Read and discuss War and Peace with Yiyun Li and A Public Space. Starting March 18, join us for a free virtual book club—a moment each day when we can gather together as a community. #TolstoyTogether.
In these unsettled times, like many of you I have been looking for substance in my bookcase. One doesn’t need to look far—there sit the books by Tolstoy, “the master-recorder of realities,” as Stefan Zweig describes him.
In these coming weeks and months, when every one of us has to turn ourselves into a master of living through a harsh reality, I wonder if I could invite you to read and discuss War and Peace with me. I have found that the more uncertain life is, the more solidity and structure Tolstoy’s novels provide. In these times, one does want to read an author who is so deeply moved by the world that he could appear unmoved in his writing.
War and Peace is a perfect book to read together for the duration of our necessary isolation. My edition (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) is about 1,200 pages. It will take us about 30 minutes to read 12-15 pages a day (much less than the time many Americans spend on social media), and we will finish the novel in three months—just in time for summer, and with our spirits restored.
How It Will Work
Beginning Wednesday, March 18, I'll select a passage to share with you here as well as on A Public Space's Twitter and Instagram accounts. We hope you'll share your thoughts and responses, and ask questions too. We'll be using #TolstoyTogether to organize the ongoing conversation. There will also be a weekly newsletter, sharing an overview of the week's reading, including highlights from our conversation.
“One had to wait and endure.” “Patience and time, these are my mighty warriors!”
Wait and endure; patience and time. They sound like clichés, but they are life-sustaining words. —Yiyun
“Shcherbinin lit a tallow candle, causing the cockroaches that were gnawing on it to flee.”
As he hears the cricket on the night of Natasha’s dramatic reunion with Andrei, Tolstoy sees the cockroaches as tens of thousands of people’s fates turn. —Yiyun
Day 70 | May 26
Reading: Volume IV, Part II, viii-xii. From "Napoleon enters Moscow after the brilliant victory" to "And Pierre felt that this view obliged him."
In the letter to Alexander, Napoleon “considers it his duty to inform his friend and brother that Rastopchin has arranged things badly in Moscow.” Chapter after chapter after chapter after chapter on history… and then a wry sentence like that. LOL. —Yiyun
“He ordered his troops to be paid in counterfeit Russian money he had made.”
A hilarious sentence to close a hilarious chapter, after Napoleon’s endearing words to “Citizens!” & “Craftsman and labor-loving artisans!” & “you, peasants.” —Yiyun
What joy to imagine dour Tolstoy on the day he wrote this. —Yiyun Day 69 | May 25
Reading: Volume IV, Part II, i-vii . From "The totality of causes of phenomena" to "the push was given which Napoleon's army was only waiting for to begin its flight."
“One of the first bullets killed him, the bullets that followed killed many of his soldiers. And for some time his division went on standing uselessly under fire.”
The war has been too long. Even the wordy Tolstoy starts to resort to swift strokes. —Yiyun
The battle of Tarutino is like an enigmatic course on a tasting menu: it has a grand name, it arrives at the right time, and it’s blatantly bland. What on earth is going on? —Yiyun
“‘Who is there to put it out?’ came the voice of Danilo Teretyich… and he suddenly gave an old man’s sob.”
Many weep at the fire. Some tears are more painful to read. This is the proud Danilo who, at the hunting, raised his whip at the incapable Count Rostov. —Yiyun
Natasha standing at the open window, listening to the adjutant’s moaning and imagining Andrei wounded: an echo of their first meeting, with Andrei listening to her voice through the open window and imagining her happiness. —Yiyun
“The smoke became thicker and thicker, and it even became warm from the flames of the fire.”
The fatal winter sneaks into the novel: Sonya chilled, Natasha’s feet cold, the French officer looting for boots, the fire making the air not hot but merely warm. —Yiyun
“In the kitchens they made fires and, with their sleeves rolled up, baked, kneaded, and cooked, frightened, amused, and fondled the women and children.”
All those domestic verbs preceding “frightened” and then, that most frightening “fondled.”—Yiyun
Pierre imagines assassinating Napoleon while the drunkard Makar Alexeich points the pistol to a servant, calling him Bonaparte: great minds think alike. —Yiyun
Day 62 | May 18
Reading: Volume III, Part III, xxii-xxv. From "The city itself, meanwhile, was empty" to "began shouting and dispersing the clustering carts."
Mishka playing the clavichord with one finger and the yard porter seeing himself for the first time in the mirror—even if they don’t survive the fire of Moscow, they have encountered the essence of life: art and self-reflection. —Yiyun
“Kutuzov was sitting on a bench by the bridge and playing in the sand with his whip... Rastopchin took a whip in his hand [and] began dispersing the clustering carts.”
Rastopchin is never more stupid than when he’s next to a man thinking with a whip in the sand. —Yiyun
Day 61 | May 17
Reading: Volume III, Part III, xvii-xxi. From "Towards two o'clock the Rostovs' four carriages" to "the troops were now moving forward."
Andrei in the caleche, Pierre in the crowd, Natasha in the carriage: it’s one of the few scenes they are together in the novel, but never have they carried a conversation among themselves. What one would not give to see the three of them sit down and talk. –—Yiyun
“He himself was carried away by the tone of magnanimity he intended to employ in Moscow.”
Napoleon imagining what he will do to Moscow is like Boris envisioning how to spend Julie’s money before he proposes. —Yiyun
Day 60 | May 16
Reading: Volume III, Part III, xii-xvi. From "The Rostovs remained in the city" to "and tried to take along as much as possible."
