In a celebrated passage in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a girl is dancing – a young girl not yet out of her teens. She is an aristocrat, a countess from St Petersburg, and she is visiting the village home of a distant relative whom she calls her uncle. He is a jovial character who lives with a serf woman, Anisya, who has prepared a rustic banquet for the hunting party. The girl is Natasha, the heroine of Tolstoy’s novel. She is filled with an ingenuous enthusiasm for life and is enchanted by this sudden slice of bucolic living, so far removed from genteel city circles. After the meal she is enchanted by the sound of the balalaika. At the introductory chord to a folk-dance, ‘Uncle’ genially commands her to dance it. She has never done such a thing before, but she flings off her shawl, sets her arms akimbo, makes the preparatory motion with her shoulders, and proceeds to perform the dance to perfection, to the amazement of her audience – and, it seems, of the author.
Where, how, and when could this young countess, who had had a French emigrée for governess, have imbibed from the Russian air she breathed the spirit of that dance? . . . Her performance was so perfect that Anisya Fyodorovna . . . had tears in her eyes, though she laughed as she watched the slender, graceful countess, reared in silks and velvets, in another world than hers, who was yet able to understand all that was in Anisya, and in Anisya’s father and mother and aunt, and in every Russian man and woman.
In another famous passage in War and Peace the cold and distant aide-de-camp Prince Andrey Bolkonsky lies wounded, in and out of consciousness, during the Battle of Austerlitz, having just rescued his battalion’s standard. As evening advances, he gazes up at the loftiness of the sky as if he had never seen it before. Three riders approach. ‘C’est une belle mort,’ says one of them, looking down on what he assumes to be the corpse of the soldier who had carried the standard. One of the others replies, addressing the first as Sire, and Bolkonsky understands that the man he is now looking up at is Napoleon, whom he actually reveres more than his own tsar.
But he heard the words as he might have heard the buzzing of a fly . . . Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant creature compared with what was passing now between his own soul and that lofty, li
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