Lev Tolstoy – War and Peace; volume I, parts 1 & 2

Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy’s War and Peace being as infamously long and complicated as it is, a format change seems prudent.  Rather than a general overview, these posts will be devoted to close readings of particularly intriguing passages and maybe, as the book turns to essays on the nature of war in the second half, discussion of how Tolstoy’s musings relate to the themes expressed in the actions of characters.

The rest of the infantry hurriedly crossed the bridge, squeezing into a funnel at the entrance.  Finally all the carts passed over, the crush eased up, and the last battalion entered the bridge.  Only the Hussars of Denisov’s squadron remained on the other side of the bridge facing the enemy.  The enemy, visible in the distance from the opposite hill, were not yet visible from the bridge below, because from the bottom where the river flowed, the horizon was bounded by the opposite heights less than half a mile away.  Ahead was a deserted space over which clusters of our Cossack patrols moved here and there.  Suddenly on the road going up the opposite heights appeared troops in blue coats and artillery.  It was the French.  A Cossack patrol moved down the hill at a trot.  All the officers and men of Denisov’s squadron, though they tried to talk about unrelated things and look elsewhere, constantly thought only about what was there on the hill, and kept peering at the spots that appeared on the horizon, which they recognized as enemy troops.  After midday the weather cleared again, the sun shone brightly, going down over the Danube and the dark hills around it.  It was still, and once in a while from that hill floated the sounds of bugles and the shouts of the enemy.  Between the squadron and the enemy there was now nothing but some small patrols.  They were separated by an empty space of about six hundred yards.  The enemy stopped shooting, and that strict, menacing, inaccessible and elusive line that separates two enemy armies became all the more clearly felt.

“One step beyond that line, reminiscent of the line separating the living from the dead, and it’s the unknown, suffering, and death.  And what is there? who is there? there’ beyond this field, and the tree, and the roof lit by the sun?  No one knows, and you would like to know; and you’re afraid to cross that line, and would like to cross it; and you know that sooner or later you will have to cross it and find out what is there on the other side of death.  And you’re strong, healthy, cheerful, and excited, and surrounded by people just as strong and excitedly animated.”  So, if he does not think it, every man feels who finds himself within sight of an enemy, and this feeling gives a particular brilliance and joyful sharpness of impression to everything that happens in those moments.    (143)

So begins the first major conflict in the second part of this set of two novels, one of war and one of peace.  As the reader sees, the second part of volume I is concerned with war.  This passage is interesting because it’s the first time that Russian troops encounter the French.  The subject of Napoleon and his war is never far from the gentry’s mind in their many discussions in part 1, and the narrative of the second part up to this point has been concerned with the preparations for war being made by troops and commanders.  Now, they finally get to see the enemy.  But, the former soldier Tolstoy is less concerned with describing the impressions made by the enemy as he is with describing the impressions made by the lines and space between the Russians and their enemy.

A rather clumsy attempt is made to describe the reasons that the French could not be seen from the bridge (perhaps it is difficulty in the translation, but in my experience, it can be rather hard to describe the relative position of objects or people on one or more fields, so I am inclined to think this is an issue with the writing more than the translating): “from the bottom where the river flowed, the horizon was bounded by the opposite heights less than half a mile away.”  Attention is given to the French’s apparent absence.  And then, “Suddenly…”…

“Spots”.  Not identifiable troops with guns, faces, families, and stories, but “spots that appeared on the horizon.”  There is still enough plausible disconnect caused by the distance that the troops still have to “recognize” that the spots are troops.  And, as most people do with an unpleasant entity, “they tried to talk about unrelated things and look elsewhere, [but] constantly thought only about what was there on the hill, and kept peering at the spots that appeared on the horizon, which they recognized as enemy troops.”

The “strict, menacing, inaccessible, and elusive line” describes the no-mans-land between the Russian and French troops, a description that anticipates the inhospitable ground between trenches in World War I.  The intriguing aspect of this is that, unlike the no-mans-land in WWI, which was stark and so apparent that no one could miss it, the line described by Tolstoy was purely hypothetical: “inaccessible” and “elusive.”  Without both armies present, the line would not exist.  Yet, because both the French and Russians are on either side of this six hundred yard long stretch of empty land, it is “strict” and “menacing.”

Tolstoy chooses to put the second paragraph’s set of musings in quotes, attributing it to that which “every man feels who finds himself within sight of an enemy”.  This at once takes it out of the mouth of the narrator and makes it into an eternal, abstract notion existent before and after the book’s composition, and at the same time, takes credit for the wording with the disclaimer “if he does not think it,” implying the actual truth of this passage’s wording: it’s putting first into Russian and then translated into English, a wordless sensation; a mental image of icons and emotions that comes over the person that sees an enemy army as spots in the distance.  The passage concludes with a familiar idea: that the moments are especially sharp or clear in the moments afterwards, similar to Dostoevsky’s description of narrowly avoiding being executed or enduring an epileptic fit.

The phrasing of this passage is echoed chapters later, when Nikolai Rostov begins his failed charge in the chaos of battle.  Contrary to Andrei Bolkonsky’s behavior during the battle, which is somewhere being blind, naive idealism and bravery, Rostov is portrayed as having very little agency: the impression is that he is so overloaded with the sensations and orders and embarrassments of the moment and the previous days that he is being led—or dragged around—by the nose by those who rank him.  Responding to Denisov’s command to trot towards the enemy, he suddenly swells with merriment as he approaches the French:

This tree was first ahead of him, in the middle of the line that seemed so terrible.  But then they crossed that line, and not only was there nothing frightening, but everything became merrier and livelier.    (188)

Crossing into the barrier that at once signifies both the enemy’s territory and death is not as terrible as Rostov and the other soldiers predicted and Rostov is filled with an excitement and enthusiasm.  Shortly, though, the hapless Rostov sees his horse shot out from under him, and he falls to the ground, not even noticing in the excitement at first.  Once he does, he frees himself from the saddle and wonders, “Where, on which side now was that like which had so sharply separated the two armies?” (189).  Again, the meaning is layered.  The line has been literally blurred in the charge: as a gradient blends two colors, a battle in progress blends the two sides, no longer separated by a neutral zone.  However, as Rostov wonders what is to be done, he notices a French soldier, “in a strange shako and a blue greatcoat, dark, tanned, with a hooked nose” (189).  In other words, a human being.  No longer a dot, he sees the French soldier as a whole person.  Not being in the position to make moral decisions such as whether or not to kill, he does not consider the morality of war, but the reader can’t help but note the difference between this and the original sighting of the French, when they were only dots on the hillside.  Especially since Rostov soon after turns and retreats.

Unhurt, Rostov’s actions seem to be somewhat private, and he is picked up on the retreat after the battle by one of the Russian heroes, Tushin.

The as-yet unsaid but constant message of these battle scenes so far appears to be the tried-and-true adage that war is glorious only to those who have not experienced it.  Once you get down in the trenches, on the lines, and in the ranks, it’s a confusing, muddled, chaotic string of moments, none of which seem completely related.  Just as the characters in the peace sections talk frequently about the war, those in the war sections can hope and long for nothing more than peace.


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