“Moscow’s last day came.” I wonder which other city in history also lives up to this solemn line. Pompei? Paris? —Yiyun
Berg bargaining for furniture and Sonia packing and unpacking and storing things: they both, in their own way, provide relief in this tumultuous time. —Yiyun
Day 59 | May 15
Reading: Volume III, Part III, vi-xi. From "Helene, having returned with the court from Vilno to Petersburg" to "no one of the Bezukhov household, in spite of all their searching, saw any more of Pierre or knew where he was."
Princess Kuragin, “constantly tormented by envy of her daughter,” bemoans: “How is it we didn’t know it in our long-lost youth?”
The apex of Hélène’s success: she makes her mother envy her and regret not having left her father. —Yiyun
“He handed Pierre a wooden spoon, after licking it clean.” A line that always makes me shiver with joy. —Yiyun
Day 58 | May 14
Reading: Volume III, Part III, i-v. From "For human reason, absolute continuity of movement" to "enormous current of people which carried him along with it."
“Malasha also looked at Grandpa. She was closest to him of all and saw how his face winced; it was as if he was about to cry.”
Only a child recognizes the helplessness in Kutuzov’s unshed tears. —Yiyun
“After that, the generals began to disperse with the same solemn and silent discretion as people dispersing after a funeral.”
“In battle it is a matter of what is dearest to a man—his own life—and it sometimes seems that salvation lies in running back, sometimes in running forward.”
Literature (and life) would be so boring if that word “seems” didn’t exist. Yiyun
“If you see so poorly, my dear sir, don’t allow yourself to speak of what you don’t know.”
Alas. To see poorly and to speak of what one doesn’t know are only human. Is there one person who has not erred thus? —Yiyun
Day 55 | May 11
Reading: Volume III, Part II, xxix-xxxii. From "Having returned from a second preoccupied ride" to "like a straining man crying out with his last strength."
“A young, round-faced little officer, still a perfect child… said ‘Ah’ and, curling up, sat on the ground like a bird shot down in flight.”
Children lost on battlefield remind one of infants falling into sudden sleep in the middle of a crying bout. —Yiyun
"Both were perplexed about what they had done and what they were to do. 'Am I taken prisoner, or have I taken him prisoner?' each of them thought."
Sometimes I ask the same question, not in combat with an enemy, but in my wrestling with writing. —Yiyun
Day 54 | May 10
Reading: Volume III, Part II, xxv-xxviii. From "The officers wanted to take their leave" to "worthily fulfilled his role of seeming to command."
“Pierre looked at Timokhin with the condescendingly questioning smile with which everyone involuntarily addressed him.”
How I adore Timokhin: without fail, he gives people the opportunity to feel good about themselves. Even Pierre is not immune. —Yiyun
It must be tiresome to live for posterity. Other than winning wars, Napoleon has also to think about winning readers of history. —Yiyun
Along with the portrait of their son, Napoleon’s empress also entrusted a portfolio of letters to Henri Beyle (later known as Stendhal), who traveled to Moscow and later also rescued a beautiful edition of Voltaire from the fire. —Yiyun
Day 53 | May 9
Reading: Volume III, Part II, xx-xxiv. From "On the morning of the twenty-fifth" to "They'd gone to the estate outside Moscow."
“Twenty thousand of them are doomed to die, yet they get surprised at my hat.”
Oh dear Pierre: it’s your hat today, not the twenty thousand deaths tomorrow, that makes this moment interesting. —Yiyun
I was happy to learn from Edmund White that Tolstoy’s rendition of wartime confusions was influenced by Stendhal, who wrote about the utter confusion at Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma. —Yiyun
P. S. Stendhal survived the retreat from Moscow in 1812.
Yes, the world would be a grippingly bleak place if all people spoke aloud their thoughts uncensored. —Yiyun
Day 52 | May 8
Reading: Volume III, Part II, xvi-xix. From "'Well, that's all now!' said Kutuzov" to "three hours from total destruction and flight."
“There’s no need to storm and attack, there’s need for patience and time.”
Patience and time: three simple and enduring words from a novel of more than half a million words. —Yiyun
“The princess was clearly annoyed that there was no one to be angry with.”
Not even with herself? It must be a strange kind of helplessness to have no one to be angry with. —Yiyun
Day 51 | May 7
Reading: Volume III, Part II, xi-xv. From "An hour later Dunyasha came to the princess" to "'Oh, German scrupulosity!' he said, shaking his head."
Day 50 | May 6
Reading: Volume III, Part II, viii-x. From "Princess Marya was not in Moscow" to "she was ready to do everything for him and for the muzhiks."
Her father’s death brings Princess Marya to her most humane moment: religion, of little use, has retreated. —Yiyun
One suspects that the architect Mikhail Ivanovich is only waiting to go into a William Trevor story and surprise us all. —Yiyun
“I see through everything seven feet under you” is such an effective threat. I too looked down at the floor underneath me with dread when I read the sentence. —Yiyun
Day 49 | May 5
Reading: Volume III, Part II, v-vii. From "From Smolensk the troops continued retreat" to "He gave Lavrushka another horse and took him along"
Sometimes a man sees better once he learns how not to be seen. —Yiyun
“The old man still sat as indifferently as a fly on the face of a dead loved one.”
