For 5/25/2021 (OUP p. 505)
Book 2: Part 3 Continued
Scene: Petersburg, August 1809
Andrei arrives in Petersburg in August 1809, just at the time when two courtiers/politicians, Speransky and Arakcheev, are at the height of their influence on the Czar. They seems to be a lot of reform, but it all comes to nothing, and Andrei’s attempt to suggest new military regulations to Arakcheev, the minister of war, lead to nothing except that he joins a committee on army regulations.
Andrei joins Petersburg society, which finds him quite interesting, and attends a dinner at a Count Kochubey’s house where the mighty Speranksy involves him in a conversation about politics and the new attempts to reform the byzantine court ranks. Andrei himself is not interested in these ranks, but partly defends them to establish himself as someone with an opinion–he is all about the idea of honor as the basis of the monarchy and aristocracy and about Montesquieu.
Andrei continues to have contact with Speransky, who flatters him a bit by suggestion that they are on the same level of intelligence while others are beneath them and comes to admire him increasingly for his rational approach, even as he does not like Speransky’s contempt for others. He does become a member of the Committee on Army regulation and is supposed to chair a subcommittee to revise the civil code with the Code Napoléon in mind.
Prelapse to catch us up on Pierre 1808-1810
Piere, in the meantime, has risen in the ranks of the freemasons since 1808 but dislikes the shallow and narrow approach of his fellow Petersburg masons, dividing them into four types–the ones who are only into the mysticism, the ones who are seeking but have not found a path (including himself), the ones who are just into the eternal forms, and the ones who only joined for networking purposes. He goes abroad to study and visit Freemasons elsewhere to learn more, and comes back in the summer of 1809, delivering a speech to his Lodge that calls for more direct political action–not revolution, but seeking political influence, a sort of masonic uber government. But this is controversial and earns him a reprimand from the Grand Master.
Pierre grows very depressed because of this, at the same time as pressure increases from various sides to reconcile with his wife, Helène. His Moscow mason mentor, Iosif Alexeevich, recommends that he keep a journal to reflect more on his path, and we get several entries from November and December 1809 (here and again in Chapter 10). He tries to do what his mentor recommends and what his wife’s relatives ask and they are “reunited” under one roof but without a sexual relationship.
Helène is very popular at court, especially with the French, and has a reputation for being beautiful, elegant, and intelligent; her salons are very popular. Pierre is puzzled because he knows that she is “very stupid” (470) and watches her being admired for saying “the emptiest and stupidest things” (470)–WHAT ARE THEY? ARE THEY STUPID? WHY DON’T WE GET TO JUDGE? Meanwhile, he is allocated the eccentric, somewhat befuddled husband of the great belle, benevolently indifferent to what is going on at the salons–and this despite the fact that he is deeply suspicious of Boris and his role, and also undergoing a lot of “internal development” (471).
In his diary, Pierre records that Boris was initiated into the masons and that he was his rhetor / initiation person, which was tough for him. He also reports on his dreams, esepcially about his mentor, Alexeevich, whom he asks in these dreams to help him get rid of his passions (which appear as dogs in one dream), while he also records dreaming that he “burned with longing to caress him and lie down too” — in a dream where Alexeevich tells him he should resume having sex with his wife (“one should not deprive a wife of one’s embraces” (475). The next dream features erotic drawings of “a maiden in transparent garments and with a transparent body” (475). Whoa, Pierre!
Scene: The Rostovs in Petersburg, 1808-1810
Now Tolstoy catches us up to the Rostov’s situation, which is financially precarious. They eventually go to Petersburg so that the count can get some extra income and prestige through an official court position. But in Petersburg they are considered provincial Muscovites and seem unpolished. Berg finally proposed to Vera, after having basically talked people into decorating him for feats in battle that didn’t happen, but he demands a lot of money for his dowry and the Count presumably plummets even deeper into debt (of the estates for his two daughters, Vera and Natasha, one has already been sold and the other is mortgaged). He clearly has no idea what his financial affairs are like except not good.
