Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Volume III, Book II, Chapters XXII - XXXIX

Battle. All battle.

I'm not doing a blow by blow of these last seventeen chapters, though like everything else they're brilliant. After setting up the waiting, and analyzing the historical analysis, Tolstoy begins with a small volley, followed by another, and the battle begins.

It's clear from this section with its philosophizing about military history that Tolstoy clearly believes that battles are not won or lost by generals or emperors, but are almost fated. Everyone plays the part they have to play. Napoleon is over-confident, and no match for the Russian spirit once it's engaged. Theories, or even numbers of men make no sense. Both lost many men in the battle of Borodino, and it was the first Napoleon had lost ever. It took away their confidence, and the Russians were willing to die.

Pierre moves around in this section, haplessly stumbling completely to the front lines. He's almost shot. He becomes an entertainment, and then a distraction to the men. It's clear he has no idea why he's there. He thinks at some point that people will realize what they've done and stop. He sees men die in front of him.

There is a great exchange with Kutuzov and a German general, in which Kutuzov tells him what he knows about the front and what is happening while the general assumes he is just sitting there lumpen and useless telling people what they'd like to hear. Kutuzov, as T has told us before, knows what his place is, and just what he can and can't effect. He is correct - the Russians will not lose or give up.

Andrei is striding in battle and gets hit in the hip - he muses while laying on the battlefield that he still doesn't understand life. He is brought into surgery, quickly because of his rank, occasioning a comment from one of the men that the masters will be treated better in heaven, too. Andrei is flowing in and out of consciousness, but near him in the tent is a man who he recognizes somewhat from the back of his head. The man is handed his leg after it is amputated, with it's bloody boot still on it, and sobs. Andrei realizes it's Kuragin, and has to remind himself of his old resentment. He is filled with pity for him, and compassion, for who they used to be. It's a beautiful moment. He sees what Marya has been talking about with God, forgiveness, and others.

He saves his vitriol for Napoleon, quoting a letter he wrote after about how he would have saved Europe and instilled a constitutional reign with his son. It's completely over the top, how he sees himself as savior, and T notes that he seemed to care only for what losses the French had; that the whole event was his will, and that his justification was that fewer French were lost than other soldiers who were fighting on their side.

The last chapter begins "Several tens of thousands of men lay dead in various positions". He goes on to describe how it almost looked as if either side made a little effort, they would have won. As it was, the Russians lost half their troops. The French lost their confidence, and the book ends withe the French having met "the hand of an adversary stronger in spirit."

There is a wonderful threading of nature in here - the horses and the other animals - birds circling with the smell of blood; the metallic smell of the gun powder and blood mixed together; the smoke that engulfs the battlefield. You get a great sense of how confusing it must have been. The uniforms were bright for a reason. The battlefield was generally covered in smoke. Cannonballs and bullets "whistled" by. There is a scene with Pierre where the men are in active battle and are joking as people get hit, and rallying each other. By the end, in the group Andrei is in, they are silenced and waiting to be hit. It's harrowing.

The writing in this whole battle is wonderful - Tolstoy showing of his knowledge of the battle, his military theory, and beautiful writing. He places his characters in the forefront and watches them witness history. All the while there is this great heart underneath. It's harrowing, sad, and disorienting, and beautifully written.

End of Book II, on to Book III