Strange that Andrei sees the plum-stealing girls for the first time as real human beings, yet the old peasant, who sits on the old Prince’s bench, is still seen as a fly. —Yiyun
“All that naked, white human flesh… was flopping about in the dirty puddle like carp in a bucket. This flopping about suggested merriment, and that made it particularly sad.”
Andrei is flopping too. So are most of us. The unflopping ones we cannot trust. —Yiyun
Day 48 | May 4
Reading: Volume III, Part II, i-iv. From "Napoleon started the war with Russia" to "he spurred his horse and rode down the lane."
Tikhon walking the old Prince Bolkonsky about in the house, looking for a place to sleep: Who among us has a loyal friend like Tikhon, who would, if sleeplessness were a bullet, take it, night after night. —Yiyun
Bald Hills is forty miles east of Smolensk. It comforts one to think of Alpatych listening to the bells on that white night, summer of 1812, for forty drowsy and peaceful miles, before the cannon balls fall near him in Smolensk. —Yiyun
The fire in Smolensk, a prelude to the Fire of Moscow, starts right next to Alpatych—who bears witness for what’s missed by the Tsar and his courtiers, Rostov and his fellow officers, Pierre and the Moscow society. —Yiyun
“A moment later Rostov’s horse struck the officer’s horse in the rump, almost knocking it down.”
The selflessness of Tolstoy’s animals: Rostov’s horse does exactly what Uncle’s dog Rugai has done—“raced with a terrible selflessness right onto the hare.” —Yiyun
“It seemed so natural for Pierre to be kind to everyone, that there was no merit in his kindness.”
Everyone else can stay in 1812. Pierre: Come this way, step into an Aesop’s fable. —Yiyun
“The impression of ongoing life” is the amber that keeps grief secure inside. —Yiyun
Day 45 | May 1
Reading: Volume III, Part I, ix-xii. From "Prince Andrei arrived in the general headquarters" to "'Here. What lightning!' they said to each other."
How do we finish this sentence: An American is self-assured because/on the basis of/on the grounds that/precisely because… —Yiyun
“Listening to this multilingual talk, and these suggestions, plans, and refutations, and shouts…” I’m tempted to suggest a Zoom Maypole dance after we sit through these serious and empty discussions at the war council. —Yiyun
They are “the Inseparables”!—the nicknames given to two officers in Vronsky’s regiment in Anna Karenina. The Inseparables is also the title of an early novel of Simone de Beauvoir, recently reported to be published next year. —Yiyun
Day 44 | April 30
Reading: Volume III, Part I, vi-viii. From "Accustomed though Balashov was" to "presented themselves to Prince Andrei one after the other."
“The whole aim of his speech now was obviously to exalt himself and insult others.”
“...directing his speech…only at proving his rightness and his strength.”
“…was in that state of irritation in which a man has to talk and talk and talk, only so as to prove his rightness to himself.”
Tolstoy must have foreseen future generations’ miseries. Is there any solace in knowing that there is never a unique buffoon, a unique egotist, a unique sociopath, a unique dictator? —Yiyun
“Mlle Bourienne was the same coquettish girl, pleased with herself, joyfully making use of every moment of her life.”
Andrei is good at blaming all his father’s follies on Mlle Bourienne, but “making use of every moment” seems a consistent and democratic approach to life—instead of his own approach of having one epiphany after another. —Yiyun
Childhood is truly a more dangerous neighborhood than cousinhood. They love you, they love you not. Who are they to say they know even remotely who you are? —Yiyun
Day 43 | April 29
Reading: Volume III, Part I, i-v. From "Since the end of the year 1811" to "Alexander had sent him off."
It is unlikely that Tolstoy’s time was sensible and comprehensible. Ours is not. Perhaps there’s never a sensible and comprehensible time. Feeling fatalistic about history, though, is easier than feeling fatalistic about what hasn’t yet become history. —Yiyun
Napoleon, or Tolstoy’s Napoleon, has the air of an actor too confident of his performance to realize that he has overacted. —Yiyun
Murat, a lesser actor, slips out of his role easily into his natural self. —Yiyun
“She sobbed with that despair with which people weep only over a grief of which they feel themselves the cause.”
The most devastating of all griefs, but at least it’s rare: often we look outward for the causes of our griefs, and find them where we look. —Yiyun
Mlle Bourienne has lived mostly in the country and is an outsider in Moscow. How does she know the rumors? (Is it possible she’s kept in touch with Anatole? Or does she know a Frenchwoman in another house—a governess or a companion?) Does it quite add up? —Yiyun
Pierre seems to be the only man in the novel capable of thinking: “If I were not I.” Others—Andrei, Old Prince Bolkonsky, Rostov, Anatole—think: “It must be so because I am who I am.” —Yiyun
The rehearsal for a farewell is always prettier. The real farewell, at the mercy of what’s not in one’s control, seldom has space for anything touching or solemn. —Yiyun
The poor horses run to their deaths by Balaga: even if they could go to a horse heaven they would still be inconsolable, next to the horses killed in the war. —Yiyun
The unnamed maid assisting Anatole in seducing Natasha: What’s her motivation? Is it money he offers, or her unquestioning loyalty to Natasha, or something that defies logic and interpretation? It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole with a minor character. —Yiyun
Day 40 | April 26
Reading: Volume II, Part V, ix-xiii. From "The stage consisted of flat boards" to "no answers to these terrible questions."