In 1809, when Natasha is 16, Boris starts coming back around, but really with no intention to court or marry her, since it would ruin his career. But he is charmed with her beauty and seems to be unable to stop coming to the house.
During this Natasha comes to her mom’s bedroom at night to snuggle up and talk about Boris (whom she does not especially like–he is “gray and narrow” while Pierre is “dark blue and red, and … square” and she likes him better (483). [Synesthesia as a replacement for female interiority? WEIRD.] The countess tells her that she can’t marry him, and that it’s clear she is not in love with him anyway, but Natasha suggests he could come visit without courting her, “just so” (483). Her mother does not approve and later speaks to Boris, who stops coming. Natasha, meanwhile, takes on the task of just pretend-admiring herself in the absence of admirers (483-84).
The next year, on Dec 31, 1810, there is a big New Year’s Eve ball in Petersburg with all the aristocrats and the emperor in attendance. The Rostovs have been invited, an old lady of the court having pulled some strings, and we witness Sonya, Natasha, and their mother getting ready for the ball with quite a bit of delay and perfectionism on Natasha’s part, since she wants everyone to look perfect–obviously not caring that the maids and seamstresses are frantic in trying to get her ready.
When they arrive at the ball, Natasha is charmingly self-conscious because she has not had any time to practice or rehearse an impressive entrance. She is dazzled and confused and this makes her just adorable. Meanwhile, others we have met enter the ballroom–Helène and Pierre, whose presence delights Natasha, the evil Anatole, and also Andrei, whom Natasha remembers from his stay at their country estate.
The Emperor arrives and opens the first dance. But Natasha is completely preoccupied by the fact that she might not be asked to dance the first dance. But Pierre nudges Andrei to ask her (calling her his protegée), and of course, she lights up, not quite beautiful but fresh and virginal (Helène by contrast “seemed, as it were, hardened by a varnish left by the thousands of looks that had scanned her person” (492) [–so the male gaze freezes and diminishes female beauty and devalues the woman who is being looked at and admired?? Hmmm…. ].
Others dance with Natasha as well, including Boris and others, and Andrei several more times, and Natasha is all around delighted and “love[s] everybody” (493), finding it impossible to understand why Pierre (not liking his wife’s role at this ball) is not happy. It crosses Andrei’s mind that he will marry her, although he dismisses it as “rubbish” (494).
Andrei basically can’t focus on anything and now questions the purpose of the reforms and all his political activities again. An evening at Speransky’s seems horrid and hollow; everyone is laughing as long as Speransky is there and stops as soon as he leaves. Andrei leaves early. (But he can’t figure out that he’s falling in love.)
Andrei calls at the Rostovs and now thinks they are “excellent, simple people” and Natasha’s music playing fabulous. He makes “happy plans for the future” (which includes finding a tutor for his son to be rid of him and travel abroad) but he still can’t figure it out.
Berg comes to Pierre to invite him to a dinner at his and Vera’s newly-established apartment. As he and Vera await the guests, we get a sense of how little they know what the other thinks–each feeling very superior over the other, and each assuming the entire other gender is sort of wrong about everything. When Pierre comes, as the first guest, he is the victim of this mutual ignorance, as the conversation is “very incoherent” (503). Boris arrives, along with others, and Vera and Berg are very happy that their party becomes “exactly like all other evening parties” (503) including all the high-status guests that Boris hopes to impress.
As Pierre sits down to play cards, he sees Natasha and sees her looking indifferent and almost plain, until Andrei enters the room and she becomes radiant, while Andrei also lights up. So at least Pierre sort of figures out that “something very important is happening between them” (504). Vera, tactless and conventional, tries to draw Andrei out about Natasha but fails. But Andrei starts to ask Pierre about the white women’s gloves the masons give to their beloved– and then postpones the conversation. Instead, Pierre is being dragged away to participate into “a loud conversation among the men and a dispute about something important and clever” (505) that Berg is happy to see as the perfect conventional addition to his first party.