#TolstoyTogether 2021 — A daily reading journal

Tolstoy Together September 15, 2021

#TolstoyTogether 2021 is a virtual book club to read War and Peace. From Wednesday, September 8, through Wednesday, December 8, we will be reading Tolstoy's novel alongside Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace with Yiyun Li. For more information on how #TolstoyTogether works, as well as the full reading schedule, click here.

Every morning, Yiyun Li's notes on the day's reading will appear on this page. An overview of the week's conversation will be included in A Public Space's weekly Saturday newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it.

August 3, 2021
Dear Friends,

Paging through Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace—a book about reading Tolstoy's epic novel together last year—I have found myself exclaiming with joy: to experience a novel of multitudes with a multitude of minds.

Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was fortunate to have readers around the world join me for a journey through War and Peace. Tolstoy Together encapsulates that extraordinary experience. In September, when this communal reading journal is published by A Public Space Books, I invite you for an encore book club to read Tolstoy's novel.

Whether you are a first-time reader or a re-reader of War and Peace, whether you were part of last year’s journey or you are new to the endeavor, I hope you will be able to join us. We will read War and Peace along with Tolstoy Together—looking with more than one pair of eyes, and conversing with our fellow observers from last year. It will be like a party of the best kind.

Ever yours,
Yiyun Li

Day 85 | December 8
Epilogue, Part II, ix-xii (THE END). (From “For the solution of the question of freedom and necessity” to “it is just as necessary to renounce a nonexistent freedom and recognize a dependence we do not feel.”)

Dear friends: WE DID IT. AGAIN! We have read slowly, devotionally, miscellaneously, and we have read with our eyes and ears, our memory, our mathematical skills. Thank you for this journey. See you around the corner, out of our free wills.

Day 84 | December 7
Epilogue, Part II, v-viii. (From “The life of peoples cannot be contained” to “from their plastering point of view, everything comes out flat and smooth.”)

Can we indulge ourselves in remembering some of our favorite minor characters? The two girls picking up plums at Bald Hills, the yard porter smiling at himself in the mirror, Tushin, the Rostov cousin with a round face…

Day 83 | December 6
Epilogue, Part II, i-iv. (From “The subject of history is the life of peoples and of mankind” to “we will get the history of monarchs and writers, and not the history of the life of peoples.”)

Part Two of the Epilogue is both frustrating and fascinating. I have always loved all these statements Tolstoy made, and I have loved to make up my own stories to match up with the statements.

“Modern history is like a deaf man, answering questions that no one has asked him.” And yet one could argue that all great writing should be about asking (and perhaps even answering) questions that have not been asked.

Still, let me refrain from theorizing. I decidedly do not accept battle in this case: let the Count go on theorizing.

Day 82 | December 5
Epilogue, Part I, xiv-xvi (end of Part I). (From “Soon after that, the children came to say good night” to “‘I’ll do something that even he would be pleased with…’”)

Political disagreement within the family, highlighted by the extremity of Nikolenka Bolkonsky’s foretelling nightmare: the novel’s ending is full of omens, despite that at the dinner table everyone loves to reminisce about 1812.

A minor thing: I really admire Marya recording her children’s lives in her diary. I have known new mothers wanting to do this for their children (in words rather than with iPhone pics), but new motherhood is taxing enough without this task.

“Pierre has always been and will remain a dreamer,” Nikolai says of Pierre. I love them both at that moment: Pierre, for being a dreamer; Nikolai, for not understanding a dreamer (and forgetting his dreaming years).

Day 81 | December 4
Epilogue, Part I, x-xiii. (From “Natasha was married in the early spring of 1813” to “when the stockings were finished.”)

I must confess I never understand some readerly complaints about Natasha’s domestication. She only focuses on what matters to her and what makes sense to her instead of pleasing others and obeying the “golden rules” of society. That’s happiness.

Pierre continues to have the best effects on people: from servants to family to the orphan Nikolai Bolknosky. But what’s best for Pierre is Natasha: “After seven years of married life, Pierre felt a joyful, firm consciousness that he was not a bad man.”

In this large family combined with several generations of Rostovs and Bolknoskys, we are missing Berg and Vera. I always wonder what they are up to at this moment. And Boris and Julie.

Day 80 | December 3
Epilogue, Part I, vi-ix. (From “At the beginning of winter, Princess Marya came to Moscow” to “which she involuntarily remembered at that moment.”)

Nikolai is a great character who changes: from a gambler to a farmer, from a carouser to a family man, from a teeanger dreaming on the battleground to a father dreaming about his daughter’s future. Yet he’s still himself, lovable and imperfect.

At the height of Nikolai’s family life, we get this rare fast-forward to his death! (Nikolai is partially based on Tolstoy’s father, who died when Tolstoy was nine.)

Long after his death, the pious memory of his management was preserved among the people.

This line, in the middle of a marriage scuffle between Marya and Nikolai, always makes me smile. Tolstoy treats the children as seriously as they treat themselves.

The children were riding to Moscow on chairs and invited her to come with them.

Day 79 | December 2
Epilogue, Part I, i-v. (From “Seven years had passed since 1812” to “that gloomy state of mind which alone enabled him to endure his situation.”)

The epilogue starts in 1819, closer to the 1825 Decembrist Revolt than the war of 1812. Tolstoy was going to write a novel about 1825, for which 1812 was the backstory. I do love that sometimes the backstory becomes the story, then a masterpiece.

“If we allow that human life can be governed by reason, the possibility of life is annihilated.” So is the possibility of literature. Yet why is there this constant, loud, ridiculous demand that a character has to be explicable, likeable, accountable?

Old Count Rostov’s death, like Kutuzov’s, only takes one sentence. I shall miss him with all his tender love and tender flaws.

He unexpectedly died.

Day 78 | December 1
Volume IV, Part IV, xvii-xx (end of Volume IV). (From ““Pierre was taken to the big, well-lit dining room” to “‘Right, Marie? It has to be so….’”)

Oh Pierre: after so many readings, you remain the brightest spot in this novel for me.

I’ve noticed that being an interesting person is very convenient (I’m an interesting person now); people invite me and tell me about myself.

Pierre is still awkward but not embarrassed: awkward in overstaying his welcome, not embarrassed in being deeply in love.

