Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Volume III, Book I, Chapter II

We knew the last chapter was setting us up for war, and indeed....

Napoleon invades Russia. Tolstoy is great in illustrating the ridiculous frenzy inspired by his presence, and his complete lack of interest in anything other than himself or his ambition.

There is an anecdote of a Polish officer, a colonel of the uhlans (Polish for soldier?), who wants to cross over the river Niemen without looking for a ford as requested by Napoleon, since he's so excited to be asked to do anything in front of the emperor. Napoleon had given the orders after looking through a field glass placed "on the back of a happy page who ran over" - great detail of a despot. Who knows if it happened, but great detail. So, the adjutant says that Napoleon would "not be displeased by such zeal" and lets the colonel cross. There's a horrible scene of men and horses drowning. Napoleon is not even caring or noticing - "They tried to swim forward to the other side, and, though there was a ford a quarter of a mile away, they were proud to swim and drown in this river before the eyes of a man who sat on a log and was not even looking at what they were doing....For him it was no new conviction that his presence at all ends of the world, from Africa to the Steppes of Muscovy, struck people in the same way and threw them into the madness of self-oblivion. He ordered his horse brought and rode to his camp."

Forty men drowned in the river, and I'm sure this was an historical event. They still, in wet clothes, yelled "vivat" to him as he passed, even with bodies needlessly gathering on the river.

Napoleon gives an order about "enrolling the Polish colonel who had needlessly thrown himself into the river in the Legion d'honneur, of which Napoleon himself was the head."

Tolstoy ends with a Latin phrase along the lines of "who the gods would kill they drive crazy first." It's perfect to end this chapter, as we see how little life means to the French emperor at all. Tolstoy picks the perfect event to illustrate it. The mass frenzy, too, is an entire paragraph of French snippets of men excited to be back in battle and near Napoleon. I think it's important to remember that this was still a time that most people believed their leaders were monarchs - gods or close to them. To the monarchy Napoleon might have been something of a usurper, but to the people his godlike status was unquestioned - at least to his people. Tolstoy mentions Napoleon's second wife, after anulling his marriage to Josephine, and sets us up for what his idea of his self is. The invasion into Russia is framed as just something done without much thought - that it was deserved and his land anyway.

We know how this plays out historically, but Tolstoy is making it about fascinating personalities.

No comments:

Post a Comment