A Year of War and Peace+ Day 2
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War and Peace — Book One, Part One
Anna Pávlovna’s drawing room was gradually filling. The highest Petersburg society was assembled there: people differing widely in age and character but alike in the social circle to which they belonged. Prince Vasíli’s daughter, the beautiful Hélène, came to take her father to the ambassador’s entertainment; she wore a ball dress and her badge as maid of honor. The youthful little Princess Bolkónskaya, known as la femme la plus séduisante de Pétersbourg, was also there. She had been married during the previous winter, and being pregnant did not go to any large gatherings, but only to small receptions. Prince Vasíli’s son, Hippolyte, had come with Mortemart, whom he introduced. The Abbé Morio and many others had also come.
To each new arrival Anna Pávlovna said, “You have not yet seen my aunt,” or “You do not know my aunt?” and very gravely conducted him or her to a little old lady, wearing large bows of ribbon in her cap, who had come sailing in from another room as soon as the guests began to arrive; and slowly turning her eyes from the visitor to her aunt, Anna Pávlovna mentioned each one’s name and then left them.
Each visitor performed the ceremony of greeting this old aunt whom not one of them knew, not one of them wanted to know, and not one of them cared about; Anna Pávlovna observed these greetings with mournful and solemn interest and silent approval. The aunt spoke to each of them in the same words, about their health and her own, and the health of Her Majesty, “who, thank God, was better today.” And each visitor, though politeness prevented his showing impatience, left the old woman with a sense of relief at having performed a vexatious duty and did not return to her the whole evening.
The young Princess Bolkónskaya had brought some work in a gold-embroidered velvet bag. Her pretty little upper lip, on which a delicate dark down was just perceptible, was too short for her teeth, but it lifted all the more sweetly, and was especially charming when she occasionally drew it down to meet the lower lip. As is always the case with a thoroughly attractive woman, her defect — the shortness of her upper lip and her half-open mouth — seemed to be her own special and peculiar form of beauty. Everyone brightened at the sight of this pretty young woman, so soon to become a mother, so full of life and health, and carrying her burden so lightly. Old men and dull dispirited young ones who looked at her, after being in her company and talking to her a little while, felt as if they too were becoming, like her, full of life and health. All who talked to her, and at each word saw her bright smile and the constant gleam of her white teeth, thought that they were in a specially amiable mood that day.
The little princess went round the table with quick, short, swaying steps, her workbag on her arm, and gaily spreading out her dress sat down on a sofa near the silver samovar, as if all she was doing was a pleasure to herself and to all around her. “I have brought my work,” said she in French, displaying her bag and addressing all present. “Mind, Annette, I hope you have not played a wicked trick on me,” she added, turning to her hostess. “You wrote that it was to be quite a small reception, and just see how badly I am dressed.” And she spread out her arms to show her short-waisted, lace-trimmed, dainty gray dress, girdled with a broad ribbon just below the breast.
“Soyez tranquille, Lise, you will always be prettier than anyone else,” replied Anna Pávlovna.
“You know,” said the princess in the same tone of voice and still in French, turning to a general, “my husband is deserting me? He is going to get himself killed. Tell me what this wretched war is for?” she added, addressing Prince Vasíli, and without waiting for an answer she turned to speak to his daughter, the beautiful Hélène.
“What a delightful woman this little princess is!” said Prince Vasíli to Anna Pávlovna.
One of the next arrivals was a stout, heavily built young man with close-cropped hair, spectacles, the light-colored breeches fashionable at that time, a very high ruffle, and a brown dress coat. This stout young man was an illegitimate son of Count Bezúkhov, a well-known grandee of Catherine’s time who now lay dying in Moscow. The young man had not yet entered either the military or civil service, as he had only just returned from abroad where he had been educated, and this was his first appearance in society. Anna Pávlovna greeted him with the nod she accorded to the lowest hierarchy in her drawing room. But in spite of this lowest-grade greeting, a look of anxiety and fear, as at the sight of something too large and unsuited to the place, came over her face when she saw Pierre enter. Though he was certainly rather bigger than the other men in the room, her anxiety could only have reference to the clever though shy, but observant and natural, expression which distinguished him from everyone else in that drawing room.
“It is very good of you, Monsieur Pierre, to come and visit a poor invalid,” said Anna Pávlovna, exchanging an alarmed glance with her aunt as she conducted him to her.
Pierre murmured something unintelligible, and continued to look round as if in search of something. On his way to the aunt he bowed to the little princess with a pleased smile, as to an intimate acquaintance.