Pierre sat for so long that evening that Princess Marya and Natasha kept glancing at each other, obviously waiting for him to go.

Pierre brings the smile back to Natasha! Sometimes I wonder if I too have a smile on my face for a long time after spending some time with Pierre.

And that same mischievous smile, as if forgotten, remained on her face for a long time.

Day 77 | November 30
Volume IV, Part IV, xii-xvi. (From “Pierre, as most often happens, felt the whole burden” to “‘It’s the first time she’s spoken of him like that.’”)

This is why I love W&P: all characters are endowed with “legitimate peculiarity.”

This legitimate peculiarity of each person, which formerly had troubled and irritated Pierre, now constituted the basis of the sympathy and interest he took in people.

Like a rusty door opening—such a contrast to the Natasha we once knew, and yet it is Natasha, full of light again!

And the face, with its attentive eyes, with difficulty, with effort, like a rusty door opening—smiled.

How I love this description, of Pierre truly being in love, as befuddled as ever.

Pierre looked at the door through which she had gone and could not understand why he was suddenly left all alone in the world.

Day 76 | November 29
Volume IV, Part IV, vi-xi. (From “The fifth of November was the first day” to “And so he died.”)

The galloping horse carrying Kutuzov, galloping for the first time, is the proudest horse of the novel, prouder than the horses that carry Napoleon and the Tsar.

Swinging his whip, he rode off at a gallop for the first time in the whole campaign.

Something to read, or at least some pictures and maps to look at here: NAPOLEON'S RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN OF 181 by Edward Foord (published in 1914)

Kutuzov, unlike old Prince Bolkonsky or old Count Bezukhov who have taken chapters to die, dies in one sentence!

For the representative of the national war there was nothing left but death. And so he died.

Day 75 | November 28
Volume IV, Part IV, i-v. (From “When a man sees a dying animal” to “a lackey has his own idea of greatness.”)

For each reading of these chapters, a different sentence about mourning stands out to me. Today this description of Natasha and Marya feels acutely accurate: death has that effect of total eclipse. And yet no eclipse lasts forever.

Morally bowed down and shutting their eyes to the menacing cloud of death that hung over them, they did not dare to look life in the face.

Petya died after the fate of the war was already decided. How is futility measured?

Kutuzov is my favorite kind of protagonist: complex, not entirely likeable, a reader of fiction, and a writer of letters.

He wrote letters to his daughters and to Mme de Staël, read novels, enjoyed the society of beautiful women…

Day 74 | November 27
Volume IV, Part III, xiii-xix (end of Part III). (From “At noon on the twenty-second, Pierre” to “to threaten, but not to lash the running animal on the head.”)

Page 181 of TOLSTOY TOGETHER: 85 DAYS OF WAR AND PEACE is my MOST favorite page in the book. Last year, while reading day 74’s reading, a baby was born. He is two days short of eighteen months old today. We send our warmest love to him.

Platon refuses to walk on, Pierre refuses to look back at his body under the tree. Only the dog howls. Every time I read this, it feels like the novel places a calm, cold, neither affectionate nor indifferent palm over my feverish mental forehead.

All those French soldiers melting away in the Russian winter! Fortunately, one man among them, Marie-Henri Beyle, survived and became the writer Stendhal. His novel, The Charterhouse of Parma, influenced Tolstoy and War and Peace. ​​

Day 73 | November 26
Volume IV, Part III, vii-xii. (From “Petya, having left his family on their departure from Moscow” to “joyful and calming thoughts, memories, and images that came to him.”)

Remember that day, not long ago, when nine-year-old Petya tried to imitate Denisov and Nikolai on their first leave from the 1805 war? Some children begin their stories with the ending already written out for them.

Vincent, Vesenny, Visenya. Years ago in Stockholm I talked about him, with his feet bare and muddy in the Russian winter. The French drummer boy, I called him. I remembered his name after my son Vincent died. Reading, after all, is living.

Petya’s dreams in the Russian winter. A good soundtrack for that would be Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 1, subtitled Winter Daydreams.

Day 72 | November 25
Volume IV, Part III, i-vi. (From “The battle of Borodino, with the subsequent occupation of Moscow” to “‘Well, tell me about yourself,’ he said.”)

I used to know someone in Beijing, who, in her teenage years, was a guerilla warrior in WWII. She was a grumpy old woman when I knew her, and yelled at us children.

There was Vassilisa, a village headman’s wife, who destroyed hundreds of the French.

Upon meeting Denisov, Petya worries about “the state of his trousers”: of course what separates a man from a boy is the state of his trousers. Tolstoy knows children well!

This late into the war, it is boys like Petya and the French drummer who are breaking our hearts.

He glanced at the captive drummer boy and something stabbed his heart.

Day 71 | November 24
Volume IV, Part II, xiii-xix (end of Part I). (From “In the night of the sixth to seventh of October” to “along their same fatal path to Smolensk.”)

A small detail but the chin strap is the exact manifestation of a transformation from a person to a machine.

The corporal and the soldiers were in field uniform, with knapsacks and shakos with buckled chin straps, which altered their familiar faces.

“Everything that Pierre now saw made almost no impression on him—as if his soul, preparing for a difficult struggle, refused to receive impressions that might weaken it.”
A passage from Moby-Dick, echoing the soaring Pierre.

There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

A historical figure living in Tolstoy’s fictional imagination for one brief moment: Konovnitsyn, woken up by the news of Napoleon’s retreat, “took off his nightcap, combed his side-whiskers, and put on his peaked cap.”

Day 70 | November 23
Volume IV, Part II, viii-xii. (From “Napoleon enters Moscow after the brilliant victory” to “Pierre felt that this view obliged him.”)

Proclamations and public announcements are good tools for novelists. “Historie d’un conscrit de 1813” has a fabulous passage about the Grande Armée’s loss and Napoleon’s health, which is as good as Tolstoy’s writing.

The notice terminated with these words: ‘The health of his Majesty has never been better.’ This was indeed one great consolation to us; unhappily, this consolation could not bring back to life the 300,000 men buried in the snow, and the people went away very, very sad.—Historie d’un conscrit de 1813, Erckmann-Chatrian

That dog, purplish (P/V) or lavender-grey (Briggs), is freedom at its freest state!

