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.