Perhaps that’s a slightly trite heading to choose for a section of “War and Peace” so packed with action, but it *is* something pivotal to this part of the epic journey I’m on with the book; which also contains one of the iconic scenes of Tolstoy’s great works.

Nearing the end of book 1!!!!

This section opens with the fragile peace between Napoleon and Alexander still in place, and meanwhile life goes on as normal for the majority of people. Andrei is still living in the country, running his estate very competently and emancipating his serfs; in fact, he achieves everything that Pierre sets out to do but cannot, simply because he is so able and Pierre is totallyΒ impractical. However, Andrei is cold and emotionally locked away, and it’s only an encounter with the young and beautiful Natasha that draws him back to society and the more practical world of the court. For a while, Andrei comes back to life a bit whilst mixing in these circles again, but a re-encounter with Natasha at her first ball changes his outlook again quite dramatically.

Pierre, meanwhile, is as troubled and lugubrious as ever, spending most of this section in a haze of moral and spiritual soul-searching. The Masons are proving to be a little too worldly for him, most definitely not what he thought; and despite having agreed to live under the same roof as his estranged wife, there is no proper marriage. He is not ‘being a husband’ to her, and that seems to suit Helen perfectly, leaving her free to flirt and spend time with young men such as Boris. The latter seems to have changed for the worse as he’s matured, and despite his young infatuation with Natasha, it’s clear that neither wish to carry that relationship on as they grow up.

In the eyes of the world Pierre was a fine gentleman, the rather blind and ridiculous husband of a distinguished wife, a clever eccentric who did nothing but was no trouble to anyone, a good-natured, capital fellow – while all the time in the depths of Pierre’s soul a complex and arduous process of inner development was going on, revealing much to him and bringing him many spiritual doubts and joys.

Natasha Rostov herself comes much more into the fore in these chapters; at 16 she attends her first ball, and becomes the belle of it, spending much time danced with Andrei, who is completely smitten – just a bit of an age difference there, though…. She’s a vibrant character, injecting life into the story and her surroundings, although still very immature. She responds strongly to Andrei’s declaration of love, although she sees the good in Pierre too; and an engagement is agreed between Andrei and Natasha, although with the stipulation they must wait a year, leaving Andrei free to swan off abroad for his health.

In fact, the Rostovs and their fortunes are a troubling element here; through mismanagement they are lurching towards genteel poverty and it’s in the interests of the Count and Countess to match their children off to rich spouses. Eldest sister Vera has married a lowly soldier and so hopes now lie on Natasha. Interestingly, the inability of the nobles to deal with business and sort out their issues is a strong thread in the book; old Count Rostov is being systematically cheated, Pierre is totally fuddled by it all and only Andrei seems to have a business head.

Nikolai makes a lengthy reappearance and reconnects with his sister, spending happy hours hunting with her and celebrating Christmas. I’ll confess here that I skimmed some of the hunting pages, because I really *don’t* want to read them; but after the hunt, the group visits a local eccentric known as “Uncle” and it’s here that the famed dance of Natasha takes place. As a balalaika is played, Natasha taps into her unconscious heritage and performs a native Russian dance from who knows where, and it’s a powerful moment.

Tolstoy introduces another interesting aspect in the form of Pierre’s diary; he takes up the writing habit and Tolstoy treats us to regular extracts which plot the tortuous state of Pierre’s mind. It’s clear the poor man needs to be loved, but there seems to be no prospect of that on the horizon. Instead, he frets about his friends, uncertain for example whether the engagement of Andrei and Natasha is a good thing. Actually, no-one feels she is right for Andrei, and I felt a little uncomfortable about an old widower marrying a 16-year-old, particularly when she’s portrayed here as so childlike. However, towards the end of these chapters I felt that the cracks were showing slightly, with Andrei showing no inclination to rush back from abroad and visit his betrothed, and so I’m not sure whether this marriage will go ahead. By the end of this section, Nikolai had rekindled his childhood love for Sonya, but I feel a little trepidation about that too – Tolstoy doesn’t seem to want to portray happy relationships!

So another cracking couple of sections, packed full of action and an absolutely wonderful read. I’m constantly impressed by how well Tolstoy handles his material and keeps you involved at all times; and also by his powers of description. I felt I was actually living alongside the characters at times, racing through the snow in sledges, watching Natasha sing or dance, laughing at the mummers entertaining local children – the narrative was so vivid, and I’m absolutely hooked and desperate to find out what happens next!

 

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