Its not belonging to anyone, and the absence of a name and even of a breed, even of a definite color… Everything was an object of pleasure for it.

Dear old Pierre. I love him so much that I cannot help but imagine him losing his freedom again and being exiled to Siberia after the Decembrist Revolt. And yet he would prevail.

All Pierre’s dreams were now turned to the time when he would be free.

Day 69 | November 22
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.”)

Kutuzov may not survive our time; Napoleon fits in nicely.

Napoleon, with his assurance that the good was not what was good but whatever came into his head, wrote to Kutuzov the first words that came into his head, which had no meaning at all.

Odd and yet believable: warfare behaves the same as a love affair.

The secrecy of the undertaking increased its attractiveness.

By now my reader’s immunity is all gone: any sentence about the war hurts; this one, too.

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.

Day 68 | November 21
Volume IV, Part I, xiv-xvi (end of Part I). (From “On receiving from Nikolai the news” to “solemn mystery of death that had been accomplished before them.”)

“Light, impetuous, as if merry footsteps were heard at the door.” To repeat myself, I so love Natasha’s footsteps, a soundtrack of the novel, from her girlhood to womanhood, through love and loss of love and death.

This dream and the lofty sky at Austerlitz bookend Andrei’s existence in the novel.

But in the same instant that he died, Prince Andrei remembered that he was asleep, and in the same instant that he died, he made an effort with himself and woke up.

These gorgeous chapters. When I was younger, I loved them only theoretically and aesthetically. Having sat by the deathbed, having said farewell to the loved ones as Natasha and Marya, I now always tear up when I read Andrei’s death.

Day 67 | November 20
Volume IV, Part I, xi-xiii. (From “From Prince Shcherbatov’s house, the prisoners” to “the value or the meaning of a word or act taken separately.”)

The last man led to the execution “wrapped himself into his smock and scratched his leg with his bare foot.” This reminds me of Natasha kicking off her slippers before the dance. How devastating that we have to live in our bodies till the last moment.

Platon! With his baked potatoes and salt, with his stories and beautiful unawareness of a singing bird. He and Tushin (where art thou, our one-armed friend) are like those old-fashioned hot water bottles, just enough to keep the bitter coldness at bay.

How beautiful. This has the echo of Natasha’s shriek of happiness at Uncle’s house.

He sang songs not as singers do who know they are being listened to, but as birds do, apparently because it was necessary for him to utter those sounds.

Day 66 | November 19
Volume IV, Part I, vi-x. (From “On arriving in Moscow after her meeting with Rostov” to “depriving him of life, everything, annihilating him.”)

The other women before Marya have not given Nikolai such clarity. This must be true love?

“He sensed that the being before him was quite different, and better, than all those he had met till then, and, above all, better than himself.”

Nikolai “could not bear to see an expression of higher spiritual life in men (that was why he did not like Prince Andrei)” but he is attracted to the spiritual depth in Marya. I find that both touchingly real and intriguing.

I always find this sentence chilling: it summarizes many close relationships gone awry.

“That gaze expressed entreaty, and fear of refusal, and shame at having to ask, and a readiness for implacable hatred in case of refusal.”

Day 65 | November 18
Volume IV, Part I, i-v. (From “In Petersburg, in the highest circles, a complex struggle” to “kissing her plump little hand.”)

As Melville writes: “Immortality is but ubiquity in time.” With her soirees throughout the novel, Anna Pavlovna is nearly as immortal as Moby-Dick.

Poor Hélène! No one in Petersburg society seems to mourn her death genuinely or miss her marble-like shoulders. To be so beautiful and yet dispensable and replaceable, what a tragedy.

Heading into the reunion with Marya, Nikolai jokes about abducting someone else’s wife, as though he is getting himself ready for the role of a cad like Ippolit before his meeting with Marya.

Day 64 | November 17
Volume III, Part III, xxx-xxxiv (end of Volume III). (From “The glow of the first fire” to “Pierre was placed separately under strict guard.”)

Natasha’s will to stay awake to see Andrei: Nikolai falls asleep patrolling; Kutuzov falls asleep listening to the battle plans; now everyone is asleep, but she, just as on the night she first met Andrei, is wide awake, hearing the whole world humming.

That triumphant cricket sings while Moscow is burning down: in P/V, “As if celebrating a victory over everyone, a cricket chirped in a crack.” In Briggs, “A cricket chirped in a cranny, as if he was king of the world.” The cricket king!

Pierre saves a little girl from the fire! How I love that despite his being consistently himself, he still has much to surprise us.

Day 63 | November 16
Volume III, Part III, xxvi-xxix. (From “Towards four o’clock in the afternoon” to “lay down on the sofa and fell asleep at once.”)

The French soldiers “made fires and, with their sleeves rolled up, baked, kneaded, and cooked, frightened, amused, and fondled the women and children.”
An astonishing sentence with all the verbs, with kneaded bread and fondled women next to each other.

Dagger or pistol? Even in his daydream of assassinating Napoleon and saving all of Europe, Pierre, with his habitual indecisiveness, gets entangled in small details.

Captain Ramballe, Pierre’s new French friend, “wrapped the bottle to the neck in a napkin, and poured wine for himself and for Pierre.” Such incongruity with the world around, but the Frenchman’s attitude toward the wine bottle moves me.

Day 62 | November 15
Volume III, Part III, xxii-xxv. (From “The city itself, meanwhile, was empty” to “began shouting and dispersing the clustering carts.”)

For over a decade I’ve never stopped thinking about the yard porter Ignat, who, seeing his face for the first time in the mirror, smiles with such delight. The pure joy of knowing (for a reader) that he is made immortal by Tolstoy’s attention!

Along with Ignat is the boy Mishka, who plays on the clavichord with one finger, also for the first time in his life. What would a reader not give to hear the tune he is trying to pick out on the unfamiliar keyboard.

Count Rastopchin, having committed the most abominable atrocity, goes on to write his memoir, and we know with certainty that he has not saved a single line for Ignat and Mishka.

Day 61 | November 14
Volume III, Part III, xvii-xxi. (From “Towards two o’clock the Rostovs’ four carriages” to “the troops were now moving forward.”)

One of my favorite sentences from the novel: a monumental anticlimax.

Napoleon, “tired of vainly waiting and sensing with his actor’s intuition that the majestic moment, having gone on too long, was beginning to lose its majesty.”

