Category Archives: Tolstoy

Meeting the Characters: Volume I, Part I, Sections I-XI


I really had no preconceived notions about the narrative of War and Peace before opening its pages. I didn’t know any of the plot points, I have never heard anyone really talk about the book before, and I certainly did not know any of the characters. This book might, in fact, be the closest thing to a tabula rasa that I have ever encountered; generally speaking, I have a pretty good idea what a book will be about before I decide to read it. Not so in this case.

The opening scene, which begins at a soirée held by the most gracious of hostesses, Ánna Pávlovna Schérer, captivated me for several reasons. The main topic of conversation centered on various international intrigues between France, Russia, Prussia and Austria. I enjoyed this scene both because it illustrated how news was spread during times when newspapers and other media were limited, and because I studied international relations and history. Napoleon’s execution of Louis-Antoine, duc D’Enghien, and the scandal that followed led into a debate about Napoleon’s moral character—monster or hero. Since the person recounting the duc’s assassination was an émigré vicomte, a French nobleman who had fled his patrie to avoid persecution by the revolutionaries, his perspective was distinctly negative; others in the group, notably Prince André and Pierre, argued that as Emperor, Napoleon showed the steadfast character to make a final decisions and then did not shirk from taking full responsibility for its outcome, no matter what.

A secondary conversation dealt with the idea of perpetual peace and the European balance of power. The abbé Morio, an Italian guest and specialist on the topic, had this to say about saving Europe from France: “The means are European balance and the droit des gens (rights of nations)…Let a powerful state like Russia, famous for its barbarism, stand disinterestedly at the head of a union having as its purpose the balance of Europe—and it will save the world” (P&V, 14). Because the supporters of Bonaparte recognize in him the distilled, and possibly over-potent, essence of the Revolution, the abbé’s and the vicomte’s positions should be understood as counter-revolutionary. The abbé seems to believe that Russia could become a disinterested yet “barbaric” savior for all of Europe, and his aristocratic Russian audience approves. The cognitive dissonance in this statement clearly reveals that the ideas of the French Revolution (liberty, equality, fraternity) have not yet taken hold in the salons of Petersburg, which is an irony in itself, since the dissemination of Enlightenment ideals spread through France using these same sorts of gatherings to increase support for republican government and democratic representation.

What the soirée scene provides the reader is a look at how proper “society” functions. Tolstoy even goes so far as to draw a direct comparison between industry and society.

QUOTE:  As the owner of a spinning mill, having put his workers in their places, strolls about the establishment, watching out for an idle spindle or the odd one squealing much too loudly, and hastens to go and slow it down or start it up at the proper speed—so Ánna Pávlovna strolled about her drawing room, going up to a circle that had fallen silent or was too talkative, and with one word or rearrangement set the conversation machine running evenly and properly again (P&V, 10).

This passage provides a picturesque overview of how the scene is playing, deepens the reader’s appreciation for Ánna Pávlovna’s savior faire, yet also hints at the personal machinations that go on behind the scenes at parties such as these. Favors and transactions, if not it wool and gingham, will be undertaken.

Two such occurrences take place on this opening evening. To explain these, it is first prudent to introduce some of the characters. Ánna Pávlovna is the hostess. She speaks first with Prince Vassíly, who has two sons, Ippolít and Anatole, and a daughter, the stunningly beautiful Eléna. His eldest son, Ippolít, is also at the soirée and has the reputation of a dullard, while the younger son, Anatole, characterized as being young and irresponsible, does not attend the party. Together, these four entail the clan Kurágin.

Ánna has told Vassíly that she will attempt to speak with Princess Líza, the “little princess,” wife to Prince André Bolkónsky about setting up Anatole with Princess Marie Bolkónsky, sister of André and confidante to Líza. If this pairing were to go off, then Ánna would be responsible for joining two of the three major families in the story—the Bolkónskys and the Kurágins. Vassíly, who claims, “My children are the bane of my existence. It’s the cross I have to bear, that’s how I explain it to myself,” (CG, 4-5) would be very grateful to Ánna for removing one of his most expensive burdens. We are left to wonder what reward might be in the offing for the unmarried, yet highly cultivated Mlle. Schérer.

Other characters that need introducing are Pierre and Princess Ánna Mikháilovna Drubetskóy. Pierre is the bastard son of the dying Count Bezúkhov. Princess Ánna is also connected to the Count because he is the Godfather to her son, Boris. Pierre is newly arrived to Petersburg from abroad where he recently concluded his studies. To my mind, Pierre is the most interesting character so far because he is connected to almost ever circle. His father is rich and famous. He is an unwelcomed guest in the home of Prince Vassíly due to his carousing with Anatole’s debaucherous gang of gamblers and womanizers. Pierre is welcomed in the Bolkónsky household like a member of the family, even being permitted to see a marital dispute between André and Líza. And, although socially awkward, he has also gained entrance to Ánna Pávlovna’s evening party. Given all these connections and his fearlessness when stating unpopular opinions, I find Pierre the most compelling character to this point.

