Saturday, March 5, 2011

War and Peace {Discussion 1: Chapters 1-59}

War and Peace through 2011.

Welcome to the first discussion post of War and Peace!  I'm reading this classic as part of a reading challenge hosted by Jillian at A Room of One's Own.

Spoilers abound in this post - mostly because there's so much going on, I'm breaking everything down before I talk about it.  It's my way of keeping everything organized.

Volume I, Part One

We begin in St. Peterburg, 1805 at a society party hosted by Anna Pavlovna.  At this gathering, many of the principle characters are introduced - namely, Prince Vassily, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, his wife (the "little princess") Lise (who is expecting a baby), and Pierre Bezukhov.  

Ana Mikhailovna and her son, Boris, travel to Moscow and the reader is introduced to the Rostov family.  Natasha Rostov manages a kiss from Boris and a somewhat joking promise of marriage in four years.  Anna and Boris visit Pierre's dying father (Pierre is an illegitimate son), Count Kirill Bezukhov.  The Rostovs host a dinner party including Pierre.  While the dinner party is going on, Count Bezukhov suffers a fatal stroke.  The Count had previously written a letter which legitimizes Pierre, so attempts are made to destroy the letter.  These attempts were foiled, and Pierre is named Count Bezukhov's heir.  

Outside Moscow, at Bald Hills, Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky (Prince Andrei's father) is living in seclusion with his daughter, Marya and her companion, Amelie Bourienne.  Prince Andrei arrives at Bald Hills with his wife, Lise.  Prince Andrei admits to his father and sister that he is unhappy in his marriage.  The scene ends with Prince Nikolai sending Prince Andrei off to war with a letter to the General requesting favors for Prince Andrei.  The plan is for Lise to live with Prince Nikolai and Mary, and to have the baby at Bald Hills.

So far, this first part has been my favorite to read.  I'll make a confession that soon after starting War and Peace I rented the movie.  I was having a hard time keeping everyone straight - and my thought was that knowing the story and how the characters fit together would help me in my reading.  I was totally right!  I'm enjoying the book so much more knowing what the outline is.  It's also saving me a lot of time looking up characters in the list at the beginning of the book.  I have a firm sense of who everyone is.

It's been interesting seeing how inheritance and society were at this time and place.  These parties seemed confusing at first - but I understand it's Tolstoy's way of introducing the principle characters to the reader.  I'm really enjoying Pierre.  He seems genuine, although a little socially awkward.  He doesn't seem to fit into these society scenes.  Natasha seems like she has a lot of sass, which I love.  At this point in the novel, my opinion of Prince Andrei isn't too high.  I think his wife, Lise, is a perfectly nice young woman and he seems rather full of himself.

Volume I, Part Two

Part two opens up in October of 1805.  The Russian army is settled in Austria and being led by General Kutuzov.  Russian officer, Dolokhov is criticized for appearing disheveled.  The General is inspecting the troops with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky.  

In the meantime, Nikolai Rostov (the Rostov's eldest son) is enjoying a little downtime with his friend and commanding officer, Vassily Denisov.  The two discover that Denisov's purse has been stolen.  Nikolai confronts the thief, accusing him publicly.  This earns him charges of insubordination.

There is a battle scene, which is totally chaotic.  Russian troops are retreating over a river.  The Russian hussars, including Nikolai Rostov are successful in burning the bridge under enemy fire.

Prince Andrei travels to deliver word of a recent Russian victory.  Along the way, Prince Andrei runs into his friend, Bilibin.  They chat.  Prince Andrei delivers his news, which is happily received.  On his way back, Prince Andrei once again chats with Bilibin.  Bilibin urges Prince Andrei to stay with him rather than returning to his own army, which is on the move.  Prince Andrei refuses and begins to think that the army is in chaos.  When he meets with General Kutuzov, Prince Andrei requests to be moved to the battalion led by Prince Bagration.  General Kustuzov warns that this battalion is doomed, but Prince Andrei is adamant.  

During the next battle, Prince Andrei rides with Prince Bagration.  Nikolai Rostov is waiting to get his first taste of battle.  He is pinned by his fallen horse and experiences confusion about who the enemy is and whether or not he is wounded (he feels blood but can't tell if it's his own or from the horse).  As Nikolai sees the enemy approaching, he is having a hard time grasping the thought that they want to harm him - everyone loves him!  

Prince Andrei saves Tushin from Bagration's wrongful accusations of incompetence, and as a result feels soured and disillusioned.

I didn't really enjoy this part.  Battle scenes, generally speaking, are hard for me to visualize and I just end up feeling confused about what's going on.  I still get the impression that Prince Andrei is arrogant.  His idea that he is just what a struggling battalion needs is foolish.  