Moscow as an abandoned beehive: Tolstoy, who was a dedicated beekeeper, makes me feel as lost, cold, and listless as the bees.

Today is a good day to mention one of my favorite novels: The Death of a Beekeeper, by Lars Gustafsson, tr. by Janet K. Swaffar and Guntram H. Weber. Opening line: “Kind readers. Strange readers. We begin again. We never give up.”

Day 60 | November 13
Volume III, Part III, xii-xvi. (From "The Rostovs remained in the city" to "tried to take along as much as possible.")

While Moscow is evacuating, Berg is negotiating a deal to buy furniture, borrowing manpower from his father-in-law, and sending both Count Rostov and Natasha into a screaming rage. There should be a special mental state of equilibrium called BEING BERG.

Superb chapters of packing/repacking/unpacking/loading wounded soldiers. All the characters, from Natasha, Sonya, the count and countess to the servants and valets, are at their best as characters. Impending doom makes Tolstoy write at his best!

The servants traveling with the Rostovs were “armed by Petya, with daggers and swords” (P/V); “armed to the teeth with swords and daggers issued by Petya” (Briggs). Both are great translations, each breaking my heart with its childlike glee.

Day 59 | November 12
Volume III, Part III, vi-xi. (From "Hélène, having returned with the court" to "saw any more of Pierre or knew where he was.")

Perhaps the news of Anatole hasn’t reached his family? The Kuragins are terrible and terribly fascinating: Hélène’s mother is “tormented by envy of her daughter” and she regretted not being able to leave her husband, Prince Vassily, when she was young.

After Borodino, the quietness of the courtyard is delicious: “Some pigeons above Pierre’s head, in the dark under the wooden eaves, were roused by the movement he made as he raised himself.” It’s almost as though Pierre is one of those pigeons!

There must be a special hell where one has to live with all the propaganda writers.

“An ax would be a good thing, a spear wouldn’t be bad, but a pitch-fork would be best: a Frenchman is no heavier than a sheaf of rye.”

Day 58 | November 11
Volume III, Part III, i-v. (From "For human reason, absolute continuity" to "enormous current of people which carried him along with it.")

Today’s reading: on history and calculus; the mathematics of history; the history of mathematics. What a reprieve from yesterday. I couldn’t eat after yesterday’s reading; today I feel hungry from all the intellectual exercise.

Kutuzov’s reaction to all the people talking: “He turned away with a look of disappointment, as if what they were speaking about was not at all what he wished to know.” In one of the readings I wrote in the margin: “Ha, same here!”

What a great character Malasha is, observing the historical figures, even understanding Kutuzov’s pain, “it was as if he was about to cry.” A child is more sensitive to the pains that would make another human being cry.

Day 57 | November 10
Volume III, Part II, xxxvi-xxxix (end of Part II). (From "Prince Andrei's regiment was in the reserves" to "the hand of an adversary stronger in spirit.")

The little brown dog with a stiffly raised tail: is your name also Pierre, and have you also wandered into this butcher ground while daydreaming about something?

Tolstoy always saves the space for the animals in a human story.

The horses were eating oats from their nosebag, and sparrows flew down to them, pecking up the spilled grains. Crows, scenting blood, crowing impatiently, flew about in the birches.

I love that this sentence, starting with a broad view, sweeps through the inhuman beauty of nature and inanimate objects and ends with the only human fact: blood.

Over the whole field, once so gaily beautiful, with its gleaming bayonets and puffs of smoke in the morning sun, there now hung the murk of dampness and smoke and the strangely acidic smell of saltpeter and blood.

Day 56 | November 9
Volume III, Part II, xxxiii-xxxv. (From "The main action of the battle of Borodino" to "vacillating men were comforted and reassured.")

The Battle of Borodino was the bloodiest single day in the history of warfare until WWI. What does it mean? We hardly have an idea now. 68,000 killed and wounded in about nine hours, which makes the rate of loss two lives per second.

The Battle of Borodino, fought in the open, in P/V translation: “the main action of the battle took place in the most simple, artless way.” Briggs: “...in the simplest, most unsophisticated manner.” Rather like that shocking adjective: artless.

Actions, again in two translations. P/V: “They appeared, fell, fired, collided…” Briggs: “They surged forward, fell, fired their guns, fought hand to hand…” The latter gives a much more vivid picture of the battleground.

Day 55 | November 8
Volume III, Part II, xxix-xxxii. (From “Having returned from a second preoccupied ride” to “a straining man crying out with his last strength.”)

Two thirds into the novel, the beginning of a battle, this time Borodino, is still written with such chilling beauty.

The sound of the first shots still hung in the air when others rang out, more and more, merging and interrupting each other.

The best quality of Pierre is how he makes others feel toward him, despite their initial judgmental attitude toward him. In today’s reading, it’s this little family of officers and soldiers who try to keep Pierre safe under the cannonballs.

“Am I taken prisoner, or have I taken him prisoner?” I often ask myself this question. The opponent in question, depending on the day, can be any of the following: a complicated cake recipe; a novel or a story I’m working on; or, a dark mood.

Day 54 | November 7
Volume III, Part II, xxv-xxviii. (From "The officers wanted to take their leave" to "worthily fulfilled his role of seeming to command.")

The farewell between Andrei and Pierre: some of the best novels about wars are never shy away from foreshadowing. The impact remains the same.

Napoleon, facing his son’s portrait, “felt that what he said and did now—was history.” “One gesture from him—and everyone went out on tiptoe, leaving the great man alone with his feelings.” Gestures from Napoleon are always for posterity.

Napoleon orders the portrait taken away: I don’t know if this quote and such a majestic gesture were recorded by historians or fabricated by Tolstoy. In either case, it’s one of the most memorable moments of the novel.

“Take him away,” he said, pointing to the portrait with a gracefully majestic gesture. “It is still too early for him to look upon a field of battle.”

Day 53 | November 6
Volume III, Part II, xx-xxiv. (From “On the morning of the twenty-fifth" to "’They'd gone to the estate outside Moscow.’")

Pierre in his white hat and green frock coat: such an odd figure on the battlefield. He reminds me of my army year, when a girl in a red shirt and white skirt appeared on the drill ground. Such an alien sight; we forgot we could’ve been her.

