War and Peace: A Comedy

There have been moments, I’ll confess, since the last post, when I’ve wondered if this bookclub might dwindle to being a one-person bookclub, or, possibly, a zero-person bookclub. For now we remain steadily at 2. Max is up to Chapter 15 of Part One, and I’m about 60 pages ahead, about to embark on Part Two once he’s caught up to me.

This post’s title was inspired by my observation that I was enjoying War and Peace much more than I’d anticipated. Why, I wondered, had I never realized that it was a comedy? “Title’s a bit misleading,” Dr. Lake had quipped. Which is why I think War and Peace ‘s title should hereafter be amended to: War and Peace: A Comedy.

Here’s an example.

It was that time before a formal dinner when the assembled guests refrain from beginning a long conversation, expecting to be called to the hors d’oeuvres, but at the same time consider it necessary to move about and not be silent, in order to show that they are not at all impatient to sit down at the table. The hosts keep glancing at the door and occasionally exchange glances with each other. The guests try to guess from these glances who or what they are still waiting for: an important belated relation or a dish that is not ready yet.

Part One concludes strongly. Plot wise, Count Bezukhov, after a drawn-out and heavily attended sickness, finally dies, leaving his considerable fortune to our man Pierre, whom the Count acknowledges before dying as his legitimate son. Meanwhile, the disaffected Prince Andrei is about to set off for war, abandoning his pregnant wife (for whom he has the deepest contempt) with his gruff, regimented father and his younger sister–who can’t be too bad, since she quotes Sterne: “As Sterne says: ‘We love people not so much for the good they’ve done us, as for the good we’ve done them.'”

The endnotes tell me that “Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman has been seen as a formal precursor of War and Peace.“* This is exciting news indeed, and assuages my concern that the comedy may lessen as we head to war. I’m now expecting fortifications and groin injuries galore.

*I.e. War and Peace: A Comedy.


Exit, waltzing with a bear

Last night I couldn’t sleep.

On the plus side, I’ve now read the next five chapters.

Here’s what I discovered.

Discovery #1. Prince Andrei is a misogynist. He’s bored and depressed, and he blames it on women–particularly on his wife, Lise, who he imagines has sapped him of all his vigor; more generally, he blames his listlessness on society, which he thinks of as fatally feminized–“drawing rooms, gossip, balls, vanity, triviality” (29).

Discovery #2. Pierre is my favorite. He is dreamy and idealistic and dissolute. He promises Andrei, his best friend, that he won’t go carousing with hussars, as is his habit, but then …

… he desired so passionately to experience again that dissolute life so familiar to him, that he decided to go. And at once the thought occurred to him that the word he had given meant nothing, because before giving his word to Prince Andre, he had also given Prince Anatole his word that he would be there; finally he thought that all these words of honor with were mere conventions, with no definite meaning, especially if you considered that you might die the next day, or something so extraordinary might happen to you that there would no longer be either honor or dishonor. That sort of reasoning often came to Pierre, destroying all of his decisions and suppositions. He went to Kuragin’s. (31)

This is brilliant. Oh, Pierre. Dude. I feel you.

Discovery #3. When hussars carouse, they carouse hard. I am honestly still not sure exactly what happened, but there was a lot of wine, a good deal of guffawing and smashing, and a bet with an Englishman about drinking a bottle of rum while hanging out a window. Oh, and there’s a bear, obviously. The chapter ends with Pierre seizing “the bear and, hugging him and lifting him up, began waltzing around the room with him” (35).

Discovery #4. Joining the military is associated with passion and high feeling–at least for a character named Nikolai, who declares that he is “not good for anything but military service” because he is “unable to hide [his] feelings” (41).

Discovery #5. Tolstoy has some astute insights into parenting.

“Up to now, thank God, I’ve been a friend to my children and have enjoyed their full trust,” said the countess, repeating the error of many parents who suppose that their children have no secrets from them.” (42)


Two-person bookclub

This is a blog about the two-person bookclub my son and I started last week. We are reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.

The bookclub started when Max told me that he had put a hold on War and Peace at our local library. I was surprised and admitted that I hadn’t read it myself.

“Maybe I’ll read it too,” I said. “We can read it at the same time.”

He liked that idea.

The next day I went to the library hoping to pick up hard copies for us both. They only had one copy, though.

“You can renew this in June, if you need to,” said the librarian at the check-out desk.

“I think I’ll need to,” I said, eyeing the tome with, I have to say, some intimidation.

I ordered a copy of the same translation for myself later that day. It seemed important to get it ASAP so Max didn’t get ahead of me. Amazon has a thing where prime members can get free 1-day shipping if you spend over $35 in one order. The book was only about a third of that so I spent a while adding various other things to my cart before realizing none of them were eligible. So then I spent a lot more time figuring out what else I could put in my cart that would make the order eligible for the 1-day shipping.

In the end I spent $108 to get one-day shipping on a book that cost $12 and now I have a year’s supply of bougie domestic supplies including Crayola kids flossers (why crayons and flossers, Crayola?), and Mrs Meyer’s lemon Verbena dish soap.

And then, when the book arrived, I didn’t start it till the next day.

Max and I agreed, after flipping through the first few pages of his copy from the library, that we’d start by each reading the first four chapters. He read his four chapters first.

When I sat down to start reading mine, yesterday, I was sitting on the sofa while he was sitting in the Poang chair, doing some homework.

“All right, I’m starting!” I announced grandly. He raised an eyebrow.

“The French is kinda tricky,” he said.

French, what French, I wondered.

So, there’s a lot of French, it turns out, in War and Peace. Turns out French was the common language of the Russian aristocracy in the nineteenth century. I didn’t know this. What it means is that a lot of the dialogue starts in Russian (English, in this translation) and then breaks into French for a bit (rendered in French, with English translations in footnotes) and then switches back into Russian. It’s quite disorienting. Although I am practiced at guessing the gist of fragments in languages I don’t know when interspersed with English, thanks to years of listening to relatives intermix English and Bengali (Benglish?). Also, thankfully, the English translations of the French dialogue are footnoted not endnoted or else I wouldn’t bother looking them up at all and would miss a lot due to my poor French.

Max has just started learning French this year so he’s even worse off than I am.

Four chapters in, my verdict is: it’s not as boring as I was expecting. My definition of boring is something like Tolkien. I mean, I knew there wouldn’t be elves, I just thought it would be descriptive with lots of genealogy. Instead, we are thrust straight into a glamorous party with lots of aristocratic eccentrics who are either masterfully orchestrating or obliviously blundering social protocol. It feels kinda like entering a world populated by the flamboyant characters from the Brontës’ juvenilia, but as rendered by Jane Austen. There are some real weirdos, like the Prince Ippolit, who is extremely attached to his lorgnette, and who wears “trousers the color of cuisse do nymphe effrayée [thigh of frightened nymph], as he said himself.”

I’m still wondering what color that is.

I like the idea of going into a clothes store and picking something off the rack and asking the sales assistant, “do you by any chance have these in thigh of frightened nymph?”


In total, I definitely spent more time on that one Amazon shopping session (I was going to say “spree”; but spree connotes indulgence and hedonism, whereas this was achingly quotidian) than reading the book this week.

Still. 22 pages down.

Only 1193 pages to go.