

HERO WORSHIP

Moving on to Nikoali, he finally sends a letter home and it’s like the sun shines out of his ass (translate that idiom into Russian!) It’s all very tiring, but I liked this quote from Natasha’s little brother. It’s just like a little brother to say something so bratty, but also to foreshadow something that doesn’t happen for several hundred more pages:

“And I know why she’d be ashamed,” said Pétya, offended by Natásha’s previous remark. “It’s because she was in love with that fat one in spectacles” (that was how Pétya described his namesake, the new Count Bezúkhov) “and now she’s in love with that singer” (he meant Natásha’s Italian singing master), “that’s why she’s ashamed!”

There is also some tiresome stuff about Nikolai and Boris and Berg hanging out, when Andrei walks in and harshes their mellow, but it’s pretty boring. Tolstoy gets some great observations in, as always:

With that peculiar feeling of youth, that dread of beaten tracks, and wish to express itself in a manner different from that of its elders which is often insincere, Nicholas wished to do something special on meeting his friend.

and

It is very difficult to tell the truth, and young people are rarely capable of it.

(N.B. it’s “young men” in P&V translation. Misandry!)

Then there is a LOT of Nikolai’s Tsar worship:

Rostóv, standing in the front lines of Kutúzov’s army which the Tsar approached first, experienced the same feeling as every other man in that army: a feeling of self-forgetfulness, a proud consciousness of might, and a passionate attraction to him who was the cause of this triumph.

He felt that at a single word from that man all this vast mass (and he himself an insignificant atom in it) would go through fire and water, commit crime, die, or perform deeds of highest heroism, and so he could not but tremble and his heart stand still at the imminence of that word.

“Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!” thundered from all sides, one regiment after another greeting the Tsar with the strains of the march, and then “Hurrah!”… Then the general march, and again “Hurrah! Hurrah!” growing ever stronger and fuller and merging into a deafening roar.

Also:

“Oh God, what would happen to me if the Emperor spoke to me?” thought Rostóv. “I should die of happiness!”

“How can the Emperor be undecided?” thought Rostóv, but then even this indecision appeared to him majestic and enchanting, like everything else the Tsar did.

“My God, how happy I should be if he ordered me to leap into the fire this instant!” thought Rostóv.

This might be difficult for the modern reader to relate to. These days, what could inspire young men to idolize a single man, who they don’t really know at all, and who certainly couldn’t pick them out of a line up? Whose daily life has little to do with their own? To place all their hopes on a single man, wearing a particular uniform? To ascribe to him not only the finest human qualities, but to imagine him appointed by God himself to lead you out of darkness? To wave his flag, to follow him anywhere, even if it means acts of unspeakable violence and destruction? To endure years of deprivation in hopes of some distant glory?

Image result for edmonton playoff riots

 

Image result for mcjesusImage result for oilers best fan signs

Oh…. right. There is all that.

(Confused non-Canadians – pictured above are hockey riots in Edmonton, and Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, sometimes knows as “McJesus”.)

The Machinations of War

I love this quote about the unstoppable and unknowable (unless you are the narrator of War and Peace) inner workings of war. This reminds me of the machinations of Vassility in bringing Pierre and Helene together, too. This is a long one:

Just as in the mechanism of a clock, so in the mechanism of the military machine, an impulse once given leads to the final result; and just as indifferently quiescent till the moment when motion is transmitted to them are the parts of the mechanism which the impulse has not yet reached. Wheels creak on their axles as the cogs engage one another and the revolving pulleys whirr with the rapidity of their movement, but a neighboring wheel is as quiet and motionless as though it were prepared to remain so for a hundred years; but the moment comes when the lever catches it and obeying the impulse that wheel begins to creak and joins in the common motion the result and aim of which are beyond its ken.

Just as in a clock, the result of the complicated motion of innumerable wheels and pulleys is merely a slow and regular movement of the hands which show the time, so the result of all the complicated human activities of 160,000 Russians and French—all their passions, desires, remorse, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm—was only the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, the so-called battle of the three Emperors—that is to say, a slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history.