The singing soldiers and the marching troupe: really over the top kitsch that still can move me to near tears. We used to march to a song with this refrain—“march forward to Warsaw, march bravely comrades”—good for Napoleonic times.

“One reads all books on the Napoleonic period with one eye continually jumping forward to the present,” wrote V. S. Pritchett during WWII. Indeed, all the great books lead us to the present.

Day 52 | November 5
Volume III, Part II, xvi-xix. (From “'Well, that's all now!' said Kutuzov" to "three hours from total destruction and flight.")

Kutuzov: “I’ve been reproached a good deal, both for the war and for the peace.” Public opinions are very good at creating impossible situations.

Kutuzov: “My dear boy, there’s nothing stronger than those two warriors, patience and time.” Patience and time: the two best words in this big novel. Congratulations to all who have made it so far in this journey: patience and time!

“The ancients left us examples of heroic poems in which heroes constitute the entire interest of history, and we still cannot get used to the fact that, for our human time, history of this sort has no meaning.” Still, heroes are created all the time…

Day 51 | November 4
Volume III, Part II, xi-xv. (From “An hour later Dunyasha came to the princess" to "'Oh, German scrupulosity!' he said, shaking his head.")

Nikolai and Marya instantly imagine romance upon meeting; neither mentions the broken engagement between Andrei and Natasha. This has always struck me as the smartest move on both sides and perhaps the moment I admire them both the most.

Lavrushka, who fooled Napoleon a few chapters ago, fools the muzhiks this time by pretending to call “our boys from over the hill.” What a great character, who appears only twice in the novel and shines both times. The best supporting actor of the week.

Oh the moment when we listen to Andrei’s exchange with the hussar lieutenant! And recognize Denisov by his speech! At my first reading, I put “Denisov!” in the margin, and have since added many exclamation marks.

Day 50 | November 3
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.")

A little more than halfway through the novel, another old man’s death, full of helplessness, which echoes the death of old Count Bezukhov from the beginning. Tolstoy never shies away from writing the painful, sometimes endless, process of dying.

After old Prince Bolkonsky’s death, people crowded around the coffin “as horses shy, crowd, and snort over a dead horse.” Of all the words about grieving, somehow this moment of animals grieving feels most devastating.

Yakov Alpatych’s great managing skill: “The main means of getting people to obey consisted in not showing them any suspicion that they might not obey.” I do, too, pretend to my characters that I have little uncertainty about their fates.

Day 49 | November 2
Volume III, Part II, v-vii. (From “From Smolensk the troops continued to retreat" to "He gave Lavrushka another horse and took him along”)

“Baggage trains and artillery went noiselessly” in the dust: this feels supernaturally eerie, and reminds me that despite their massive size, elephants can walk almost noiselessly; the soft padding on the underside of their feet absorbs the noise.

All those bodies in the pond, merrily flopping: this moment feels as though it’s caught in a kaleidoscope of moods. Depending how one turns the scope, this could be the most cheerful scene; and, turning again, this becomes incredibly sad.

The episode of Lavrushka clowning in front of Napoleon feels like a nice double layer cake, with fiction set on top of history.

Day 48 | November 1
Volume III, Part II, i-iv. (From “Napoleon started the war with Russia" to "he spurred his horse and rode down the lane.")

Julie, now married to Boris, writes patriotically in Russian to Marya, her letters a contrast to her letters to Marya in 1805. Whenever the war escalates, there is Julie, one of those Tolstoyan minor characters with strategic roles in the novel.

Berg has a knack for showing up at the wrong time, in the wrong place, kept afloat by his ego, which is as secure and conspicuous as a Zeppelin (Berg is, like a Zeppelin, German after all!)

Old Bolkonsky, in the ONLY true flashback in the entire novel, remembers being a young general, being a favorite of the mother-empress, then her body, and his “clash with Zubov, who then stood by her coffin, over his right to go up and kiss her hand.”

Day 47 | October 31
Volume III, Part I, xix-xxiii (end of Part I). (From "Since the day when Pierre, leaving the Rostovs'" to "astonished at what they had done.")

Petya’s elbows sticking out to make way, his knees on an old woman, his well-combed hair, sweat-soaked collar, pale complexion, teary voice: so rarely do we get a chapter that devotes itself to a young life with many body parts. Oh Petya, don’t go.

The danger of speaking French publicly now: this argues for P/V’s approach to keep the court and society dialogues in French in the first half. Languages—French and Russian—are distinctive characters in the novel.

Count Rostov to Pierre, about Natasha: “And this girl of mine is only cheerful when you’re here…” A nice moment when Count Rostov steps in as a mirror to reflect a fact that neither Natasha nor Pierre is able to show us.

Day 46 | October 30
Volume III, Part I, xiii-xviii. (From "In an abandoned tavern" to "'And it seemed to her that God heard her prayer.")

After goofing off around a woman, the officers lay down. P/V translation: “but for a long time they did not sleep.” Briggs: “But sleep didn’t come.” The latter reminds me of Auden’s The Shield of Achilles (“And could not hope for help and no help came”)

Detail in a long battle scene—Tolstoy’s signature of seeing the world with a hundred eyes: as Rostov and colleagues charge at the enemy, “one riderless horse mingled with the hussars” (P/V) or “a riderless horse joined in with the charging hussars.”

Tolstoy seen through a physicist’s eyes! I have often thought about this from Margaret Harris from TOLSTOY TOGETHER, 85 DAYS OF WAR AND PEACE.

Day 45 | October 29
Volume III, Part I, ix-xii. (From "Prince Andrei arrived in the general headquarters" to "'Here. What lightning!' they said to each other.")

“Pfuel was one of those hopelessly, permanently, painfully self-assured men as only Germans can be.” Tolstoy really did not like the Germans! But any personal trait that deserves those three adverbs is… something.

I shall command no one!

“A good commander not only does not need genius or any special qualities, but, on the contrary, he needs the absence of the best and highest human qualities—love, poetry, tenderness, a searching philosophical doubt.”

Rostov’s promise to marry Sonya cannot be realized because of the war. Reminding me of Grace Paley’s story “Want.” Life’s only reliable trait is to offer ceaseless interruptions.

Day 44 | October 28
Volume III, Part I, vi-viii. (From “Accustomed though Balashov was" to "presented themselves to Prince Andrei one after the other.")

