Thursday, October 27, 2011

Vol. I, Part One, I-IV. Opening with Dialogue, En Français (Oof)

(Pictured left, the actor Tullio Carminati, who played Prince Vassily in the movie of 1956.)

So, famously, War and Peace opens with a cold water splash of French, Anna Pavlovna Scherer addressing her guest, Prince Vassily, and in mock insulting terms. Two things strike me about this:

--> First, that French. But of course at that time and place Russian aristocrats spoke French, mixed in with Russian and even some sprinklings of English and German. When I think about my own writing, which is mostly about Mexico, and when I teach "Techniques of Fiction" and especially when I give workshops on travel writing, this question often comes up-- when people are speaking in another language, how to render this?

Well, Tolstoy's answer is to just throw it at the reader, assuming his readers could all read French (though we do have a handy translation at the bottom of the page).

What about languages most English-speaking readers don't understand, say, Arabic or Hungarian? I have always thought that Paul Bowles' solution of quoting a word or a line, to give the music, and then a translation directly afterwards, worked well, and I emulated that in my own novel, where I have characters speaking Spanish, French, German, and even Italian.

This comes up a lot in Latino writing, where the characters oftentimes speak in a slangy melange of English and Spanish (oh, I could go on about this-- some of it is really fun and very musical-- and by the way, there is a chilangringa version of Espanglish, by which I mean the way gringas such as myself, who have been living in Mexico City with Mexican husbands, have conversations on Skype). How to handle such language? I tell my writing students, first, it depends on who your intended readers are. If you want to write about and for Chicanos in a Texas border town, (or for that matter us chilangringas, who probably number a few dozen) that's one thing, but you want readers who are members of book groups in, say, Minneapolis, well, probably, like Tolstoy, it would behoove you to supply a footnote with some translation. But to render the whole thing in English, no Spanish, as, if Tolstoy had rendered his opening scene in a single language, without French, would have rung false.

Tricky business this. Hmm, it occurs to me what fun it would be to talk about Sandra Cisnero's The House on Mango Street alongside Tolstoy's War and Peace, for the rendering of language alone.

---> Second, use of dialogue. Usually it doesn't work to open a story or novel with a line of dialogue-- it confuses the reader--but here is a marvelous example to the contrary.

So here is the opening line, all in English:

"Well, my prince, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than possessions, estates, of the Buonaparte family. No, I warn you, if you do not tell me we are at war, if you still allow yourself to palliate all the infamies, all the atrocities of that Antichrist (upon my word, I believe it)-- I no longer know you, you are no longer my friend, you are no longer my faithful slave, as you say. Well, good evening, good evening. I see that I'm frightening you, sit down and tell me about it."

So why does this work? Because it's a jolt, it's strange, and it excites my curiosity-- in short, I want to keep reading. But more than that: good dialogue shows mood and/or character and/or relationship. Here, with this opening, Tolstoy achieves all three. At once I understand that Anna Pavlovna Scherer is person of sparkling energy, she is frightened and angry about Napoleon, she is sophisticated, and she feels so comfortable with this old friend who has come to see her, that she can playfully threaten him, even as he appears at her doorstep.

Well, having read to page 22, end of chapter IV, I get it-- it's brilliant. The language is so exquisite, the characters all so vividly drawn, the tensions-- not just with Napoleon, but among the characters, each wanting something from another, so desperately, or fearing or resenting something. The tension crackles.

The opening scene is Anna Pavolva Scherer's salon. She is a maid-of-honor to the Empress and her guests, the cream of society, begin to arrive, first Prince Vassily, "a significant man who has grown old in society and court. He went over to Anna Pavlovna, kissed her hand, presenting her with his perfumed and shining bald pate, and settled comfortably on the sofa."

This line-- right at top of page 2-- so elegantly establishes the roving omniscient point of view, for suddenly, we see from Anna Pavlova Scherer's point of view, that "shining bald pate."

The opening line of dialogue echoes throughout-- this sense of falseness, of saying something one doesn't really mean or saying things one does mean but in such a way that it might be interpreted differently. Society as nightmarish funhouse of mirrors... The whole opening -- as far as I've read, to page 22-- has a remarkable integrity of texture.

