My copy (the Anthony Briggs translation), as you can see in the photo, is marked with tabs at monthly checkpoints. Should I lose track in all of the parts and chapters, at least I’ll know where to be when the next month rolls around! I have scrap paper for a bookmark (so I can take notes), and marking the notes section at the back of the book is my extensive character list. It includes the main families, other prominent characters, and important historical figures. I expected keeping track of the characters would be the toughest part of reading War and Peace for me, and I was partly right; it’s not as bad as I’d expected, but it still takes some work.
The history is the other piece that gets to me. I probably should have read several books on the appropriate historical events and figures prior to beginning War and Peace…but then I may never have gotten to the novel! Besides, there’s no way I would have learned everything I’d need to know to follow Tolstoy’s every political comment. Thankfully, the notes provided in my edition are quite helpful.
But what I really wanted to talk about today was how good Tolstoy is at expressing his characters. His characterizations are so effective that they help cement in my mind which character is which. Here, Tolstoy is describing the princess Helene, daughter of Prince Vasily, at a social gathering at Anna Pavlovna’s:
“The princess rested her round, bare arm on the little table and found it unnecessary to say anything. She smiled, and she waited. Sitting up straight throughout the viscount’s story, she glanced down occasionally either at her beautiful, round arm so casually draped across the table, or at her still lovelier bosom and the diamond necklace above it that kept needing adjustment. Several times she also adjusted the folds of her gown, and whenever the narrative made a strong impact on the audience she would glance across at Anna Pavlovna in order to imitate whatever expression she could see written on the maid of honour’s face before resuming her radiant smile.” (p. 14)
Or this, from the party’s end, describing Pierre, son of Count Kirill:
“Pierre was ungainly, stout, quite tall and possessed of huge red hands. It was said of him that he had no idea how to enter a drawing-room and was worse still at withdrawing from one, or saying something nice as he left. He was also absent-minded. He stood up now, picked up a general’s nicely plumed three-cornered hat instead of his own, and held on to it, pulling at the feathers, until the general asked for it back. But all his absent-mindedness and his inability to enter a drawing-room or talk properly once inside it were redeemed by his expression of good-natured simplicity and modesty.” (p. 24)
From these brief sketches, I can imagine the two characters: she, beautiful but disengaged from the conversation around her; he, large, socially and physically awkward but well-meaning.
Tolstoy is also skilled at portraying the way in which characters relate to one another. For instance, in just a few sentences, he captures a scene at the Rostovs’ home:
“For a while nobody spoke. The countess was smiling pleasantly at her lady guest without disguising the fact that she would not be greatly put out if she were to get up and go. The visiting daughter was fidgeting with her gown and looking inquiringly at her mother when suddenly they all heard a racket from the next room as several boys and girls ran to the door, bumping into a chair and knocking it over with a bang, and a girl of thirteen dashed in with something tucked into her short muslin frock.” (p. 41)
I love the awkward silence, the countess’s expression, the daughter’s discomfort, and the rush of children; from Tolstoy’s words, the scene springs to life. And there have been many other bits like this one!
In short: I’m so glad I’ve decided to join this readalong!