Princess Ánna Mikháilovna beseeches Vassíly to secure an officer’s post in the Guards for her son, Boris. Princess Ánna is a widow. She has fallen from society yet still knows the proper strings to pull. The only reason she found her way to the soirée was to speak with Vassily and ask for his favor. Again, Tolstoy allows us to view how social grace is a currency in Russian society. “But influence in society is a capital that must be used sparingly, lest it disappear. Prince Vassíly knew that, and having once realized that if he were to solicit for everyone who solicited from him, it would soon become impossible for him to solicit for himself, he rarely used his influence” (P&V, 16). Luckily for Princess Ánna, Vassíly concedes, and when Boris joins the army, he will do so as a member of the Guards, not the Hussars.

This takes us to the end of section IV. In section’s V and VI, we get a closer look at the troubled marriage between the little princess, Líza, and Prince André. After the soirée, Pierre returns with them for dinner. Líza is upset that André has volunteered to enter the war because he has enough rank to avoid this responsibility, if he so chose. It is unclear whether this is out of selfishness or love. Líza is pregnant, and when her husband leaves, she will be spirited away to the country where she will no longer be able to enjoy evenings such as the one just passed. Neither she nor Pierre can understand his decision, but André’s reason is telling: “If everyone made war only according to his own convictions, there would be no war” (P&V, 25).  I think this line connects to the previous conversation about perpetual peace. While the abbé looks for rear-guard protection from the dangers of political progressivity as a way to balance power and therefore secure peace, André’s cynicism belies the truth. He is going to war because he has nothing else to do and he is unhappy at home. As long as people are bored and easily influenced to support them, war campaigns will always find fuel, he seems to be saying. The discussion ends in tears, and the Princess accuses André of having “changed.” Later, he admits to Pierre that marriage was a mistake:

QUOTE:  Never, never marry, my friend. Here’s my advice to you: don’t marry until you can tell yourself that you’ve done all you could, and until you’ve stopped loving the woman you’ve chosen, until you see clearly, otherwise you’ll be cruelly and irremediably mistaken. Marry when you are old, and good for nothing…Otherwise all that’s good and lofty in you will be lost. It will all go on trifles….If you expect something from yourself in the future, then at every step you’ll feel that it’s all over for you, it’s closed, except the drawing room, where you’ll stand on the same level as a court flunkey and an idiot (P&V, 28).

If you are keeping track, that is one character referring to his children as the bane of his existence and another wholeheartedly disparaging the institution of marriage. The family is no sanctuary for Tolstoy.

Sections VII-XI introduce us to the third major family in the work—The Rostovs. It is the name day for Countess Natálya and her young daughter Natasha, and the family is receiving visitors wishing them well. The Rostov’s live in Moscow, and Princess Ánna is a close friend of Countess Natálya, so she acts as the narrative glue that binds this family to others—at least to this point. Count Ilyá, or Élie, is a much more gregarious character than the other men we have met to this point. He is welcoming to all his house guests and invites every guest to dine with his family. He has a house full of children including Countess Véra, the oldest daughter, Nikolai, the oldest son, Natasha, the younger daughter, Pyótr, the younger son, and  Sónya, the orphaned cousin who stays with the Rostovs. Boris, the son of Princess Ánna, is good friends with Nikolai, and he is also in this scene.

What we learn from these sections is that there are crushes galore among the younger set. Nikolai held the attention of a young lady guest for a heartbeat too long, and Sónya fled the room. He quickly followed to console and reassure her: “The whole world is no use to me! You alone are everything” (P&V, 44). Likewise, the twelve-year old Natasha, still holding a doll and running through the house with childish abandon, has somehow convinced Boris to commit to her once she turns sixteen. While at first I thought Boris may be insincere, when Véra comes to chide the young lovers, Boris defends his actions. It is unclear whether he does so to aggravate Véra, a character for whom Tolstoy has given us little reason to love, or because he is genuine in his devotion to young Natasha. Either way, following on the tails of André’s anti-marriage screed, these romantic dalliances take on a darker hue than one might expect.

With that, I will conclude the synopsis. We have been introduced to the three main clans: the Bolkónskys, the Rostóvs, and the Kurágins, and we have several plot lines taking place. First, Ánna Pávlovna’s attempt to marry off Anatole Kurágin to Marie Bolkónsky; second the marital turbulence between André and Líza Bolkónsky; and third, the effect of the war on young love. I will keep you updated.


When I cite P&V, that refers to the Pevear &Volokhonsky translation of 2007 and when I refer to CG it is Constance Garnett’s translation from 1904.