Napoleon says to Balashov: “What I can’t understand is that the emperor Alexander made all these personal enemies of mine his intimates.” An extremely humorless character saying something extraordinarily funny unintentionally. Why indeed, M. Bonaparte?

The best parenthetical in the novel! Also, days AND nights?

When news of the war with Napoleon reached Bucharest (where Kutuzov had been staying for two months, spending the days and nights with his Wallachian woman), Prince Andrei asked…

In the draft stage, early readers (including Tolstoy’s wife) found Andrei an unsatisfactory character. Tolstoy’s response: “It is true he is tedious, monotonous, merely un homme comme il faut… But it is not his fault, it is mine.”

Day 43 | October 27
Volume III, Part I, i-v. (From "Since the end of the year 1811" to "Alexander had sent him off.")

We layreaders of history “can contemplate events with unobscured common sense” (P/V translation), or: “can review events with unclouded common sense” (Briggs). I love “common sense” in both translations; and love “unclouded” more than “unobscured.”

The tragicomedy of war: “Some forty uhlans drowned in the river” while crossing the Niemen to show their “excessive zeal,” only to realize Napoleon, the sole audience for this performance, has left during intermission and skipped the grand finale.

The French are crossing the Niemen while the Russians are dancing; Balashov is kept waiting for four days and is received by Napoleon in the same house from which Alexander had sent him off as the messenger. History is better at plotting than novelists!

Day 42 | October 26
Volume II, Part V, xviii-xxii (end of Volume II). (From "Marya Dmitrievna, finding the weeping Sonya" to "now blossoming into new life.")

Natasha is a rare character: everyone else finds someone to blame for any situation gone wrong; she blames no one but herself.

“She sobbed with that despair with which people weep only over a grief of which they feel themselves the cause.”

The whole Bolkonsky household behaves abjectly toward Natasha (and her father). They don’t deserve her! (Natasha is modeled on Tolstoy’s sister-in-law, Tanya, who was a passionate young woman and who once attempted suicide because of heartbreak.)

The comet of 1812, and these priceless words Pierre has said to Natasha: the end of today’s reading is one of my most favorite pages in the novel. (That’s my comment from last round, on April 28, 2020.)

Day 41 Day 41 | October 25
Volume II, Part V, xiv-xvii. (From "Morning came with its cares" to "ran back with him to the troika.")

Marya states in her letter that her old and ailing father “ought to be excused” (P/V translation); in Briggs: “allowances have to be made for him.” The latter infuriates me more: so much injustice is a result of making allowances for the wrong people.

Dolokhov’s scheme to help Anatole abduct Natasha is thwarted by Sonya. Round one, she rejects his proposal; round two, she saves her friend from his friend. Two battles won by this modest heroine in the domestic war of lust.

I’m feeling dark today, so this thought may be unfair to Andrei: is there a fundamental difference between his love for Natasha and Anatole’s lust for her? They both choose her because she is fresh, pure, and unlike all the other society women.

Day 40 | October 24
Volume II, Part V, ix-xiii. (From "The stage consisted of flat boards" to "no answers to these terrible questions.")

“She wanted to touch a little old man who was sitting not far away with her fan, then to lean over to Hélène and tickle her.”
Natasha is the only character who has this odd urge to tickle Hélène. Certainly the marble-like woman would feel nothing!

A very nice moment from TOLSTOY TOGETHER: 85 DAYS OF WAR AND PEACE, with two comments on the opera chapter.

The alienating effects of the opera on Natasha are reproduced in a Mavis Gallant story, “New Year’s Eve,” in which a Canadian girl attends a Soviet opera, unable to understand anything. “Most lives are wasted. All are shortchanged. A few are tragic.”

Day 39 | October 23
Volume II, Part V, v-viii. (From “Boris had failed to marry" to "Natasha also began to look.")

Boris romancing Julie: Tolstoy seems to have a teasing affection toward the very rich, the very mediocre, and the very soulless of his characters. He skewers them but not ruthlessly; perhaps they cannot stand his scrutiny as Andrei and Pierre can.

Translating puns: in P/V, the French dressmaker, Mme Aubert-Chalmet, is jokingly called Over-Shameless (a play on the Russian pronunciation, explained in the endnote); Briggs rechristened her Suzie Pascal and nicknamed her Saucy Rascal.

Still on translation, in P/V, Mlle Bourienne meets Natasha and Count Rostov “especially courteously”; in Briggs, Mlle Bourienne meets the guests “with flamboyant politeness.” The latter is much more strikingly Bourienne!

Day 38 | October 22
Volume II, Part V, i-iv. (From “After the engagement" to "try to get the old prince used to her.")

Inspired by Tolstoy (who kept a pair of dumbbells in his study) and Levin (a Pierre-alike in Anna Karenina, who pumps his dumbbells when frustrated), I make my dumbbells the go-to distraction from all the insoluble problems.

It was too frightening to be under the burden of all the insoluble questions of life, and he gave himself to the first amusements that came along.

Ubiquitous Boris! He finds his way to Hélène’s drawing room as well as to old Prince Bolkonsky’s dinner table. Few characters in War and Peace have achieved such a chameleon epitome.

Bravo, bravo for Pierre, who makes Princess Marya, who is well versed in her self-deception, blurt out such a genuine sentence.

“Ah, my God, Count, there are moments when I’d marry anybody!”

Day 37 | October 21
Volume II, Part IV, ix-xiii (end of Part IV). (From “Christmastime came" to "went to Moscow at the end of January.")

The governesses are my kind of characters: the holiday festivities and ennuis are only icing on this cake of life, which is all about economics.

The governesses were discussing whether it was cheaper to live in Moscow or in Odessa.

The Rostov siblings’ “conversation had gone on to dreams,” followed by Natasha’s singing. She is the only character who can transport multiple characters, drastically different, to their individual private world of dreams.

The horses “churning up the snow, compact and sparkling like sugar”—one last moment of fairy tale for all the Rostovs before the ugly reality of money catches up with them.

Day 36 | October 20
Volume II, Part IV, vi-viii. (From “The old count rode home" to "Things were not cheerful in the Rostovs' house.")