What would I not give to see Natasha tickle Hélène, that marble statue. Or, better, paint the statue’s nose red. (One has to love a character who allows one wicked laughter.) —Yiyun
Three plain nouns forming a terrifying crescendo. (This also reminds me of Jane Austen’s line: “With them, to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect.”) —Yiyun
Hélène’s dress always rustles, Anatole’s spurs always jingle: We are almost certain they read nothing. Reading doesn’t proclaim itself with so much fanfare. —Yiyun
“Boris had failed to marry a rich bride in Petersburg and had come with the same purpose to Moscow.”
A great opening to a story. The chapter is like a play in which the actors, while performing perfectly on stage, are thinking of their suppers and nightgowns. —Yiyun
Boris dreams too! One even feels a little touched by an unpoetic character’s unpoetic imagination. —Yiyun
Natasha’s hope in the Bolkonskys echoes Nikolai’s shock at the French who wanted to kill him. Since when has the world stopped loving me?—a question all lucky children have to face. —Yiyun Day 38 | April 24
Reading: Volume II, Part V, i-iv. From "After the engagement of Prince Andrei" to "try to get the old prince used to her."
Recently my dear friend Elizabeth McCracken used the word “insoluble” in a note, which clarified my muddled mind instantly. Let the insoluble remain so, as long as we can say: “Above all, we read.” —Yiyun
What if we have a #MontaigneByOneself going at the same time—we’d have a place to go in the evening. —Yiyun
“Ah, my God, Count, there are moments when I’d marry anybody!”
Marya never expresses her eagerness to marry but to Pierre. He has a strange effect and leads people off script—they say things that otherwise would remain unsaid even in their private thoughts. —Yiyun
“What will I give birth to?” she asked the buffoon… “Fleas, dragonflies, grasshoppers,” the buffoon replied.
An oddly thrilling exchange (though Natasha disagrees): She’s fluent in nonsense. He, with an etymologist’s mind, is as nimble-witted as Lear’s clown. —Yiyun
Nikolai falls for Sonya, in a man’s outfit, with cork-drawn mustache. Sonya finds a beloved stranger in Nikolai, in a woman’s dress. Seeing is dis-believing—realigning memory and desire. Who would begrudge love between these two people, new to each other? —Yiyun
“She wrote him classically monotonous, dry letters, to which she herself did not ascribe any significance, and in the drafts of which the countess corrected the spelling errors.” Day 36 | April 22
Reading: Volume II, Part IV, vi-viii. From "The old count rode home." to "Things were not cheerful in the Rostovs's house."
Hunting is war in peace time: the wolf is a skirmish leading to the battle of the hare; Nikolai and Illagin talking about irrelevant topics while eyeing each other’s dogs is a variation of Alexander and Napoleon reviewing the two armies affably. —Yiyun
Who doesn’t love a tuneful dog! Nikolai, only recently called mediocre, says one of the oddest and most astonishing things in the novel. His life doesn’t often allow ingenuity, but by nature he is closest to Natasha.
Inertia and indecisiveness are perhaps under appreciated: they do their share of life-preserving, just as imagination and action do their share of destruction.—Yiyun
Day 35 | April 21
Reading: Volume II, Part IV, i-v. From "Biblical tradition says that absence of work" to "shyly smiled his childishly meek and pleasant smile."
Nikolai is modeled on Tolstoy’s father; Pierre and Andrei, Tolstoy himself. It’s interesting that this common sense, which neither Pierre nor Andrei has, is called mediocrity. —Yiyun
“Though Danilo was of small stature, seeing him in the room produced an impression similar to seeing a horse or a bear standing there amidst the furniture and accessories of human life.”
Danilo is inimitable among the dead objects and living aristocrats. —Yiyun
There are a hundred and thirty dogs at the hunt. If a dog eats healthily at 3% of its body weight daily, the hounds and the boizois together would consume somewhere between 150 and 200 pounds of raw meat daily. I too worry about the Rostovs’ finances. —Yiyun
“Yesterday I was tormented, I suffered, but I wouldn’t trade that torment for anything in the world. I’ve never lived before. Only now am I alive, but I can’t live without her.”
Even a person who never doubts his superior mind speaks of love in clichés. —Yiyun
“The resemblance between Natasha and Prince Andrei, which the nanny had noticed during Prince Andrei’s first visit…”
A minor character immortalized by half a sentence: what the mother misses the nanny does not. —Yiyun
Princess Marya’s notion that god’s infinite love for his creation made it necessary for Lise to die in childbirth: I have nothing to say but that this is the most heartless thing I’ve read so far. Blood curdling. —Yiyun
When did Old Count Bolkonsky move to the countryside? After his wife died giving birth to Marya? Marya did not grow up in society (yet she’s friend with Julie Karagin). Andrei did and married one of the best society women. Backstories are rabbit holes. —Yiyun
Tolstoy’s omniscience at its best: history and court intrigues play out in the negative space of Natasha’s awareness; what she doesn’t see in “her highest degree of happiness” is what carries the novel. —Yiyun
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Judging by Berg and Vera, a good marriage would be a mirror for the spouses to look at each other as though looking at themselves, and relishing the images. —Yiyun
Day 32 | April 18
Reading: Volume II, Part III, xi-xv. From "The financial affairs of the Rostovs" to "the way he does with these ladies."
“It was as if they were ashamed that they loved Vera so little and were now so eager to get her off their hands.”
“Unquestionably beautiful and sensible,” and unloved and uncourted by anyone but Berg: poor Vera sounds like a changeling. —Yiyun
Natasha’s observation of Berg—“he’s so narrow, like a dining-room clock”—corroborates Turgenev’s comment on Tolstoy—“he hates sober-mindedness, system, and science (in a word, German).” —Yiyun
Natasha “speaking of herself in the third person and imagining that it was some very intelligent man saying it about her”: I’ve tried this trick, but to the opposite effect. The adjectives I come up with are not as complimentary as Natasha’s. —Yiyun
Day 31 | April 17
Reading: Volume II, Part III, vi-x. From "During the initial time of his stay in Petersburg" to "if Thou forsakest me altogether."
Pierre’s Masonic career is less memorable than his feeling about it—any decision one makes seems capable of becoming that ground. —Yiyun
I once said in a lecture that omniscient Tolstoy didn’t have any character dreaming in War and Peace. I was wrong. I forgot he let Pierre write about his own dreams in his diary. If someone bores us by recounting dreams, of course it would be poor Pierre. —Yiyun
Pierre prays to god for help “to overcome the part of wrath by gentleness and slowness.” Slowness as a virtue is fascinating. Slow in what way? Thinking? Feeling? Challenging someone to a duel? Reading Tolstoy? —Yiyun
Day 30 | April 16
Reading: Volume II, Part III, i-v. From "In 1808 the emperor Alexander went" to "trying not to be noticed, left the room."
I’m always tickled and in awe that Tolstoy gives the most romantic moment of the novel to Prince Andrei, the least romantic character. (Like slipping one of Falstaff’s lines into Lear’s script with the uttermost ease.) —Yiyun
Prince Andrei has his “huge, gnarled, ungainly… old, angry, scornful, and ugly” oak tree. Jane Eyre has her lightening-struck chestnut tree, “split down the centre… ghastly.” I have in front of my window a young dogwood tree, blossoming unobtrusively. —Yiyun
Prince Andrei is “an eligible young man, rich and well-born… with the aura of the romantic story of his alleged death and his wife’s tragic end.”
A wife’s death can be as valuable a decoration in society as the St Andrew’s honor earned from the battleground. —Yiyun
Denisov and Rostov’s dugout, with dirt steps as anteroom and broken glass as skylight, reminds me that in the army, our commander once had a bed made for her from a butcher’s block borrowed from a village kitchen. A luxury that birthed many jokes. —Yiyun
Seeing Tushin again (alive! still smiling! minus an arm…) puts me into a strange and familiar mood, once named by a friend as: happysad. —Yiyun
Poor Alexander came out of the pavilion before Napoleon—we wouldn’t have learned that detail if not for Boris (and men like him), who devotes his life to insetting his posterity in history. —Yiyun
Day 28 | April 14
Reading: Volume II, Part II, xi-xv. From "Returning from his southern journey" to "Rostov noticed tears in Denisov's eyes."
Pierre makes Princess Marya, who’s embarrassed all the time, feel comfortable. Here, he makes old Prince Bolkonsky, who’s often angry and cruel, speak with kindness—possibly the only time in the novel he does so. One has to adore Pierre for his effect on people. —Yiyun
I wondered what Tolstoy’s contemporaries felt about the novel. Turgenev, who had a falling out with Tolstoy, complained often in his letters when he reached where we are in the book. —Yiyun
A few days later, still pondering War and Peace, Turgenev wrote: “It contains intolerable things and astonishing things, and the astonishing things, which essentially predominate, are magnificent; none of us has written anything better.” —Yiyun
Friends who are worrying about catching up: Tolstoy was late, running behind schedule. We can be too, while reading War and Peace. As long as nobody is eaten by the bears, we shall prevail. —Yiyun
“It was not what he read in the letter that made him angry; what made him angry was that the life there, now foreign to him, could excite him.”
I keep having an allergic reaction to Prince Andrei, instead of simply being made ill or being made to feel better. It must be a sign of a successful character. —Yiyun
Princess Marya is always vigilant, Prince Andrei fastidious. They both get caught by the canopy of the crib—that muslin speaks eloquently of the subtle yet definitive changes brought by a child. —Yiyun
Day 26 | April 12
Reading: Volume II, Part II, iv-vii. From "Soon after that, it was not the rhetor" to "an intimate of Countess Bezukhov's house."
Pierre’s thought about the Masonic rituals reminds me when, at almost four years old, I couldn’t cry at the memorial service for Chairman Mao. Instead of mourning, I looked around at other kids, and was caught by a teacher. —Yiyun
There are two thermometers in Anna Pavlovna’s drawing room: Napoleon as a political villain, and Pierre as a spoiled and depraved idiot. —Yiyun
I’ve been wrong to think it’s boring to have my characters smile—it’s my fault if their smile is empty. —Yiyun
Pierre and his Masonic pursuit: I’m delighted to realize that for the three chapters we read today, I have zero Post-it on the pages. (For other chapters I don’t do so well at counting the Post-its.) —Yiyun
“His servant handed him a book cut as far as the middle, an epistolary novel by Mme Souza.”
A new book cut “as far as the middle” is a curious detail: Who cut it? (The servant?) Why only half? (Does he not have confidence in the book?) —Yiyun
Is there a less charitable verb than that “seemed”? I feel like taking up a sewing needle as my sabre and challenging that fine word. —Yiyun
Losing at the card game gives Nikolai the same epiphany as the lofty sky gives Prince Andrei, though being destroyed slowly by a friend is a hundred times more terrifying than dying on the battleground. (And terrifying to watch, too.) —Yiyun
Dolokhov plays until Nikolai owes him 43K “because forty-three made up the sum of his age plus Sonya’s.”