Also, right there on page 2, after Anna says she thought the English ambassador's party had been canceled, she says (in French),

"I confess to you that all these fetes and all these fireworks are beginning to become insipid."

"If they had known known that you wished it, the fete would have been cancelled," said the prince, uttering out of habit, like a wound-up clock, things he did even wish people to believe.

A parade of characters then arrives and I confess, I had to read these pages more than twice to be able to sort them all out. The major ones (as far as I can tell):

ANNA PAVLOVNA SCHERER, hostess of the salon

PRINCE VASSILY, who wants to marry off his spendthrift son Anatole to someone rich and of a good family (and Anna will play matchmaker)

HELENE, Prince Vassily's beautiful daughter who "came to fetch her father and go with him to the fete at the ambassador's. She was wearing a ballgown with a monogram."

PRINCE IPPOLIT, Prince Vassily's son

VISCOUNT MORTMART "a nice-looking young man, with soft features and manners, obviously regarded himself as a celebrity, but, from good breeding, modestly allowed himself to be made use of by the company in which he found himself. Anna Pavlovna was obviously treating her guests to him. As a good maitre d'hotel presents, as something supernaturally excellent, a piece of beef one would not want to eat if one saw it in the dirty kitchen, so that evening Anna Pavlovna served up to her guests first the viscount.." and more: "the viscount was presented to the company in a most refined and advantageous light, like a roast beef on a hot platter sprinkled with herbs."


PRINCESS BOLKONSKY, beautiful, newly married, pregnant

PRINCE ANDREI BOLKONSKY, the husband, who is about to abandon his wife to go to war

PIERRE, Andrei's good friend, "This fat young man was the illegitimate son of a famous courtier from Catherine's time..." whom Anna "greeted with a nod reserved for people of the lowest hierarchy in her salon"

In chapter IV, still in Anna Pavlova Scherer's salon, there is a vignette of an elderly lady who has come to the party to beg a favor for her son from Prince Vassily. "The elderly lady bore the name of Princess Drubetskoy, one of the best families of Russia, but she was poor, had long since left society, and had lost her former connections." It takes more than a bit of wiles for her to get Prince Vassily to agree to help her-- Tolstoy slips into Prince Vassily's point of view: "influence in society is a capital that must be used sparingly, lest in disappear. Prince Vassily knew that and, having once realized that if he were to solicit for everyone who solicited from him, it would soon become impossible to solicit for himself, he rarely used his influence." Once Prince Vassily finally acceeds, "her face again acquired the same cold, sham expression it had before. She went back to the circle, where the viscount was going on about his story, and again pretended to listen, waiting for the moment to leave".

Again, the pretension, the falsity, the intrigue and specter of disaster...

Pierre, young and outspoken, is like a bull in Anna's China shop. Tolstoy sets up Pierre as counterpoint to the falseness of the others. (p. 21) "His smile was not like that of other people, blending into a nonsmile. With him, on the contrary, when a smile came, his serious and even somewhat sullen face vanished and suddenly, instantly, another appeared-- childish, kind, even slightly stupid, and as if apologetic."

And Tolstoy's use of body language is also remarkable. I'll take that up in the next post.

Oh, this is fun.


  1. Well, shoot, I'm behind with the reading. I thought your reference to the chilangringas was humorous. My mother is married to my Mexican father. We lived in Tehuacan for many years in the late 50s and 60s. (I was born in '63.) I think she was probably the only chilangringa in Mexico at the time. I love this term. But back to War and Peace. I am interested to see Tolsty's use of body language in your next blog. If I'm understanding you correctly, I think Steinbeck also used body language with the utmost skill.

  2. Good luck, Catherine! I look forward to watching your progress. I tackled Moby-Dick a couple of summers ago, and it was one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life...I hope the same is true for you w/ W&P. And maybe you'll inspire me to read this as my next big summer book.

  3. Hi Kendra and Leslie, Thanks for your comments.

    Leslie, MOBY DICK! Wow, maybe I will try that when you get to W & P and we can double compare notes.