The second book of Tolstoy’s War and Peace brings me to page 714 – just about half way through. While Book 1 only spanned six months, Book 2 takes place over the course of six years. “War” takes a back seat in Book 2.
(A painting of the Battle of Borodino – this hasn’t taken place in the novel, but I have a feeling it will).
The word “panorama” comes to my mind while I’m reading this novel. I looked up that word and found it to mean “a continuously passing or changing scene or an unfolding of events”. That’s a pretty apt description of War and Peace in relation to early 19th century Russian life. As for a plot, only small story lines weave back and forth between many characters; however, the smaller scenes give the mammoth novel a quaint aspect. Perhaps that is the genius of the novel: so far it’s both “panoramic” and “quaint” at the same time.
Two scenes in Book 2 will remain memorable to me when I think of literature in general, both of them involving the young Countess Natasha Rostov. After tagging along with her brother, Nicholai, and her cousin, Sonya, on a winter wolf hunting expedition with their Uncle, they end up warming up in a cabin listening to their Uncle play the balalaika – a triangular Russian guitar (see picture below). Natasha dances an impromptu folk-dance for the hunters and her Uncle’s housekeeper that took the breath away of all who were watching:
Her performance was so perfect, so absolutely perfect, that Anisya Fiodorovna [the housekeeper], who had at once handed her the kerchief she needed for the dance, had tears in her eyes, though she laughed as she watched the slender, graceful countess, reared in silks and velvets, in another world than hers, who was yet able to understand all that was in Anisya’s father and mother and aunt, and in every Russian man and woman.
Another scene takes place while the Rostov’s visit Moscow and attend an opera. Tolstoy writes this scene by brilliantly and humorously alternating between Natasha’s observance of the opera, which she finds boring and a little ridiculous, and her realization that she is turning the heads of the young men in the audience, particularly Anatole Kuragin – a “scoundrel” by everyone’s admission, even his friends.
Count Pierre Bezuhov runs from his bad marriage to Helene Kuragin into a spiritual journey within Freemasonry. Throughout Book 2, Pierre’s journey takes the form of a struggle between helping the poor and socializing with the rich, “enlightened” members of his circles. At the end of Book 2, Pierre has become enamored with Natasha and drives away from her in a carriage under a starlit night sky. As he looks at the sky, he sees what is probably a once-in-a-lifetime event:
Almost in the centre of this sky, above the Prichistensky boulevard, surrounded and convoyed on every side by stars but distinguished from them all by its nearness to the earth, its white light and its long uplifted tail, shone the huge, brilliant comet of the year 1812 – the comet which was said to portend all manner of horrors and the end of the world.
I found this to be a fascinating way to end Book 2. Having been published one at a time, I think I would be “chomping at the bit” for the next one to be published. I wonder how long they had to wait in the 1870’s?
(A picture of balalaika)