Sunday, September 18, 2011

War and Peace Again

I can remember the first time I decided that I was in good hands with Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace. No, not the first page—W&P begins with what must surely be the most off-putting first sentence in classic literature (and in French, yet*). But here I am in Section VI of Part One (page 31 of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation). Pierre, the great bewildered protagonist of the piece (breaking his vow to Prince Andrei) decides to stop for a carouse at the home of the Kuragin clan. This is the night, we learn later, when Dolokhov ties the policeman to the bear and gets broken to the ranks for his cheek—but we don't know that yet. Instead:

Driving up to the porch of a large house near the horse guards' barracks—[Pierre] went up the lighted porch, the stairs, and entered an open door. There was no one in the front hall; empty bottles, capes, galoshes were lying about; there was a smell of wine, the noise of distant talking and shouting.

Cards and supper were over, but the guests had not dispersed yet. Pierre threw off his cape and went into the first room, where the remains of supper lay and one lackey, thinking no one could see him, was finishing on the sly what was left of the wine glasses.
My Italics.  That did it for me; we've been in two fashionable houses already before Kuragin's; we'll be in two more before this first part ends. But for all the gossip, the bravado, the intrigue, the pathos, the sly comedy, etc., etc.., Tolstoy saves time for the lackey nicking the dregs. For portraits of the high life (and its accompaniment), the only person who can match it would be Proust among the Guermantes. But Proust, for all his appeal, is more detached and austere, more ironic, often funnier but often less kind. It is Tolstoy who is open to anybody. It's right here that I knew I was in good hands and that I had never, ever, read any novel so good (I had not yet read Proust; I had read Shakespeare, but he's not a novelist).

That was about 45 years ago. Mr. and Mrs. Buce have now embarked on their second readaloud of War and Peace. The first was about ten years ago; this, then, would be my third time through, and I must say it has lost none of its allure. Given our various distractions, planned and otherwise, we ar probably set for the winter. No matter; I'll say again as I said the first time: for my money, War and Peace is too short. 

 -- *Eh bien, mon prince, Gênes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanages, des помѣстья, de la famille Buonaparte. 

No comments: