War & Peace, Part 2, ch. 7-21

War: battle and retreat from Vienna.

I’ve picked up War & Peace again in a quiet moment during lunch today. I had, like an idiot, carried it with me to Munich, but if travel does anything, it robs the mind of the sharpness necessary to read a book like this.

It is brought home to me again how incredibly remarkable this book is. We observe in minute detail the personal stories of the battle and how senseless it all is, senseless in the fact that no one in their right mind could believe anyone was controlling the outcome.

Again and again, the movements of the French and the Russians are actually blunders. No one understands what’s going on, and whole battalions of men turn and flee without really knowing why, or, conversely, turn and save the day without meaning to.

We return again and again to the little artillery captain Tushin, who holds the center of the Russian line with his four cannons, setting a village on fire and bedevilling the French, or stopping their charges altogether. He never receives two orders to retreat, and in fact the French react to his insistent cannonade as if that is where the main Russian force must be.

Finally Prince Andrei arrives and stays with him until he understands that the order to retreat has been given. Then we get an incredible passage: as night falls, Tushin and his men are swept into “an invisible, gloomy river… flowing in the darkness, all in one direction, with a hum of whispers, talk, and the sounds of hooves and wheels.”

Tushin, after the adrenalin of battle, is in a daze, but still looking after his men and anyone else who shows up at the campfire, including young Nikolai Rostov. Tolstoy shows us men who are utterly drained, who cannot yet register the events of the day. Random snapshots of men, officers, wounded, horses, life, death.

Tushin is called to Prince Bagration’s tent, where for a moment it looks as if the day’s defeat is going to be pegged on his failure to retreat. Tushin is unable to speak clearly in his defense, and finally Andrei, sick of the whole business, tells what he saw and stands up for the captain.

The section closes with Nikolai Rostov nursing a severely bruised shoulder and deliriously wondering why he’s not at home where he’s loved.

Tolstoy’s ability to depict both the confusion of battle in all its panoramic horror and the inner confusions of his characters is mind-blowing. He uses his camera like an auteur, and we are swept along with it. He’ll pull the soundtrack as we hear someone’s thoughts, then cut to a totally different part of the battlefield, even introducing a brand new character in the midst of the excitement, expecting us to follow the action without pause. It’s amazing.

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