The hunting day—the miniature warfare of the chase, Natasha’s joyful shriek, the Rostov siblings’ visit to Uncle’s house, the feast—is one of the most gorgeous episodes in the novel. One imagines Tolstoy feeling smug having written this.

That wonderful red dog, Rugai. Just the dog for Uncle. Last year, someone adopted a dog during our reading and named him Rugai. I still think about the dog from time to time.

Today’s reading ends with: “Things were not cheerful in the Rostovs’ house.” So much writing is to speak the unspeakable, though once in a while a one-line paragraph like this, speaking the speakable, makes me want to shriek too with happiness.

Day 35 | October 19
Volume II, Part IV, i-v. (From “Biblical tradition says that absence of work" to "shyly smiled his childishly meek and pleasant smile.")

Before hunting, in Briggs: “when the hunters met they decided to rest the dogs for three days”; in P/V: “at a general council of hunters it was decided to give the dogs a three-day rest.” Love the latter, echoing the general council of war.

Tolstoy’s wonderful attention to a young dog among the high-speed excitement of the hunt. The entangled dog is a canine edition of Nikolai at his first battle.

Semyon...bent down to straighten the leash in which a young dog had become entangled.

Count Rostov, once the hunting master and now giving way to Nikolai: ”wrapped in his fur coat, sitting in his saddle, he had the look of a child made ready to go for a walk.” The moment when childhood and old age meet, in that singular image.

Day 34 | October 18
Volume II, Part III, xxii-xxvi (end of Part III). (From “"The next day Prince Andrei went to the Rostovs'" to "she loved her father and her nephew more than God.")

This precarious moment between girlhood and womanhood—Graham Greene has a stunning line in The Power and the Glory: “The child stood in her woman’s pain.”

Her tears were the tears of an offended child who does not know why it is being punished.

His laugh is no longer the shrill, cold, grating laugh we have associated with him thus far. Love unveils and reveals!

She especially liked to hear and see how Prince Andrei laughed.

Andrei tells Sonya to seek advice from Pierre in the case of an emergency: that’s a man understanding the friendship between the two girls and the friendship between two men!

Day 33 | October 17
Volume II, Part III, xvi-xxi. (From "Suddenly everything stirred" to "and Berg drew Pierre into it.")

History (with a capital H) and personal story placed next to each other, barely touching: Natasha’s unawareness of the political, diplomatic, and societal intrigues around her while she dances blissfully is one of the finest moments in the novel.

An astonishing yet inevitable shift: Andrei, having fallen in love, looks at the world through Pierre’s eyes.

“Pierre was right when he said that one must believe in the possibility of happiness in order to be happy.”

Vera “mentioning our time as limited people like to do, supposing that they have discovered and appreciated the particularities of our time and that people’s qualities change with time.” This is why I never trust “timely” as a good quality for art.

Day 32 | October 16
Volume II, Part III, xi-xv. (From “The financial affairs of the Rostovs" to "the way he does with these ladies.")

I cannot help but feel tender toward Berg, whose taste is blatantly different from many, when he praises Vera as sensible and beautiful while calling Natasha “unpleasant.” As we say in Chinese, each flower pleases a different pair of eyes.

Natasha’s observation of Boris—”he’s so narrow, like a dining-room clock”—inspires me to think of other people as other clocks, some with birds cooing; some with people in fancy costumes waltzing; and some, an oval egg timer.

Mirrors! Natasha, dressed in white, cannot quite see herself clearly in the mirror. In Anna Karenina, Kitty, dressed in pink, studies herself in the mirror. Both girls’ fates will be changed at the ball, where they are their most beautiful selves.

Day 31 | October 15
Volume II, Part III, vi-x. (From "During the initial time of his stay in Petersburg" to "if Thou forsakest me altogether.")

Such a fantasy! In my previous readings I often felt critical of Andrei, perhaps for the reason that he is a good mirror to reflect my own fallacies.

He wanted so much to find in someone else the living ideal of that perfection for which he strove.

The fraught reunion between Pierre and Hélène is summarized in one stroke in Pierre’s diary. A good enough line to open a short story.

“I am living with my wife again.”

If this is a theater, it must be one hosting only second-rate productions. Hélène seems to lack Anna Pavlovna’s ability to host thrilling drawing-room battles.

He came into his wife’s drawing room as into a theater...

Day 30 | October 14
Volume II, Part III, i-v. (From "In 1808 the emperor Alexander went" to "trying not to be noticed, left the room.")

I like that Andrei’s aspirations keep changing, and this one, closest to my heart, is to be overwritten too.

“... no need for him to start anything, that he had to live out his life without doing evil, without anxiety, and without wishing for anything.”

One of the most romantic moments in W&P, with moonlight behind the shuttered window of Andrei’s room. The moonlight, in P/V translation, “burst into the room”; in Briggs, “poured into the room.” Both are good: one feels explosive, the other liquidy.

The best moments of Andrei’s life, in his memory, are listed as the sky at Austerlitz, his wife dying, Pierre on the ferry, and Natasha: the glory of fame and death moving aside for friendship and love. (I nearly forgot how much he loves Pierre!)

Day 29 | October 13
Volume II, Part II, xvi-xxi (end of Part II). (From "In the month of October" to "’Hey, you! Another bottle!’ he shouted.”)

What an utterly great joy to see Tushin again, even if one’s heart aches for his lost arm.

The glove is a major prop for Napoleon.

“Bonaparte began to remove the glove from his small white hand, tore it, and threw it down.”

Napoleon's gloves, from Biblioteca Ambrosiana

Boris monitors and times the two emperors’ meeting: he is the kind of character who, through ambition and calculation, manages to turn himself into a footnote of history.

Day 28 | October 12
Volume II, Part II, xi-xv. (From “Returning from his southern journey” to “Rostov noticed tears in Denisov’s eyes.”)

The precarious friendships between men: the reunion between Andrei and Pierre is a contrast to the reunion between Nikolai and Boris. Andrei and Pierre, though disagreeing, still love each other; the two younger men part with contempt for each other.

The affection and protection Denisov shows toward Nikolai and the entire Rostov family—friendship between men is always a bright moment in this novel.

"It’s your cghrazy Ghrostov bghreed.”

Two entries from Day 28 of TOLSTOY TOGETHER: 85 DAYS OF WAR AND PEACE, from Matt Gallagher and Megan Cummins, both touching comments on friendship between men.

