Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a weekly series of blog posts by Steven Axelrod, a writer reflecting on Leo Tolstoy’s epic masterpiece, War and Peace, a monumental journey of a novel that he has embarked on completing this winter.
And so we come to the Napoleonic Wars. The great divide between Parts One and Two of Tolstoy’s epic novel have stopped me at least three times in the past. The change is a wrenching one with no transition.
From the drawing rooms of Moscow and St. Petersburg to this:
In October 1805, Russian troops were occupying villages and towns in the archduchy of Austria, and more new regiments kept arriving from Russia to be stationed by the fortress of Braunau, burdening the local inhabitants with their billeting.
It occurs to me now that this jolt must resemble, in pallid literary terms, what it actually feels like to be drafted into the army. The military of any country, whether it’s sending boys off to fight Napoleon or Ho Chi Minh has very little interest in smoothing things over for the average soldier. Just the opposite: the more disruptive and disorienting the change, the better. The civilian side of the new infantryman needs to be swiftly obliterated. This is a primary purpose of Basic Training, as crucial as getting fit and learning to shoot.
Whether this is a useful tactic for noncombatant readers, I remain uncertain.
Still, I realize now that I should have persevered. Tolstoy softens the blow immediately with the introduction of General Kutuzov, the commander in chief of the Russian army. He promises to be a shrewd, sly, amusing character and his arrival on the scene makes for an amusing piece Keystone Kops military slapstick. Word has come down that the commander in chief will be inspecting the troops—but in marching uniform or parade uniform? It’s a significant question, since the regiment has been marching for twenty miles with no sleep and parade dress will require a whole night of “mending and cleaning.” They go for it, “on the grounds that it was always better to bow too much than not to bow enough.” A crazy flurry of activity follows, and eventually all two thousand hollow-eyed, exhausted men have every button and strap polished, every shirt and pair of trousers pressed and sharp-creased, looking good as new. The only problem they can’t solve is the footwear. All the men’s shoes are falling apart after a seven hundred-mile trek. But there’s nothing to be done about that one.
It turns out that Kutuzov has been trying to dodge another prolonged march and was hoping to use the shabby and mud-spattered state of his troops with his Austrian counterparts, as a convincing argument for staying put. The worse they look, the better! So there’s another absurd frenzy of activity as soldiers rip and smudge and smear the uniforms they just spent nine hours repairing.
Nice try. The only thing Kutuzov is really happy with are the shoes.
It’s an amusing introduction to army life, circa 1805.
In any case, Kutuzov avers, the great General Mack surely doesn’t need the help, with victory so close at hand. Of course Mack’s forces are decisively crushed in the ensuing battle, just as Kutuzov knew they would be. He enjoys mocking the Austrians, evidently one of the few pleasures he can extract from a long grueling war against a daunting opponent.
And then Nikolai Rostov and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky arrive on the scene. Andrei comes off as a humorless prig in these early scenes, trying too hard to be the perfect adjutant to General Kutuzov. But Nikolai has an interesting moment, when his commanding officer Denisov’s gambling money is stolen—not the winnings, but the remains. He’s a cocky and incompetent card player. Rostov figures out who did it, tracks the thief down, confronts him, and shames him into a confession.
It sounds like a bold and dramatic way to start your service, but Nikolai makes the mistake of describing the scene to his regimental commander, Bogdanych, in front of various other officers. Suddenly the pride of the regiment is at stake, and Nikolai just looks like a rat. He’s socially clumsy, self-righteous snob and a loud one on top of everything else—so now he has to publicly retract the accusation and help the regiment cover up the thief’s discharge. He goes along finally, reluctantly, but he refuses to apologize. Not a good move; we can sense trouble ahead for him with Bogdanych.
And so, with a few dramatic scenes, Tolstoy pulls us into this new, alien milieu. Part of it is the surge of narrative, but there’s more. Richard Pevear, in his introduction to the new translation, talks about War and Peace baffling early readers with its “periodic structure, emphatic repetitions, epic similes.” I came across one of those similes yesterday and it reminded me of why I started this project in the first place. I had been reading Ken Follett’s three-volume epic, The Century Trilogy. That chore had begun well and I clipped through the first volume, Fall of Giants at a sharp pace. I found the historical information about World War One interesting and almost felt like I understood that debacle, for a few days. But I started to struggle with volume two, Winter of the World. The various global calamities were trotted out in due course—The Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, and Anchluss—with various characters playing variously articulated minor roles in the larger story. One of them was chumming around with Lenin! It started to feel like work, keeping up with all those faintly sketched people, those dutiful plot functionaries, and there wasn’t much nourishment in the writing itself to sustain me.
Finally, I thought—hello, this isn’t fourteen-carat gemstone literature! It’s trash! It’s supposed to be fun. That’s the minimum requirement. Trash fiction that’s not fun is as pointless as a flat roller-coaster or a moody dog.
If I was going to work, I might as well read something worth the effort.
So I chose to read Tolstoy instead. More than anything else I encountered this week, the following paragraph made me feel I’d made the right decision.
Tolstoy is describing the parade of Russian troops and artillery crossing a bridge over the river Enns, near Vienna. The description comes through the eyes of Prince Nevitsky, adjutant who had annoyed Prince Andrei by mocking the Austrians (only Kutuzov is allowed to mock the Austrians) earlier in the chapter. Nevitsky is halfway across the bridge, pulled along by the surging crowds.
But the countrymen, pressed shoulder to shoulder, catching on their bayonets and never pausing, moved across the bridge in a solid mass. Looking down over the railing, Prince Nevitsky saw the swift, noisy, low waves of the Enns, which, merging, rippling, and swirling around the pilings of the bridge, drove on one after the other. Looking at the bridge, he saw the same monotonous living waves of soldiers, shoulder braids, shakos with dustcovers, packs, bayonets, long muskets, and under the shakos faces with wide cheekbones, and carefree, weary faces, and feet moving over the sticky mud that covered the planks of the bridge. Occasionally, amid the monotonous waves of soldiers, like a spray of white foam on the waves of the Enns, an officer pushed his way through, in a cape, with his physiognomy distinct from the soldiers’ occasionally, like a chip of wood swirled along by the river, a dismounted hussar, an orderly, or a local inhabitant was borne across the bridge by the waves of infantry; occasionally, like a log floating down the river, a company’s or an officer’s cart floated across the bridge, surrounded on all sides, loaded to the top, and covered with leather.
“Look at ’em, it’s like a dam burst, the Cossack said, stopping hopelessly.
I suppose how you feel about a paragraph like this depends on how you feel about epic similes, generally. Personally, I love them. This one gives me the image of a giant Cossak storyteller, striding across his own bridges and burning them behind him (as Kutuzov does), pausing now and then to look down and have some very high-end twenty-four carat gemstone fun.
I’m happy to run behind him, trying to catch up.
Photo: Campaign of France 1814