Volume I, Part Three  (I read a little ahead so I can post at a natural stopping place)

Back in Moscow, Prince Vassily has taken Pierre under his wing.  Pierre is feeling a little dizzy at the thought of his new place in society.  Prince Vassily is manipulating Pierre - his real motive is for his daughter, Helene to marry Pierre, and to borrow some money.  Anna Pavlovna hosts another gathering, where she also tries to steer Pierre in Helene's direction.  Pierre sees that Helene is rather stupid, yet he is sucked in by her beauty.  

Over time, Pierre believes that marriage to Helene is in his future.  At Helene's name day party, Prince Vassily convinces the guests - including Pierre - that the couple are engaged.  They marry shortly thereafter.  

Prince Vassily and his younger son, Anatole, travel to Bald Hills to visit Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky - the hidden purpose being to arrange a marriage between Marya and Anatole.  Marya is a religious young woman, and this causes concerns for her when she considers a courtship.  Her father does not desire his daughter to leave him, and is convinced that Anatole is not good enough for Marya.  Anatole is quite the charmer - especially to Marya's companion, Mademoiselle Bourienne.  Ultimately, Prince Nikolai lets Marya decide for herself whether marriage is what she wants, and she decides to refuse Anatole.  

The Rostovs receive a letter from Prince Nikolai informing his parents that he has been wounded and promoted to officer.  This letter is greeted very emotionally by his parents, especially his mother - who reflects that has grown into a man.  (More of that spoiled stuff I mentioned earlier...)

Meanwhile, at the battle front, Nikolai Rostov is gallivanting and spending money.  Nikolai is joined by Boris, and later by Prince Andrei.  Nikolai insults Prince Andrei, who leaves shortly.  Nikolai meets the tsar, who greatly inspires him.  Nikolai wants to die for the tsar and is inspired to fight.  His feelings for the tsar are very strong - a real "man crush".

Boris seeks out Prince Andrei and requests to be an adjunct.  It is decided that the Russians and the Austrians will attack the French.   Talks with Napoleon are ongoing, and it is discovered that Napoleon fears a large battle.  At the council of war, the commanders are unable to agree and are hesitant.  Prince Andrei is sure that this next battle will bring him glory.  The morning of battle brings foggy weather, and the Russians are unsure whether or not they are in the midst of the French.  

The Russians don't know it, but they are extremely near the French.  Napoleon himself is able to see the Russians taking up position.  The French meet the Russians sooner than expected, and Prince Andrei is wounded and happily falls to the ground.  The charge which includes Rostov begins, and it is very bloody, killing almost everyone.  Rostov seeks the tsar with a message.  Once again, the battlefield is chaotic.  

Nikolai Rostov is in a nearby village looking for the tsar, and learns that he has been wounded - but it's confusing because there are conflicting reports.  Rostov finds the tsar alone in a field but feels too shy to approach him.  When he finally goes back, the tsar is gone.  

Prince Andrei finds himself in the village and is confused about his whereabouts.  Napoleon rides by and comments on Prince Andrei.  Later, when Napoleon addresses the POWs, he is very civil and complimentary toward Prince Andrei.

This is the end of Volume I - and I think it ends in a perfect place.  

My opinions on these principle characters - Rostov and Andrei - have not altered.  I find Prince Andrei to be arrogant and selfish.  He is willingly putting himself in harms way without any thought to his pregnant wife at home.  I understand the need to fight for your country, but I believe that Prince Andrei is doing it for the wrong reasons - personal glory.  

Nikolai Rostov's feelings for the tsar are strange and a little over the top.  I'm curious to see more of his character as the book progresses.  

I enjoyed seeing Napoleon as a character!

Overall Impressions:

I was expecting War and Peace to be dense and unapproachable.  I'm so happy to find it a very accessible read!  The translation I'm reading (Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) is fantastic.  Everything flows beautifully and there doesn't seem to be anything "lost in translation".  The hardest thing to adjust to has been the passages that are left in French and translated at the bottom of the page.  It's interesting to find out that the Russians actually spoke French a lot of the time!  According to some things I've read, the amount of French spoken by the characters decreases as the novel goes on - as does their feelings for the French in general.

I really enjoy the scenes that are not on the battlefield.  This is totally an issue of being able to visualize what's going on.  Especially when they're using speech that deals with military stuff, I find myself a little lost.  

It's really helped to know the entire storyline in advance - which is not something I typically do.  It's helped me to pick up on some of the nuances I may have missed otherwise.  

As far as the challenge goes - reading a chapter a day is pretty easy to do.  I find myself often getting ahead, although at the very end of February I got a little behind.  It's been a little hard to limit myself to a chapter in a sitting - and I find that when I do so it's hard to pick it up later.  I'm trying to read a few chapters in a sitting - and put it down when there's a natural scene change.

Going strong!  See you at the end of April!

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