Starting a classic novel in translation is like arriving in a foreign city. You look for familiar sights: street signs, even if they’re written in a language or an alphabet you can’t decipher; streets, even if they twist out of sight, cars parked along the curb even if you can’t identify the make and model, stores and display windows even if the merchandise is exotic and alienating—rabbits hanging in a butcher’s shop window, clown outfits in a clothing store. That’s how you venture into a book like War and Peace, looking for a recognizable landmark, easily daunted, ready to flee.
But Tolstoy sets you at ease instantly.
He gives you Anna Pavlovona Scherer’s soiree. Anna is a social climber, not particularly liked or respected, but everyone attends her parties, including Prince Vassily Kuragin, whose genteel contempt constitutes the first familiar landmark in this new landscape.
“Set me at ease,” he said, without changing his voice and in a tone which, through propriety and sympathy, one could discern indifference and even mockery.
They discuss another party scheduled for the same evening, the next obligation on Kuragin’s social calendar:
“If they had known you wished it, the fete would have been cancelled,” said the prince, uttering out of habit, like a wound-up clock, things that he did not even wish people to believe.”
Anyone who has attended a business-related cocktail party knows this guy and his self-important posturing. And so you know he must have some ulterior motive to be slumming at this shindig. He wants something. But what? Tolstoy doesn’t make you wait long to find out. A few minutes of bland chit-chat and political theorizing later:
“Tell me,” he added, as if just recalling something with special casualness, though what he asked about was the main purpose of his visit, “is it true that the dowager empress wants Baron Funke to be named first secretary in Vienna? He’s a poor fellow, this baron, so it seems. Prince Vassily wanted his son to be appointed to this post …
Neither of Kuragin’s two sons deserve royal favors or prestigious postings. Anatole and Ippolit: two typical slacker punks, coasting on their parents’ money and position, throwing wild parties and getting bombed with their friends. Immediately you think: nothing changes.
But Anna has her own agenda: setting up Anatole with young Princess Bolkonsky, Prince Andrei’s sister. The name rings a bell. Just by living in the world that contains this novel, with a peripheral awareness of the various movies and mini-series that have been adapted from it, you know that Prince Andre Bolkonsky is one of the two main protagonists. So the door into the story opens a little wider.
Of course all Vassily cares about here is what everyone in every nineteenth-century novel I’ve ever read cares about. Can you guess?
“No, you know this Anatole costs me forty thousand a year!” he said, obviously unable to restrain the melancholy course of his thoughts. He paused. “How will it be in five years, if it goes on like this? There’s the advantage of being a father. Is she rich, this princess of yours?”
A friend of mine started watching the BBC miniseries based on the book and turned it off after a couple of episodes. “They’re turning Tolstoy into Jane Austen!” she complained. So she went back to the book. After fifty or sixty pages she admitted sheepishly, “Tolstoy is Jane Austen.”
It certainly seems that way in the early sections, before everyone goes off to war.
Of course, the war sections of Tolstoy’s book have defeated me on every other attempt, over ten years and three translators. Not this time, though. General Kutuzov, I’m coming for you!
Meanwhile, the high society of Russia in 1805 is remarkably similar to that of Jane Austen’s England, ten years later. After bingeing on Austen a few years ago (I found her complete works in one lavish Penguin paperback, the one with the Regency wallpapers on the cover), I’m no longer surprised by the overwhelming venality of the characters in classic literature. But the desperation of Anna Mikhailovna Drubskoy to secure her son Boris’ military position and get the dough to outfit him properly feels sadly familiar. She has come to Anna Scherer’s party to make her case to Prince Vassily, just as he has come to make his own case for his son Anatole. Everyone has an angle.
This is the evergreen universality of these nineteenth-century masterpieces: the never-ending scramble for cash. I admire Anne Mikhailovna: she’s relentless, shameless. Her self-flagellating maternal determination that makes it easier, in the end, for Prince Vassily to give her what she wants. Anything, if she’ll just go away and shut up. There’s a lesson there for desperate parents. I used it when I was trying to secure a co-signer for my son’s college loan.
Humiliate yourself and persevere: that’s what Tolstoy taught me today.