Editor’s note: This is the tenth in a series of blog posts by Steven Axelrod, a writer reflecting on Leo Tolstoy’s epic masterpiece, War and Peace, a monumental journey of a novel that he has embarked on completing.
There’s nothing quite like the irrational frustration you feel when a beloved fictional character makes a catastrophic error of judgment. When one of your friends contemplates joining the church of Scientology, marrying that loud bossy woman you hate or stealing “just a little” from the company petty cash drawer because they’ll be able to pay it back with “no one the wiser” when they get their next pay check, you can at least talk to them about it. Comments like “Auditing therapy will bankrupt you in six months”, “Why not move in together first” or “Why don’t I just lend you the money” might not avert the disaster, but you can tell yourself you gave it a shot. When fictional characters go off the rails, all you can do is scream (or whimper) at the book. Some people recommend throwing the book across the room, or writing aggrieved letters to the author, but the authors are often dead already and even if they’re alive, the damage is done and major re-writes are unlikely.
I think of that moment in 1984, when Winston Smith eagerly volunteers to O’Brien that he and Julia would be happy to “throw acid in a child’s face” to further the rebellion. That comment might be used against you, Comrade! Or how about Charles Smithson, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, giving his manservant Sam a crucial note to deliver to Sarah Woodruff, seemingly unaware that Charles and Sarah getting together will dash all of Sam’s hopes for the future. Hello—the chances of Sam actually taking that letter to your illicit girlfriend rank around zero, Charles.
Yell at the book all you want, those people can’t hear you because, unlikely as it seems sometimes, they don’t actually exist. They are caught in their unbreakable narrative loops. Save your energy. Don’t bother urging Ahab to “Live and let live.” All you can do is turn the pages and watch events unfold, the same way every time. Reading the book again won’t help. Fate may be a myth in the real world; but it’s the iron law of literature.
Which brings me to the unfortunate marriage of Pierre Bezukhov.
Pierre and his new father-in-law Vassily Kuragin are two of the most irritating characters in modern fiction, though for opposite reasons. Vassily looks like the model for every slimy opportunist in Western culture since War and Peace was written—from Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths to Sinclair Lewis’ George Babbit to James Ellroy’s Dudley Smith. This guy is just inexcusably awful. But resilient: after trying and failing to block Pierre’s inheritance, he responds to the new reality with the sharp sinuous reflexes of a natural athlete. If at first you don’t succeed, marry off your daughter.
The plan has certain natural advantages. Helene is, in crude modern terminology, smoking hot. Pierre is dazzled by her beauty, but he doesn’t particularly like her, he has nothing to say to her and he thinks (quite rightly) that’s she’s tedious, and conventional. But earlier in the book, we’ve been given a clue to Pierre’s cluelessness, when his friend Andrei Bolkhonsky warned him off the toxic Kuragin clan. It’s not so much Andrei’s warning as Pierre’s response that raises the red flag:
“It would be nice to visit Kuragin” he thought. But at once he remembered the word of honor he had given prince Andrei not to visit Kuragin.
But at once, as happens with so-called characterless people, he desired so passionately to experience again that dissolute life so familiar to him, that he decided to go. And at once the thought occurred to him that the word he had given meant nothing, before giving his word to Andrei he had also given Prince Anatole his word that he would be there; finally he thought that all these words of honor were mere conventions, with no definite meaning, especially if you considered that you might die the next day, or something so extraordinary might happen that there would no longer be either honor or dishonor. That sort of reasoning often came to Pierre, destroying all his decisions and suppositions. He went to Kuragin’s.
Guess what chance this hapless, naive, good-hearted sap will have when Prince Vassily gets him in the cross-hairs. About the same chance as a mouse in the basement of an imploded building. For all that, he’s still able to dissect the situation rationally. Helen is beautiful, yes, sensual also, but …
“…she’s stupid, I’ve said to myself that she’s stupid,” he thought. “This isn’t love. On the contrary, there’s something vile in the feeling she aroused in me, something forbidden. I’ve been told that her brother Anatole was in love with her and she with him, and there was a whole story, and that’s why Anatole was sent away. Ippolit is her brother. Prince Vassily is her father. It’s not good.”
So you’re thinking—run, Pierre, run! But you know he won’t. If Heraclitus was right, and character is destiny, Pierre is doomed by his DNA. He seems to believe that all the people who were sneering at him six months ago are fawning over him now because they’ve realized what a swell person he is. That’s roughly equivalent to thinking your pug has taken a new selflessly inquisitive interest in you and your doings at the exact moment you start to eat a slice in cinnamon toast. Pierre is innocent almost to the point of autism. He’s like Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin, but without that saintly wisdom. Myshkin doesn’t understand the social dynamics of St Petersburg. Pierre is just clueless. I feel bad for him, but he’s a tough character to like or respect. And now he’s married—with the Machiavellian Prince Vassily for a father-in-law.
Vassily’s next move? Marry off his son Anatole, to Masha Bolkhonsky.
But old Nikolai Bolkonhsky is no fool. I’m looking forward to this battle, and in the aftermath of the previous rout I’m hoping that sometime over the next thousand pages, Pierre Bezukhov will grow a spine, attach it to his brain and wake up.
I’ll keep you posted on that.
Photo source: Keene Public Library and the Historical Society of Cheshire County (NH)