'A battle is won by the side that is absolutely determined to win...'
I feel as if I've been dragged through a battlefield backwards this month and consider myself lucky to have emerged the other side of the Battle of Borodino relatively unscathed, not least because this was Team Tolstoy's longest month of reading so far and, if I'm honest the thing seemed to be scuffing its heels a bit in getting to the action... I'm wondering how everyone else has fared?
If ever I needed determination to win and stay on the troika it was this month, lots of other great reads in progress and initially finding myself longing for Tolstoy's drawing rooms rather than all this plein air stuff. Fearing that I may run out of steam and having tackled this in dribs and drabs, I took myself off to a quiet corner one afternoon to launch a major assault on Volume III. Settling down at 2.30pm I emerged at 6pm, ragged and a couple of naps later thinking well that was a-m-azing. I sometimes think, if I had time I'd probably enjoy going back to the beginning of each month's section and reading it again, once doesn't ever seem enough for War and Peace, subsequent readings seem likely to reveal even more.
But here we are about to enter the theatre of war and the Russians don't seem in the least bit bothered, Alpatych and Ferapontov sipping tea and discussing the price of corn, the crops and the weather whilst Napoloen is making his way steadily in the direction of Smolensk. Meanwhile in Moscow salon life remains unchanged as Anna Pavlovna and Helene maintain their respective gatherings, where the only challenge seems to be deciding which side you are batting for before you hit a six and drop a clanger... and then as quickly being able to swap to bowling when the winds of power change direction.
Tolstoy exercises his phD in hindsight to the limits as he explores the preamble and the aftermath of Napoleon's invasion whilst I was also unsurprised to see him weaving in a little peasant uprising among the fearless serfs who literally had nothing to lose, and how he cleverly demonstrates that the seeds of future discontent are being sown.
Poor Maria has to cope with the death of her father Prince Bolkonsky...lots to talk about there, including Nikolai to the rescue and love is in definitely in the air, and of course we think there may be more bad news on the way though nothing is certain about brother Andrei's fate at the end of this month's section is it? I doubt he'll survive with half his stomach hanging out so we may have more sadness to come for Maria. The Maude footnotes inform me that canon law prohibited marriage between brothers and sisters-in-law so had Andrei married Natasha, that would have prevented Nikolai from marrying Maria, hmm, but then there's Sonia...
I was quite relieved to see Pierre when he finally arrived and bless him, wandering around the night before the battle thinking he'd watch it from a quite little vantage point but bumbling into the epicentre of the battle zone.
The art of war seemed more like the farce of war, this is primitive and chaotic and Tolstoy seemed to give free rein to his disgust at the planning and preparations. I'm not sure I had ever given much thought to the idea that a battlefield site was chosen beforehand, I suspect I had thought the battle just took place where the two advancing sides happened to bump into each other, whether that be Culloden or Borodino, so the premeditation about a suitable place to slaughter each other came as quite a surprise.
Andrei's stirring pre-battle outburst felt a bit Henry IVth in reverse, rather than rousing the troops to battle he seemed to be reflecting on the folly of it all, brilliant writing ...
War is not being nice to each other, it's the vilest thing in human life and we ought to understand that and not play at war. It's a terrible necessity and we should be strict about it and take it seriously...it's not a plaything...the aim of war is murder, the weapons of war are spying and treachery...the destruction of people, looting their property...
and so it goes on, as plainly, through Andrei, Tolstoy mediates all his anger and despair about war.
Never forgetting that Tolstoyian nod to humour either, and what is Napoleon doing on the morning of the battle?
'The Emperor Napoloen was still in his bedroom, finishing his toilet. With much snorting and harrumphing he twisted this way and that, offering first his fat back and his flabby hairy chest to the flesh-brush wielded by a valet who was rubbing him down.'
So the biggest military engagement of his career, Russia in his grasp and Napoleon is exfoliating.
The man deserves to lose and when he eventually does...well it's more of an impasse, the Russians hold firm against all the odds and doubtless because they were 'absolutely determined to win' whilst the French, routed and depleted can only retreat. But for all his nicely buffed up exterior even I felt a pang of sympathy for the Emperor's complete humiliation as the scale of the defeat and the loss of life became apparent to him, though Tolstoy spares no mercy in his scathing assessment of Napoloen.
And then there's the episode of Anatole's leg,and we have little idea how complete Andrei's gastro-intestinal system may be so grief and tears to come next month I suspect.
So yet again a complete turn around...it happens every time, I head to the pages just a little reluctantly and emerge enthused as Tolstoy seems so capable of getting inside the head of any character he chooses buy had it not been for Team Tolstoy I may just have surrendered and missed yet more superlative writing. I'm not sure how many of us are still in the fight but we're definitely on the home run now with just four months out of twelve to go so how are you all doing... I hope you have survived the battle though we've yet to win the war and turn the final page of course.
Back here on June 9th to discuss :: Volume III Part 3 Chs 1-34 (about 120 pages) and beginning,
' For the human mind absolute continuity of motion is inconceivable...'