I am slowly, very slowly, making my way through Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It’s a daunting task, one I’ve started before, but this time I’m determined to make it. Still, several factors make this difficult.
First, the names. There are more than 500 characters in War and Peace, most of them bearing names like Anya Dmitriovronsky Putinsvetlanaskayaverarovich (who should not be confused with Anya Dmitriovronsky Rasputinsputnikskaya) and, well, the head hurts within a remarkably short period of time.
Second, the dinner soirees. This was Russia in the early 19th century. It was cold and bleak, and they didn’t have the Internet or superhero movies. So, really, what else could they do but eat and drink? Still, these counts and countesses yammer on about the most inconsequential things, all the while sipping their port and Madeira, curtseying and bowing and scraping and observing labyrinthine and inscrutable rules of etiquette that I don’t begin to understand.
Third, the insufferable meekness and docility of the women. I know it’s wrong to read one’s contemporary culture into a work from the distant past. Russian women of this time weren’t out there in front of the White Palace burning their bras and smoking ciggies and agitating for control of their own uteruses (uterii?) But can we have just a little spark of life from the women? Just a little? Something more than mouselike peeping accompanied by curtseying? Please.
Fourth, the daunting history. Before tackling War and Peace, again, I slogged through a massive history of the Napoleonic Wars. I am as ready as I am ever going to be, and I now understand, sort of, the intrigues that surrounded the assassination of the Duc d’Enghien and Czar Alexander’s abortive alliance with the Prussians. But this stuff is still about as invigorating as reading Livy and Tacitus, but the names are harder to pronounce and remember.
Fifth, the French. As in the language, not the people. I understand that all good, hip, cultivated Russians in the early 19th century spoke French. It was their equivalent of buying Deerhoof and Vampire Weekend albums. But there are times when the French runs on, untranslated, for line after line, as in “Comrade, pass the borscht, and la Police et les Jésuites ont la vertu de ne jamais abandonner ni leurs ennemis ni leurs amis.” My thoughts exactly. Look, those two painful quarters of college French were a long, long time ago. I am going to struggle with anything more complicated than “Frere Jacques, frere Jacques, dormez vous.” It is, to put it mildly, la challenge.
So I’m creeping along, adrift in the peace, waiting for the war, and hoping for some good, bloody action pretty soon. I am sorely tempted to watch the movie instead. I really love Audrey Hepburn, and I bet she sneaks in a ciggie or two while hiding out in the salon.