Anna Pávlovna’s alarm was justified, for Pierre turned away from the aunt without waiting to hear her speech about Her Majesty’s health. Anna Pávlovna in dismay detained him with the words: “Do you know the Abbé Morio? He is a most interesting man.”
“Yes, I have heard of his scheme for perpetual peace, and it is very interesting but hardly feasible.”
“You think so?” rejoined Anna Pávlovna in order to say something and get away to attend to her duties as hostess. But Pierre now committed a reverse act of impoliteness. First he had left a lady before she had finished speaking to him, and now he continued to speak to another who wished to get away. With his head bent, and his big feet spread apart, he began explaining his reasons for thinking the abbé’s plan chimerical.
“We will talk of it later,” said Anna Pávlovna with a smile.
And having got rid of this young man who did not know how to behave, she resumed her duties as hostess and continued to listen and watch, ready to help at any point where the conversation might happen to flag. As the foreman of a spinning mill, when he has set the hands to work, goes round and notices here a spindle that has stopped or there one that creaks or makes more noise than it should, and hastens to check the machine or set it in proper motion, so Anna Pávlovna moved about her drawing room, approaching now a silent, now a too-noisy group, and by a word or slight rearrangement kept the conversational machine in steady, proper, and regular motion. But amid these cares her anxiety about Pierre was evident. She kept an anxious watch on him when he approached the group round Mortemart to listen to what was being said there, and again when he passed to another group whose center was the abbé.
Pierre had been educated abroad, and this reception at Anna Pávlovna’s was the first he had attended in Russia. He knew that all the intellectual lights of Petersburg were gathered there and, like a child in a toyshop, did not know which way to look, afraid of missing any clever conversation that was to be heard. Seeing the self-confident and refined expression on the faces of those present he was always expecting to hear something very profound. At last he came up to Morio. Here the conversation seemed interesting and he stood waiting for an opportunity to express his own views, as young people are fond of doing.
A Year of War and Peace — Day 2
Pierre at the Party
Anna Pávlovna’s party quickly fills up with the biggest names in Petersburg society. We’ve got everything from pretty princesses to erudite abbés. Anna Pávlovna, as the evening’s social conductor, orchestrates them together harmoniously throughout her drawing-room. A particular note she desires each guest to perform is the paying of respect to her elderly aunt. Though everyone considers this to be an annoyance they perform their duty of social nicety and say hello to the old lady.
Except for one young man.
This young man is Pierre, an illegitimate son of the wealthy Count Bezúkhov. Anna Pávlovna, aware of Pierre’s reputation as a clever though eccentric individual, decides to keep a close eye on him. You’ll want to keep a close eye on him too. Pierre is one of five central characters in War and Peace that we’ll be paying special attention to throughout this reading. In fact, his behavior in this chapter is the subject of today’s meditation.
But before we get there I’d like first to talk about Tolstoy’s literary style. War and Peace is rightly regarded as a novel of grand, panoramic sweep. We’ll see this later during the war scenes in particular. But Tolstoy is also a master of the small, both in scene description and in the development of the psychology of his characters. Take the young Princess Bolkónskaya, for example. When we first meet her in this chapter we’re treated to a fantastic little detail of the “delicate dark down” on her pretty upper lip. We also hear her complain to Anna Pávlovna, in a kind of joking manner, that the party is much larger than she expected and she fears she has underdressed for the occasion. The inclusion of this seemingly minor remark is a quick and efficient way for Tolstoy to reveal the princess’s psychological concern that her pregnancy has corrupted her youthful beauty. These tiny descriptions offer just the right amount of subtle highlights necessary to bring the story and characters into relief. We’ll see plenty more in the year to come.
Back to Pierre. It’s useful to consider his behavior here. First, he rudely cuts short his greeting of Anna Pávlovna’s elderly aunt whereas everyone else dutifully pays her respect. Then, in a “reverse act of impoliteness,” he prolongs his conversation with Anna Pávlovna in a talk about politics that she clearly doesn’t want to take part in. When I was younger, back when I first read War and Peace, I really liked Pierre in this chapter. I admired his unconventional — maybe even anti-conventional — personal style. Nowadays, however, I find myself much more sensitive to social convention. I’m reminded of Cicero’s ideas about social relations.
We ought to respect and revere those whose life has been passed in the transaction of honorable and important affairs, who have a right feeling toward the state, and have rendered or are still rendering it service, no less than those in civil office or military command; to pay great deference to old age; to yield precedence to the magistrates; to make a distinction between citizens and foreigners, and in the case of foreigners, between those who come in a private and those who come in a public capacity. In short, not to treat of particulars, we ought to cherish, defend, preserve, the common harmony and fellowship of the whole human race.
Cicero, On Duties