Saturday, May 19, 2012

Natasha's Dance

I have been reading War and Peace since January, a chapter a day. The book has three hundred and sixty six chapters, and 2012 has three hundred and sixty six days, so it seemed like a good idea. And it is, the book is among the greatest things ever, and the chapter a day pace suits it really well. I think at the start maybe reading only five pages a day seemed a bit restricting, but as you go along you get into the rhythm of it

Before reading the book, I did not too much about it. I knew, obviously, that it was set during the Napoleonic Wars and made a big deal of Napoleon's invasion of Russia. And I suppose from the title I could deduce that it featured stuff relating to people's peace-time lives as well. And that really was it – or almost it. I did have one other piece of advance knowledge, thanks to a partial reading of Orlando Figes' book Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia. When I first approached that book I took it that the "Natasha's Dance" bit of the title was metaphorical, but it turned out to be a layered metaphor – it refers to a scene in War and Peace where a character called Natasha does a dance, the dance and the scene being metaphorical. That gave away two spoilers – firstly that there is a character called Natasha who will do a dance and secondly that this Natasha is somehow important to the book as a whole, something that would not immediately have been apparent when she first appears in the novel (and something which is only beginning to become apparent now that she has done her dance).

But what is the dance thing all about? Well, Natasha is from a minor noble family whose menfolk are all fuckwits who are bringing the rest to the brink of ruin with their feckless and incompetent ways. Like all of the nobility, their lives are focussed on the cities, either Moscow or St. Petersburg, and the jockeying for position there. They speak French rather than Russian and are disdainful of the plain countryfolk and their way of life. But in this chapter, Natasha and her brother (amiable fuckwit Nicholas) find themselves back in the house of a very minor noble neighbour of their country estate, a man so barely noble at all that he lives on terms of easy familiarity with his serfs in his ramshackle house. He serves a simple meal (featuring pickled mushrooms, which sound like the best thing ever) and some drink to his guests and then his serfs play some music on a balalaika, and then Natasha is invited to dance – and she does, but she does not do one of the poncey French dances that she would have been thought in the cities, but a true Russian peasant dance whose steps she somehow just knows from the depths of her being. I think this says something about the Russian national character, or Tolstoy's view of it.

It is a lovely scene, independently of whatever meaning Tolstoy wants to communicate in it, with a lovely sense of unbuttoned joie de vivre very much at odds with the uptight lives of so many of the characters. It is one of the moments in this book that brings home what a great writer Tolstoy is and why so many people say that War and Peace is the greatest book ever written.

A review of Natasha's Dance

and another

image source

Later – oh great, trying to find a YouTube video of Natasha's Dance from one of the book's many adaptations I have come across a BIG SPOILER.

An inuit panda production


Nicholas Whyte said...

I'm sure you are aware of Orlando Figes' own review controversy!

ian said...

but of course.

ian said...

It is funny that he did that classic internet moron thing of posting under a pseudonym that does not hide his identity very well. "Orlando-Birkbeck" indeed.

The claiming his wife wrote the reviews was a bit slimy.