While you might think that reading the same book in two different translations is overkill, I promise you that in this case, there is much to be learned. First and foremost, the P&V version keeps the original French from the introductory pages, as is, and then footnotes the conversations. You have no idea how this changes the mood of every scene. For example, in the Constance Garnett version you get the line: “He spoke in that elaborately choice French, in which our forefathers not only spoke but thought, and with those slow, patronizing intonations peculiar to a man of importance who has grown old in court society” (CG, 1). This sounds nice, but if you had read the five previous paragraphs, there is no way you would have known that the whole conversation between Ánna Pávlovna and Prince Vassíly was held in French. On the other hand, the P&V translation plants you firmly in this bilingual world, and because of this, you get a better sense of the characters. In fact, I would argue that the artifice of speaking in French to a fellow Russian undergirds Tolstoy’s characterization of these aristocrats as being somewhat fraudulent.

Another problem I have with Garnett’s translation is that it reads too easily. What I mean to say is that she has paved over all of Tolstoy’s style in order to make the book flow in a way that I find boring and bland. Much has been made of Tolstoy’s repetition, but Garnett opts to find synonyms and thus short-circuits the stylistic bumpiness that the author intended. I feel like the P&V version holds closer to the real language, whether it is Russian or French, and while sometimes it is harder to discern exactly what is going on, I like that better because I enjoy working through the text. As for the Garnett version, I feel like I could be reading any author—there is nothing in the words that makes me feel that they are special. It reads as a bloodless replication.

Finally, the P&V translation offers historical endnotes and a list of characters that makes reading War & Peace much more rewarding. Clearly, I am on no strict timetable, so flipping back to endnotes or reading footnotes does not bother me. It actually gives me a second to pause and consider more closely what I am reading, while also convincing me that these are real people discussing real events. That Tolstoy has set fictional characters against a factual historical backdrop makes the story doubly compelling for me.


In Preparation

We had a welcome, yet completely unexpected, house-guest spend the past few days with us, so my proposed timeline is already a bit skewed. I have, however, collected some materials in order to ensure that I complete this little project to my own satisfaction.

One thing that bothers me about reading War and Peace is that I must do so in translation. Because I don’t know Russian, it is impossible for me to read the original. I lived in Germany for two years, and from this experience I learned that there are certain ideas and concepts that the English language just cannot or does not encompass. I know this is not an earth-shaking revelation, but for example, a word like Feierabend, or even better, Feierabendgetraenk (alternately, “closing time,” or “the beverage you enjoy to celebrate the end of a workday”) has no English correlate. It may seem mundane, but something as simple as this idea can bring a sense of closure to the day, and when shared with friends, this event, as enunciated with a single word, creates a different mood and mindset for the rest of the evening. Is it possible for an English translation of a foreign concept to provide that same je ne sais quoi? 

As T.S. Eliot said, “It is easier to think in a foreign language than to feel in it….A thought expressed in a different language may be practically the same thought, but a feeling or emotion expressed in a different language is not the same feeling or emotion” (On Poetry and Poets, 1947). If this is true, and I am reading Tolstoy in English translation, then am I doomed to miss out on the “real” feelings and emotions that the text is trying to express? Will the translator’s mediation, in the form of word choice and sentence structure, bias my own reading? How far am I away from the Russian language of 1869? Am I even reading the same story that was originally written?

All of these questions force me to acknowledge the presence of Rumsfeldian “known unknowns.” I know for a fact that there will be ideas from Tolstoy’s novel that are completely lost in translation to me. I also know there will be verbal nuances that I will not grasp, inarticulable chiaroscuro that I will never be able to appreciate. Should these obstacles render me impotent in my attempt to read and enjoy Tolstoy? Should I take the relativistic stance that the Now is the only pertinent point in time, and that the I is the only relevant reader? I can’t answer these questions yet, I suppose I just have to get started and see what happens.

When I first began considering this blog, I owned a copy of War and Peace in one of those Barnes and Noble Library of Essential Writers editions that also has a copy of The Cossacks and Anna Karenina crammed between the covers. It is a nice book to have on the shelf, but for reasons of size, it is not something that I could carry around. Most importantly, it does not indicate who translated the text. Given this deficiency, I began my search for something else.

At the used bookstore, I found an abridged copy of W&P also published by Barnes and Noble, which named the translator as Alexandra Kropotkin–daughter of the famed anarchist Peter Kropotkin. I can assume then that my edition is also edited by Ms. Kropotkin; already owning that version, I elected to keep looking.

I found the the copy for which I was particularly searching, the one translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, also on the shelf. This version has met with critical acclaim, and the translators seem to have made it their goal to update much of the Russian Literary Canon using their own words. Because of its newness (published in 2007, I believe), this book will provide me with something contemporary to compare with Constance Garnett’s classic Random House Modern Library translation (1904), which I also purchased for a song.

In the end, I now have three versions of W&P, and I can use each translation to get a feel not only for the text and the story, but each translator’s tendency and interpretation. My intention is not do a full-blown comparative analysis of the different translations, but if I find interesting trends within particular translations, it should certainly give me something juicy to share with You.

Now that I have tools at hand, I should be able to begin in earnest.