Thursday, February 16, 2017

like a hare surrounded by hounds... he tried to continue reading - hunting wolves and hares in War and Peace

The prose in War and Peace is generally plain, often repetitive – more so in Russian than in the Maude translation – and rough.  Anna Karenina is more finely worked at the sentence level and its beauties depend more on the motifs that Tolstoy runs through the novel.  There are exceptions, though, like Book VII of War and Peace, the wolf hunt and the Christmas party, a couple of days in which two characters move into a state of sublimity.

In the entry there was a smell of fresh apples, and wolf and fox skins hung about.  (VII.7.)

It is a thickly described part of the book.  More smells.

Nicholas and Natasha Rostov are siblings, but Nicholas is quickly off in the cavalry, so they rarely meet.  Book VII, with everyone at the country estate, is where they finally get some scenes together.  Amusingly, they barely speak to each other.  They’re siblings; they communicate plenty.

They go hunting for about twenty pages – those poor wolves – and celebrate Christmas for about thirty.

The bare twigs in the garden were hung with transparent drops which fell on the freshly fallen leaves.  The earth in the kitchen garden looked wet and black and glistened like poppyseed and at a short distance merged into the dull, moist veil of mist…  There was a smell of decaying leaves and of dog.  Milka, a black-spotted, broad-haunched bitch with prominent black eyes. got up on seeing her master, stretched her hind legs, lay down like a hare, and then suddenly jumped up and licked him right on his nose and mustache.  (VII.3.)

Those fine similes are one evidence of the difference in this section.  In War and Peace, similes frequently describe the character or behavior of people, but rarely things.  “Though Daniel was not a big man, to see him in a room was like seeing a horse or a bear on the floor among the furniture and surroundings of human life.”  The hunt needs horses, dogs, landscapes, wolves, clothes; the later party food, music, costumes, folk customs, and it all has to be precise, and precision demands metaphor.

The wolf paused, turned its heavy forehead toward the dogs awkwardly, like a man suffering from the quinsy, and, still slightly swaying from side to side, gave a couple of leaps and with a swish of its tail disappeared into the skirt of the wood.  (VII.4.)

For the first time, I even get some precision about how the Rostovs are spending themselves into bankruptcy: “there were about a hundred and thirty dogs and twenty horsemen.”

Soon enough the dog Milka is in a race with some of the others after a lively hare.  The scene with the hare is a little hunt within the larger wolf hunt, a battle within the battle.  In a sense, much of the point of the hunt is to include a “battle” in the middle of the book, between the big early Austerlitz scenes and the later Borodino section.

Oddly, on the eve of Borodino, Pierre Bezukhov sees a “brown hare with white feet” on what will be the battlefield (X.23.).  A third hare, the hare that saved Russia, leads the Russian army to discover, and ambush, a French army (XIII.1.).  Much, much earlier, Nicholas Rostov, injured and losing his horse in his first combat, runs “with the feeling of a hare fleeing from the hounds” (II.14).  Pierre Bezukhov at one point “like a hare surrounded by hounds who lays back her ears and continues to crouch motionless before her enemies, he tried to continue reading” (IV.6.) – hilariously, here the battlefield is his study, and the enemy combatant his wife.  Yet this scene is also directly related to Pierre’s first experience of combat, a duel.

I wanted to look at the wolf hunt scene in part because it is extraordinarily good, but also because those hares make me wonder what else is in the novel that its size conceals from me.


  1. Percy Lubbock argues that War and Peace is two novels mashed together in a disorganized fashion, but the resulting book is so long that it's too difficult to remember enough of it in the correct order to discuss it properly as two novels, and so we no choice but to talk about it as one long complex story. I think that tells us more about Lubbock's ideas of unity than it does about War and Peace. I am not sure why I wrote this comment. Oh, yeah, "what else is in the novel that its size conceals from me." I'll bet that a lot of readers fail to see themes carried from the Bildungsroman parts of the book through the Epic War parts of the book and back. it's a long damned book. I can't wait to get to it again this summer.

  2. The extra materials in the Norton Critical Edition I have, the old one (1966), are almost entirely about the "loose baggy monster" question, with Lubbock as the lead prosecutor for the case against unity. I guess I am with the "unified enough" side, against James and Lubbock, enough to not find the entire argument all that interesting. But as you say, this is another place where the size of the book worries me. Where my cognitive limits worry me, is what I mean.

  3. All your Tolstoy posts on War and Peace have caused me to return to my beloved Anna Karenina. (Oops, they probably should have enticed me to open War and Peace again! But, I need more peace in my life to read it, probably come summer...) How I adore Tolstoy. He is such a magnificent writer, and you have been reminding us beautifully of his talent.

    1. When I said return to Anna Karenina, I meant only the first chapter. I have not begun rereading it again, in the hopes that perhaps we will share it later this spring.

  4. Pretty good sometimes, ain't he?

    I'm still dithering about Anna Karenina. I'll be in France at the end of May - so maybe June for AK? Maybe later in June, so I can read the book?

    We can follow the peasant theme together, trace the teeth and horses and so on. "'All happy families are more or less dissimilar, all unhappy ones are more or less alike,' says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel..."

  5. The peasant theme, the pure imagery such as scything the long grass, and the despair of (some) women. There's a lot to think about, talk about, and write about. I love it so.

    June may very well work for me. I'm not sure if I will join the Man Booker shadow jury as the list last year was pure...garbage. That should free up many reading hours in June and July.

  6. Man, I'd forgotten all about the long hunt scene. I guess hunting is so alien to me I reject it as a foreign body; the one thing my wife and I are consistently annoyed by in our reading of Trollope (annoyed enough to actually skip chunks of text) is the long, loving descriptions of hunts ("and then they came to a small brook with a fence on the other side, and she felt that perhaps her horse couldn't make the jump, but she was too proud to hold back, so she spurred him on and he...").

  7. There was a point in the Palliser series where I thought the hunting scenes were going to become a real problem, but then Trollope tones them down. I don't think The Prime Minister had one at all. Perhaps Trollope realizes that he has squeezed all of the dramatic meaning out of them that he could. Thank goodness he did not become interested in cricket.

  8. Bellezza, good, let's shoot for late June / early July for Anna Karenina.

    Reading the adventures of you and your panelists, I found it hard to believe that you were reading the best fiction published in English that year. But I suppose that is not the point of the prize.

    1. My favorite parody of a prize in literature is Filippino Bologna's The Parrots, in which the accidental submission of a cookbook wins first place. I surely would have awarded a cookbook the prize rather than that which won.

      Hopefully, the Man Booker International Prize (the long list of which will be revealed in March) has better titles.

      Although I doubt any of them will be as worthy as Anna Karenina.

  9. as worthy as - very funny. Yes, if anyone in the world in this last year wrote a novel as good as Anna Karenina, let us know.

  10. I would very much like to own the "Anna Karenina" of cookbooks.