Next we meet a young general (Dolgorukov) facing off against an old one (Kutuzov). Youth wins the day – the plan for the battle of Austerlitz is set. And, well, it doesn’t go well. Andrei gets his moment of glory, just not in the way he hoped. It’s more of a Forrest Gump moment, actually, he just happens to be in the right place (and badly wounded) when Napoleon rides by:

“Voila une belle mort,” said Napoleon, looking at Bolkónski.

Image result for forrest gump nixon gif

Then there’s a bunch of stuff about Andrei and the Infinite Sky, yadda yadda yadda, and we’re done Volume I!

Whew! Thanks to all who stuck through this long and disjointed post. We can’t all write like Tolstoy, okay?

 

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8 comments

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I think you pulled out an important point with the hero worship of the Emperor. Living in a world, as we do, where there is so much extremism it’s obviously part of the human condition to blindly worship and follow someone, regardless of all logic…

  2. Emma

    I’ve come to realise that I am a SUCKER for anything that describes the actual logistics of machinations, whether that’s war or getting your daughter engaged to someone (that’s also probs why I love Jane Austen adaptations that play that up), because both require some finesse and I really like the comparison that you pulled out from the text about that.

    The section of them trying to make Marya pretty made me cringe SO much, but at the same time, Tolstoy’s funny so… I hate myself for laughing but I did. Although that might be because I too imagined the makeover Clueless-style. In a twisted way I’m glad that she wasn’t “improved” by the makeover though because that would make it a little TOO MUCH like all 80s/90s teen rom coms.

    I understand that Nikolai’s veneration of the Tsar is reflective of a very real phenomenon of idolisation of higher ups in society, and that the idolisation is in fact aided by the purposeful cultivation of a public persona based around military skill (same could be said of Napoleon). I wrote part of my final university dissertation on the whole shebang – but the subject was Shakespeare’s Roman plays. It’s a powerful idea and definitely a thread present in a lot of literature and society itself. But also… whenI read it my head responded with ‘Nikolai and Alexander sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g’ because I am a child at heart it seems. I’m curious to see where this goes with Nikolai though… it can only end badly.

    • lauratfrey

      Yes, that’s just it! As much as Nikolai + co. are cogs in a wheel, so are Pierre and Helene, and Marya…

      Yep, I was definitely feeling the bromance. I didn’t end up pulling the quote, but when he has a chance to talk to the Tsar and doesn’t… man! I was shaking my head, but at the same time, I get it.

  3. The Paperback Princess

    I WAS surprised that this section was heavily War! The next section seems to be more Peace? At least it starts out that way – definitely preferable.

    I’m going to go back and read your post about Tolstoy and women. I’m having a hard time with the way he writes about women. That’ll teach me for reading a dead white man.

  4. travellinpenguin

    Still finding a great deal of humour in both depictions of men and women. The Tzar worshipping is quite interesting. I liked the battle plans. The young vrs old as to who has the best ideas. Starting to get the families of characters sorted out in my head.

  5. Daniel Cordeiro

    I love quotes. Just said that some minutes ago elsewhere in another post. I like to select some which inspire me in a special way while reading.
    During this read-along, I have actually been selecting some quotes (one per section of the schedule), and I have been posting them on facebook. I enjoy it very much when, an year later, facebook reminds me of a quote. I read it, and I feel again the same inspiration it caused then.
    Well, I realised we both have selected a handful of the same quotes here, and I think it shouldn’t be different. They are usually very ingenious parts os the text. Plus, it made me more comfortable to realise we see the same beauty in the text, regardless of the language it is translated into.
    But tell me… how come you didn’t like Andrei and the infinite sky??? OMG! I had been sticking to the one about the impossibility of renewing an illusion (btw, what an accurate observation you made there! ‘perhaps they did not “look like marble”?’ Sometimes I get carried away by the romantic/fragile picture I make of Pierre. I had forgotten he had seen lots of flesh before the trick “marble to flesh” took place). But then I got to Andrei and the sky, and I found it so beautiful! It was a splendid way for the character to die, I was like “oh, my, I hope Andrei is dead!” haha!

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