I’m reading War and Peace right now, and it’s exhilarating. I’ve always meant to and I had an idea that I’d read it this fall in preparation for Freedom so that I’d get the War and Peace allusions that Kakutani says are there (although she calls them “laughably conceited“). Which means, if you’re currently reading Freedom, I look forward to discussing it with you in spring 2012.
I finished Part 1 this morning (a little over 100 pages in) and was pretty sodden with a pile of used Kleenex beside me. That section ends with Prince Andrei’s departure for the war, with his father screaming him out the door of his study in an excess of nerves and then blowing his nose over and over once the door is shut. So far I’m finding the novel’s male characters especially affecting, and this scene, with the father’s agitation, did me in. (One of my nephews served several years in Iraq, and when he came home, there was a big breakfast here in Asheville at which my dad, in his relief and pride but already in poor health, kept sending pancakes from his plate down the table to my nephew, who had a full plate of his own. Person to person, fork to fork, the pancakes would go. Prince Andrei and his father are, of course, on the other side of this emotional equation, with the young man just heading off, neither knowing what is to come.)
The other leave-taking between a father and son happens when Pierre, an illegitimate son, is called to the deathbed of his father, the count, and in his awkwardness doesn’t know what to do. He stands by as people minister to his father, and there’s this tremendous moment where his father, being lifted by attendants, passes his son held high in the air, which shocked me both because the entire scene is so moving and because it’s echoed (consciously, I think) in Nabokov’s famous image of his father levitating in the sky in Speak, Memory.
From War and Peace (I’m reading the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation):
The carriers, who also included Anna Mikhailovna, came even with the young man, and for a moment, over people’s backs and necks, he saw the high, fleshy, bared chest and massive shoulders of the sick man, raised up by the people who held him under the arms, and his curly, gray leonine head.
And Nabokov’s memorial description of his father being tossed in the air by the estate’s peasants (“a token of gratitude”), which closes chapter one:
From my place at the table I would suddenly see through one of the west windows a marvelous case of levitation. There, for an instant, the figure of my father in his wind-rippled white summer suit would be displayed, gloriously sprawling in midair, his limbs in a curiously casual attitude, his handsome, imperturbable features turned to the sky. Thrice, to the mighty heave-ho of his invisible tossers, he would fly up in this fashion, and the second time he would go higher than the first and then there he would be, on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar, with such a wealth of folds in their garments, on the vaulted ceiling of a church while below, one by one, the wax tapers in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute flames in the mist of incense, and the priest chants of eternal repose, and the funeral lilies conceal the face of whoever lies there, among the swimming lights, in the open coffin.