Day 27 | October 11
Volume II, Part II, viii-x. (From “The war was heating up” to “that is, all they could.”)

The wars begin with letters: Julie’s letter to Marya in Part I, and here, Bilibin’s letter to Andrei, which summarizes the background of the war and advances the novel quickly.

Pierre’s reception in Kiev, in P/V translation: “strangers hastened to make the acquaintance”; in Briggs: “unacquainted persons moved quickly to make themselves acquainted.” Rather love the latter!

Pierre “still lived the same life as before, only in different surroundings”—I may have been thinking of him (and myself) when I wrote this in DEAR FRIEND: “Altered sceneries are at best distractions, or else new settings for old habits.”

Day 26 | October 10
Volume II, Part II, iv-vii. (From “Soon after that, it was not the rhetor” to “an intimate of Countess Bezukhov’s house.”)

I so love that Pierre’s Masonic guides, solemn, theatrical, are full of “perplexity and confusion” as to how the protocol goes. The stricter a script is, the less improvising space is left for the actors, the more they tend to blunder!

If the characters are writers, Boris is one who hones his craft into perfection and yet has not a single fresh idea; no wonder Tolstoy gives Nikolai, Ippolit, Pierre, and the other imperfect storytellers more space when they struggle to tell a story.

Today’s TOLSTOY TOGETHER (p. 65 of the book), a montage of ten characters' smiles in War and Peace so far, is absolutely delightful and smile-inducing.

Day 25 | October 9
Volume II, Part II, i-iii. (From “After his talk with his wife” to “with joy and tender feeling.”)

The Freemason chapters are rather a slog, for an interesting reason: Tolstoy is superb at seeing things and looking for models in real life for his characters. Having no experience with the Freemasons, he wrote these chapters entirely based on research.

Shall we refresh our memory to a moment when Pierre is engaged in a more interesting way with the space around him? Our friend Annie Coggan generously made a sketch of the Bezukhov drawing room, where Pierre likes to watch people in the mirrors.

Pierre remembered very well this small, round drawing room with its mirrors and little tables. During balls at the count's house, Pierre, who danced poorly, liked to sit in this little room of mirrors and watch how ladies in ball gowns, with diamonds and pearls on their bare shoulders, passing through this room, looked at themselves in the brightly lit mirrors, which repeated their reflection several times.

Day 24 | October 8
Volume II, Part I, xi-xvi (end of Part I). (From “On the third day of Christmas” to “which was already in Poland.”)

Talking houses! Rostovs’ house says: “Seize the moments of happiness, make them love you, fall in love yourself!” It reminds me of the house speaking in D. H. Lawrence’s The Rocking-Horse Winner: “There must be more money! There must be more money!”

The only two characters who share this sentiment seem to be Natasha and her father. Pierre aspires to be in love with everyone; Andrei doesn’t want to be in love with anyone.

She was not in love with anyone in particular, but with everyone.

Gambling in Tolstoy’s diary, Jan 28, 1855: “Played for two days and nights. The result is understandable—the loss of everything… I’m so disgusted with myself that I’d like to forget about my experience.” At least he made use of the debt and loss.

Day 23 | October 7
Volume II, Part I, v-x. (From “‘Well, begin!’ said Dolokhov” to “dinners, evening parties, and balls.”)

Little Princess preparing for a new life: in P/V translation, “with that special expression of an inward and happily serene gaze that only pregnant women have”; in Briggs, “with that pregnant woman’s special look of inner peace and contentment.”

The beginning of labor is as suspenseful as the beginning of battle. Birth, in P/V translation: “The mystery, the most solemn in the world, continued to be accomplished”; in Briggs: “The world’s most solemn mystery was now being slowly enacted.”

Dolokhov’s philosophy: “I have never yet met any women who weren’t bought–whether countesses or kitchen maids.” He has deceived almost everyone around the Rostovs, but not Natasha, who finds him “wicked and unfeeling.” Very good instinct!

Day 22 | October 6
Volume II, Part I, i-iv. (From “At the beginning of 1806” to “Everyone was silent.”)

Tolstoy captures that moment in youth when confronted by this jarring truth: much of what is going on in the world has little to do with what happens to you.

The house stood as immobile, unwelcoming, as if it cared nothing for the one who had arrived.

What an ending to the chapter, with Andrei’s fate dropped among the festivities: “Of Bolkonsky nothing was said, and only those who knew him closely regretted that he had died early, leaving his pregnant wife with his eccentric father.”

Moscow’s English Club boasted a huge library of European periodicals, and its cuisine was considered the best in 19th-century Russia. When I visited Moscow in 2017, there was an exhibition there for the centennial of the 1917 revolutions.

Day 21 | October 5
Volume I, Part III, xvii-xix (end of Volume I). (From “At nine o’clock” to “handed over to the care of the local inhabitants.”)

Back to the double helix narrative of the war: Andrei, who has served as our eyes through his movements, has fallen; Nikolai takes over the surveying task, going through battles, retreats, and meeting the frightened emperor, fleeing awkwardly.

The cannonballs smacking down onto the dam “where for so many years an old miller in a cap used to sit peacefully with his fishing rods…”: horses, humans, ice, water, flesh, blood all become one reality. One of the most chilling moments so far.

One moment of brightness: Napoleon orders Andrei to be sent to his doctor, Larrey. An important innovator in battlefield medicine and triage, Dominique Jean Larrey is considered the first modern military surgeon.

Day 20 | October 4
Volume I, Part III, xiv-xvi. (From “At five o’clock in the morning” to “‘And thank God!’…”)

“The sovereign looked fixedly and attentively into Kutuzov’s eyes.” A nondescript sentence, but it stops me every time I read it. I wonder if the emperor fixes his look on Kutuzov’s eye that still has sight, or the blind one.
Follow-up note: Briggs did not mention eyes here: “The Tsar continued to look steadily at Kutuzov.”

Napoleon taking “the glove from his beautiful white hand” before giving the signal to start the action; Kutuzov “pressing the handkerchief to his wounded cheek”: how I love war is not just about sabers and cannons, but also soft, personal belongings.

“How is it I haven’t seen this lofty sky before?” Andrei’s question always makes me reread the last line of Moby-Dick: “It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing chil

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