Friday, December 30, 2011

Epilogue, Part One, Chapters V-XVI

These are the chapters that wrap up the novel proper: the stories of Nastasha and Pierre and Princess Marya and Nikolai Rostov. It begins (p. 1138):

The wedding of Natasha, who married Bezukhov [Pierre] in the year thirteen, was the last joyful event in the family of the old Rostovs.

That is a simply elegant opening sentence-- you know there's a world of story to come (what sad things will happen?).

At this point in the novel, disgruntled as I am over what I think of as the chapters of Herr History Professor bloated blather, I am both engaged and admiring.

Some of the storytelling is the most elegant I've ever read, e.g., p. 1139:

Precisely at a time when the count's affairs had become so entangled that it was impossible to imagine how it would all end if it went on a year longer, he unexpectedly died.

Now, Ch. VII, p. 1144, a real horror:

In the fall of 1814, Nikolai married Princess Marya and moved with his wife, mother, and Sonya to live at Bald Hills.

Sonya, of course, is Nikolai's orphaned cousin and first love.

But, as I read along, I am reminded that no, this is Russia in the early 19th century; such a living arrangement surely had its tensions, but not what they would have been in my world where a person such as Sonya would have had other opportunities.

Re: Sonya, p. 1149:

It seemed [Sonya] valued not so much the people as the whole family. Like a cat, she became accustomed not to the people, but to the house. She took care of the old countess, petted and pampered the children, was always ready to render the small services she was capable of; but all this was involuntarily taken with far too little gratitide...

In Chapter X we see the change in Natasha-- a common change, alas:

p. 1156

Natasha let herself go to such a degree that her clothes, her hair, her words spoken out of place, her jealousy-- she was jealous of Sonya, of the governess, of any woman, beautiful or not-- were habitual subjects of jokes among all those close to her.

And a little later on, Natasha seen from Denisov's point of view, p. 1158:

A dull, despondent gaze, out-of-place replies, and conversation about the nursery was all he saw and heard from the former enchantress.

What strikes me, not for the first time, is how Tolstoy allows his characters to change, oftentimes dramatically and multiple times.

The portrait of old countess Rostov is remarkable (though sixty does not seem so old to me-- albeit perhaps time to consider a first facelift, some highlights, and some serious bucks-worth of cosmetic dental work):

p. 1162

The countess was already past sixty. Her hair was completely white, and she wore a cap with a ruffle that went all the way around her face. Her face was wrinkled, her upper lip was sunken, and her eyes were dull.

A bit later, p. 1163, when the younger generation would exchange glances, as if silently to say:

... that she had already finished her business in life, that all of her was not in that which could be seen in her now, that we would all be the same, and that it was a joy to submit to her, to restrain oneself for the sake of this being, once so dear, once as full of life as we, and now so pathetic. Memento mori-- said these glances.

Of all the household, only quite bad and stupid people, and the little children, did not understand that and avoided her.

Ah, this to me is the greatest of the greatness of Tolstoy.

And the story ends with Nikolenka Bolkonsky, the son of prince Andrei (raised by his aunt Princess Marya and now stepson to Nikolai Rostov), having a dream, feeling love for his father and Pierre, and hoping to be a hero, as in the stories of the Romans and Greeks. The last lines:

Father! Father! Yes, I'll do something that even he would be pleased with. . . "

Does this work as an ending? It most assuredly does, giving a sense of momentum into the future while looking back upon all the horrors and the heroism of the recent war, and comparing it (via mention of Plutach's Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans) to the symphonies of history. It is, in fact, symphonic.

Problem is, the novel does not end here. Would that it had.

But for fun, let me go back to old countess Rostov. An emulation exercise:

The artist was already past eighty. Her hair was completely white, and she wore a baseball cap with the logo of her gallery, a flying purple zebra. Her face was wrinkled, but rosy, her teeth, not dentures, were brilliant when she smiled, and she was always smiling-- even her eyes were smiling, for she knew, down to her fingernails (also purple) that life was an absurd, joyous joke....

When Tolstoy writes about the other characters' glances and conclusions about Countess Rostov, this reminds me: it's such a limbering up to ask, how do my various characters see each other? The results of the exercise don't have to end up in the novel-- they can be tossed onto compost pile. But there is almost always some insight to be gained, and perhaps some little but brilliant detail pops up.

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