Thursday, November 19, 2009

Favorite Passages: War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

I know, I know. Really? We're mentioning War and Peace again? But I promise there's a reason for the post today. Because this week marks the one year anniversary of my falling in love with War and Peace! About this time last year, I went from being a Tolstoy-hater of the first degree to suddenly being in love with every single aspect of his magnum opus, even the philosophy I vehemently disagree with the and the moments that abandon characters I love. So of course, I needed to make War and Peace the topic of this week's Favorite Passage.

It's hard to pick just one great passage from a book that tackles nearly every single theme ever found in literature, but I went with my gut and picked this one. This is a brief moment between our two main characters (well, as close as you can get to having main characters in a book rumored to contain 500 distinct people), Pierre and Prince Andrei. Andrei's heart has recently been broken by Natasha Rostova, who has had a disasterous flirtation with Anatole Kuragin, Pierre's brother-in-law. This moment carries, in my opinion, the single best sentence in the novel - the one where Prince Andrei smiles like his horribly unpleasant father. It's such a great way of showing that despite the many transformations we see in Andrei, at the root of it, he's a victim of his own upbringing and social class just like everyone else. Tolstoy is a genius, and I think we see that in the pained dialogue between these two friends.

From War and Peace (Book Eight), by Leo Tolstoy
Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude:

Pierre saw that Prince Andrei was going to speak of Natasha, and his broad face expressed pity and sympathy. This expression irritated Prince Andrei, and in a determined, ringing, and unpleasant tone he continued.

"I have received a refusal from Countess Rostova and have heard reports of your brother-in-law having sought her hand, or something of that kind. Is that true?"

"Both true and untrue," Pierre began; but Prince Andrei interrupted him.

"Here are her letters and her portrait," said he.

He took the packet from the table and handed it to Pierre.

"Give this to the countess...if you see her."

"She is very ill," said Pierre.

"Then she is here still?" said Prince Andrei. "And Prince Kuragin?" he added quickly.

"He left long ago. She has been at death's door."

"I much regret her illness," said Prince Andrei; and he smiled like his father, coldly, maliciously, and unpleasantly.

"So Monsieur Kuragin has not honored Countess Rostova with his hand?" said Prince Andrei, and he snorted several times.

"He could not marry, for he was married already," said Pierre.

Prince Andrei laughed disagreeably, again reminding one of his father.

"And where is your brother-in-law now, if I may ask?" he said.

"He has gone to Peters...But I don't know," said Pierre.

"Well, it doesn't matter," said Prince Andrei. "Tell Countess Rostova that she was and is perfectly free and that I wish her all that is good."

Pierre took the packet. Prince Andrei , as if trying to remember whether he had something more to say, or waiting to see if Pierre would say anything, looked fixedly at him.

"I say, do you remember our discussion in Petersburg?" asked Pierre, "about..."

"Yes," returned Prince Andrei hastily. "I said that a fallen woman should be forgiven, but I didn't say I could forgive her. I can't."

"But can this be compared...?" said Pierre.

Prince Andrei interrupted him and cried sharply: "Yes, ask her hand again, be magnanimous, and so on?...Yes that would be very noble, but I am unable to follow in that gentleman's footsteps. If you wish to be my friend, never speak to me of that...of all that! Well, good-by. So you'll give her the packet?"

Pierre left the room and went to the old prince [Prince Andrei's father] and Princess Mary.

The old man seemed livelier than usual. Princess Mary was the same as always, but beneath her sympathy for her brother, Pierre noticed her satisfaction that the engagement had been broken off. Looking at them, Pierre realized what contempt and animosity they all felt for the Rostovs, and that it was impossible in their presence to mention the name of her who could give up Prince Andrei for anyone else.

After dinner the talk turned on the war, the approach of which was becoming evident. Prince Andrei talked incessantly, arguing now with his father, now with the Swiss tutor Desalles, and showing an unnatural animation, the cause of which Pierre so well understood.

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