It’s better to have “a wicked & unfeeling man” (Natasha has good intuition), who operates with adolescent melodrama, as an enemy rather than a friend. —Yiyun
Day 23 | April 9
Reading: Volume II, Part I, v-x. From "'Well, begin!' said Dolokhov" to "dinners, evening parties, and balls."
Dolokhov, the “rowdy duelist, lived in Moscow with his old mother and hunchbacked sister, and was a most affectionate son and brother.”
The girl has only three words given to her. “The Hunchbacked Sister” would be a perfect title for a novella. —Yiyun
When the news of a death arrives, there is always a wheel spinning, or a phone ringing, or a bee buzzing, unaware of its destined connection to forever. —Yiyun
Not everyone deserves a Tikhon in their lives; every Tikhon deserves a Tolstoy. —Yiyun
Carriage-lifting and slipper-plaiting: either makes him a real character; together they make him unforgettable. —Yiyun
The terrifying power of a childhood home supports Hegel: What is rational is actual; and what is actual is rational. —Yiyun
Pierre is more clear-eyed than most characters in the novel, despite behaving like a bumblebee: he assesses Dolokhov as Tolstoy dissects Prince Andrei, and doesn’t allow the thinnest veil of self-deception when admitting his fear of Dolokhov. —Yiyun
If one could suspend imagining what comes next, one could fall for the inhuman beauty of an advancing troop. —Yiyun
One hears the echo of this passage in Isaac Babel’s stories and Hemingway’s novels. —Yiyun
Napoleon, as the victor, was “happy in the unhappiness of others.” Is that better or worse than someone who’s “unhappy in the happiness of others”? —Yiyun
Reading: . From “At five o’clock in the morning” to “And thank God!”
“Always and Everywhere”—the most comforting words, even if unsustainable; and the most ominous words, though overly sensational—would make a grander title for a novel than War and Peace.—Yiyun
Tolstoy gives some of the best gestures in the novel to Napoleon, starting with the shedding of a single glove as a historical beginning. —Yiyun
“Looking at the standard, [Prince Andrei] thought: maybe it is that very standard with which I’ll have to march at the head of the troop.”
The standard: not so different from a Russian prince in Mlle Bourienne’s fantasy, or a husband in Princess Marya’s. —Yiyun
Reading: . From “At dawn on the sixteenth” to “worthy of my people, you, and myself. Napoleon.”
We no longer rely on clocks that need winding once a week, and are perhaps less capable of imagining ourselves as cogs and wheels and pulleys. We are as omnipotent as our digital devices. —Yiyun
Kutuzov: “The point of the matter was to satisfy the irresistible human need for sleep.”
Rostov: “Trying to fight off the sleep that was irresistibly overcoming him.”
The most experienced and the most inexperienced fall asleep the night before the battle. —Yiyun
The reading (in German… over an hour…) of the disposition: I have a fantasy of gathering a Zoomful of people to act out the scene. I can do the “significant gaze, which signified nothing.” —Yiyun
Reading: . From “On the day after the meeting” to “remained for a time with the Izmailovsky regiment.”
“A third [adjutant] was playing a Viennese waltz on the pianoforte, a fourth was lying on the pianoforte and singing along.”
Unnamed characters and their mysteries: is the singer facing upward, or is he facing the pianist, watching his fingers? —Yiyun
If I were Prince Andrei, I would prefer to be written by anyone but Tolstoy. —Yiyun
“What precision… what foresight of all possibilities, all conditions, all the smallest details!... The combination of Austrian clarity and Russian courage—what more do you want?”
Perhaps a dose of uncertainty, as Napoleon had before the battle? —Yiyun
Reading: . From “They all dispersed” to “this hateful little adjutant.”
Anatole is predictable, but one has to love him when, caught with Mlle Bourienne, he “with a merry smile, bowed to Princess Marya, as if inviting her to laugh at this odd incident.” A cliché embodying its cliché-ness full-heartedly is ingenious. —Yiyun
Rostov, humiliated by Prince Andrei and fantasizing aiming a pistol at Andrei’s face, “was surprised to feel that, of all the people he knew, there was no one he so wished to have for a friend as this hateful little adjutant.” Touché! —Yiyun
Reading: . From “Old Prince Nikolai Andreich Bolkonsky received a letter” to “And, raising her finger and smiling, she left the room.”
A better husband than Prince Andrei “would seem hard to find these days.” Old Prince Bolkonsky’s parental blind spot is an occasion to try out a word I’ve never used: LOL. —Yiyun
“Our regiment is already on the march. But I’m enlisted—what am I enlisted in, papa?”
Prince Vassily at least has a more clear-eyed assessment of his son—“no genius, but he’s an honest, good lad.” —Yiyun
Bourienne, not the most heartbreaking woman, breaks my heart with her imagination—rather than a fantasy for romance, it’s an orphan’s dream of a reunion with her mother. —Yiyun
Reading: . From “Prince Vassily did not think out his plan” to “the counts Bezukhov in Petersburg.”
Pierre being duped into the marriage reminds me of Horton being duped into hatching the egg.
“…especially the youngest, the pretty one with the little mole, who often confused Pierre with her smiles and her own confusion on seeing him.”
A near love story crowded out by the army of society people enlisted into capturing Pierre for Hélène. —Yiyun
Prince Vassily’s family is… complicated. His wife “was tormented by envy of her daughter’s happiness.” Hélène’s brother “Anatole was in love with her and she with him, and there was a whole story.”
