Yesterday I forgot to read my twenty pages of Tolstoy so this morning I read forty, or almost, up to page 138. And though this is the third time I have read this volume, Tolstoy still amazes me, his sureness and deftness and profundity. In these pages, Pierre’s father dies, Anna Mikhailovna secures a letter that will allow Pierre to be declared legitimate, and the machinations of the others, Anna defeats with her own.
Then we are off to Prince Andrei’s father’s estate in the country, Bald Hills, where he will ensconce his pregnant wife before going off to war. Prince Andrei’s father is quite a character: punctilious, abrupt, cranky, brilliant. And there are two letters, one from Julie to Andrei’s sister, Mariya, and one in reply, both of these in different voices; that is, Tolstoy masterfully ventriloquizes voices and dialogue. Each letter sounds like a real person, not an author trying to sound like his characters.
This is a truism or Tolstoy criticism cliche but as you read you do feel as though you are not reading but seeing life unfold before you.
Here are the passages that struck me:
“Just as they were turning the count [Pierre’s father] over, one of his arms fell back helplessly, and he made a futile effort to raise it. Did the count notice the look of terror in Pierre’s face at the sight of that lifeless arm? or did some other though flash across his dying brain at that moment? At all events, he looked at his disobedient hand, then at Pierre’s terror-stricken face, and back to his hand again, and over his lips played a martyr’s weak smile, out of character with his powerful features, and seeming to express a feeling of scorn for his own lack of strength.
“At the sight of this smile, Pierre unexpectedly felt an oppression around the heart, a strange pinching in his nose, and the tears dimmed his eyes.”
The physical details here are what amaze me, so precise. He doesn’t say Pierre felt a sudden sadness but he tells you the physical sensations that correspond with a sudden sadness. Especially that “strange pinching in his nose.” Sometimes while reading Tolstoy I think , oh that’s too much, he shouldn’t say that, not in the sense that he is being obscene but that hs is going so deep into the physical sensations of life. Which is why (I think in Steiner’s book) Tolstoy has been called the seer of the flesh whereas Dostoyevsky has been called the seer of the spirit.
And here is a passage on page 120 when Pierre’s father has died and Prince Vasili realizes it and that he won’t get any of the money:
“‘Ah, my friend,’ said he, taking Pierre by the elbow, and there was in his voice a sincerity and gentleness which Pierre had never before noticed in it. ‘How we sin and how we cheat and all for what? I am sixty years old, my dear. . . . . Look at me. . . . . Death is the end of all, all! Death is horrible!'”
And the following from Princess Mariya’s letter to Julie about the effects of war foreshadow Tolstoy’s own later writings: “You should think that humanity had forgotten the precepts of their divine Saviour, Who taught love, and the forgiveness of offenses; one would think that they imparted their greatest merit to the art of killing one another.”
And reading that last passage reminded me that this set of books was published before World War One in which my great grandfather was killed. These books were on a shelf (unread) before he went to Europe with the Rainbow Division to be killed in the Battle of Champagne.