No wonder Ippolit needs a lorgnette—so much drama. —Yiyun
Reading: . From “The attach of the six chasseurs” to “Bagration’s detachment joined Kutuzov’s army.”
Nikolai throwing the pistol and running as if playing tag: anyone can write about the loss of innocence in a war; Tolstoy writes about the return to innocence. —Yiyun
Tushin in action: “He pictured himself as of enormous size, a mighty man, flinging cannonballs at the French with both hands.”
The difference between a man with an ego and a man without one: Prince Andrei’s superhero fantasy is joyless; Tushin’s, gleeful. —Yiyun
The first snow in the novel: as atmospheric as Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 (Winter’s Dreams); not yet the 1812 Overture. —Yiyun
Reading: . From “On the first of November” to “after the disordered French.”
Perhaps when we say we live in history, it means we live in shared disbeliefs rather than individual ones. —Yiyun
“Prince Andrei smiled involuntarily” in the presence of Captain Tushin. Some people inspire awe. Others, jealousy. The best ones are those who make us behave unlike ourselves. —Yiyun
When Tolstoy writes about the war, he is not only writing about the cannonballs and the bodies, but how people act despite the cannonballs and the bodies—sensibly and near illogically. —Yiyun
Reading: . From “Prince Andrei stayed in Brunn” to “their mutual acquaintance.”
“His thin, drawn, yellowish face was all covered with deep wrinkles, which always looked as neatly and thoroughly washed as one’s fingertips after a bath.”
I don’t understand Tolstoy today. Bilibin is 35, and lives comfortably. Who loans him this face? —Yiyun
Prince Ippolit needs only one gesture. His “examining his raised feet through his lorgnette” is as immortal as when he “stood beside the pretty, pregnant princess and looked at her directly and intently through his lorgnette.” —Yiyun
Anyone can write the horror of a dead horse in a war; Tolstoy makes a dead horse deader. –Yiyun
Reading: . From “The rest of the infantry” to “A long-past, far-off memory.”
Rostov, sent with his colleagues to set fire to the bridge, could not help “because, unlike the other soldiers, he had not brought a plait of straw with him.” One has to have a soft spot for a boy so bravely playing in a man’s game. —Yiyun
Colors are sometimes “muted” or “loud,” but we don’t often see “transparent” used to describe sounds! —Yiyun
“Two hussars wounded and one killed on the spot,” he said with obvious joy, unable to hold back a happy smile, sonorously rapping out the beautiful phrase killed on the spot.”
The first death in the war, giving the colonel a chance to love his own words. —Yiyun
Reading: . From “The Pavlogradsky hussar regiment” to “Put a stick between your legs, that’ll do you for a horse.”
Despite marches, reviews, battles, retreats, tableaus of historical figures and their fictional subordinates, Tolstoy never lets out of sight Prince Andrei and Nikolai Rostov, who carry the chronology of the war between them. –Yiyun
The Russian officers’ approval of the infantrymen ransacking a village, their jokes about violating the nuns: the civilians’ fates are treated with light—almost jesting—touches until the French army enters Russia. –Yiyun
There must be a word in German to describe this effect? The legato of the scenery to the arresting note of the mounted patrols of the enemy, already within sight.— Yiyun
Reading: . From “In October 1805” to “But the cornet turned and left the corridor.”
Just as battles played out in the drawing rooms, the battlegrounds turn themselves into drawing rooms. Kutuzov knows more than anyone that the army is just another soiree, and everyone has to stay predictable. —Yiyun
“You are looking at the unfortunate Mack.”
Tolstoy suspends his narrative omniscience when he wants a character’s entrance to be dramatic. Mack shows up as Natasha does, causing a gasp somewhere. –Yiyun
Reading: . From “At the appointed hour” to “shook his head reproachfully, and slammed the door.”
Every talker stands on the shoulders of a “wordless” character. –Yiyun
Old Prince “flung away his plate, which was deftly caught by Tikhon.”
Some characters need two hundred pages to come alive. Tikhon needs only one line. –Yiyun
Reading: . From “There was no one in the reception room now” to “Go to the dining room.”
The only match for Anna Mikhailovna is Princes Vassily. Such a pity he didn’t court her, but courted her best friend (Countess Rostov) instead. If only they two were a couple—what wouldn’t they have snatched from the world? —Yiyun
“‘Well, aren’t you a fool!’ shouted the prince, shoving the notebook away, but he got up at once, paced about, touched the princess’s hair with his hands.”
Princess Marya is old Prince Bolkonsky’s fool, just as Cordelia is Lear’s fool. —Yiyun
Julia Karagin’s letter saves us from having to read ten more chapters of how Old Count Bezukhov’s will get sorted out. A good gossip is good assistant to a novelist. –Yiyun
Reading: . From “Just as the sixth anglaise was being danced” to “Pierre went out…”
The death of old Count Bezhkhov leads to the first real war in the novel. Bloodless battles are often fought more heartlessly than bloody ones. One feels internally wounded just by reading. —Yiyun
“Outside the house, beyond the gate… undertakers crowded in anticipation of a rich order for the count’s funeral.”
Minor characters that deserve a Chekhov story (like “Rothschild’s Fiddle”) —Yiyun
“He went over to him, took his hand, and pulled it down, as if testing whether it was well attached.”
Prince Vassily’s hands speak more eloquently than his words. —Yiyun
Waiting for his father’s death, twice Pierre is described with both hands on his knees, “in the naive pose of an Egyptian statue.” —Yiyun
Reading: . From “Countess Rostov, with her daughters” to “letting out a long, deep breath and pushing up her sleeves.”
“The most agreeable occupation… was the position of listener, especially when he managed to set two garrulous interlocuters on each other.”
I very much share Rostov’s preference: winding up two jumping frogs is better than being wound up + made to jump. —Yiyun
Berg cheers me up: I hope (?) I haven’t reached a point for Tolstoy to lance me with his words.—Yiyun
“The guests try to guess from these glances who or what they are still waiting for: an important belated relation or a dish that is not ready yet.”
Be late, or be complicated—an encouraging motto for all procrastinators. —Yiyun
The prototype of an Instagrammer? Still, I love that the paragraph ends with “love of knowledge.” And I shiver how Tolstoy makes a character transparent. —Yiyun
Reading: . (From “The countess was so tired…” to “But for both of them they were pleasant tears.”)
“You’ve never loved anybody, you have no heart, you’re just a Madame de Genils,” Natasha says to Vera.
Such an insult to Madame de Genils (a writer, perhaps even a good one!) to be compared to the unloved and loveless Vera.—Yiyun
Mirrors: Boris studied “his handsome face”; Vera “her own beautiful face.” LATER, Moscow burning: “The yard porter stood in front of the big mirror, marveling his smile spreading across his face in the mirror.” His first time to see himself in a mirror!—Yiyun
“Pierre had not managed to choose a career for himself in Petersburg.”
A perfect opening to a short story. —Yiyun
One of the best war strategists in peace time. —Yiyun
One of the most touching moments between two unsympathetic characters. —Yiyun
Prince Andrei married Lise Meinen. Vera’s beau is Berg (who later will take pride of his German lineage.) A question for the knowledgeable people: what is the history of German presence in Russia in late eighteenth century? —Yiyun
Reading: . (From “It was past one o’clock” through “She slowly walked beside him to the sitting room.”
I always think of Paul Lisicky when I read the bear scene. I hope he likes that Pierre (who is called a bear by Prince Andrei) waltzes with a young bear.—Yiyun
My Ukrainian masseuse and I often discuss Tolstoy. Once, I asked her where the bear in the carousing scene came from. She said they must’ve stolen the bear from a circus. I said, Oh, I didn’t think of that.
“What did you think? That bears walk around in Moscow, and they grabbed one off the street?” I thought people would go bear hunting. She said, “In that case, you’d only get a dead bear.”—Yiyun
Countess Rostov had 12 children, but only 4 are alive when the novel opens. Tolstoy only mentions this once (but the lost ones are ever present in what she does).—Yiyun
This is why one likes Pierre. He asks questions everyone wants to dismiss as silly, and yet no one (not even Prince Andrei) can answer them well.—Yiyun
“The sound of several men’s and women’s feet running to the door, the crash of a tripped-over and fallen chair, and a thirteen-year-old girl ran in.”
Tolstoy slyly puts a veil over the omniscience so we are the guests now, not knowing… and waiting to see… Natasha. —Yiyun
Not quite an answer to your question: at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s bed was smaller than my son’s single bed; his desk and chair were minute. He was 5’11” but the chair, very low, didn’t look comfortable enough for anyone over 5’2”.—Yiyun
Reading: . (From “Anna Pavlovna smiled” to “Word of honor!”)
“He did not, as they say, know how to enter a salon, and still less did he know how to leave one.”
Pierre reminds me of Winnie the Pooh, and is as dear to me. —Yiyun
Minor characters in War and Peace are never boring. Tolstoy’s footmen remind me of Rebecca West’s description of a butler: “As a Shakespearean courtier by moving a couple paces away…with an air of withdrawing to another part of the forest.” —Yiyun
What is wrong with Prince Andrei? I never quite understand why he marries Lise. Though I have a feeling Kierkegaard would feel sympathetic. (Plagiarizing myself, from an interview with FinancialTimes.) —Yiyun
Dear Friends, Let’s go—slowly, without rushes, without impatience, without fatigue, without weakness. With some random thoughts from me and many more from you. —Yiyun
“One who sees so much and so well does not need to invent; one who observes imaginatively does not need to create imagination.” —Stefan Zweig on Tolstoy
The skills of a successful soirée hostess—I once told a friend I learned how to host a party from the opening of War and Peace.
“Watching out for an idle spindle or the odd one squealing much too loudly.”
Anna Pavlovna, the hostess, presents the good viscount as a piece of beef. From a dirty kitchen!
Even the best actors lose their confidence! Anna Pavlovna needs the little princess’s support for even the most cliché reply; and the little princess needs an extra prop for her performance.
“Unknown… uninteresting… unnecessary.”
The poor aunt—doesn’t she remind us of Freddy Malin’s mother in Joyce’s “The Dead,” placed at “a remote corner.” In every party there is an unnecessary and inconvenient guest.
One who reads Tolstoy always borrows from him! See Downton Abbey: Prince Vassily loans his surname, Kuragin, to the Russian prince who almost elopes with the Dowager Countess. Kuragin plays chess with his friend Nikolai Rostov, the namesake of Natasha’s brother.
A copy of War and Peace! Any translation will do; I’ll be reading from the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation. To prepare for the start of the book club on Wednesday (and support your local independent bookstore), order your copy (print or e-book) here or here or an audiobook here. Your public library might also have copies (print and e-book) available too. For anyone unable to access a book, a free PDF is available through Project Gutenberg here.
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