Thursday, April 7th, 2011
My summary of War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy continues…
Summer, 1812. As the French army advances like an unstoppable steam roller across Russia, it is clear that Napoleon means business. At least that is clear to any reasonable creature, but not, inevitably, to that cantankerous old troublemaker Prince Bolkonski, who refuses to abandon his country estate in spite of warnings from his son Andrei that the French are pretty darn close. Drab super-christian daughter Mary is beside herself with worry that they will not escape in time, but lo! God rewards the pious and blesses grumpy old Bolkonski with a dreadful paralytic stroke, allowing Mary to transport her prostrate papa to Andrei’s estate at Bogucharovo, where she prays to God to relieve her of her burdensome father. Which prayer (Mary’s god being an obliging fella) is soon answered. Yes, grumpy Pops pops his clogs, and Mary is left a bit sad, a bit relieved, and a bit guilty at being so relieved. She doesn’t have long to pretend to grieve though, as her refuge is soon threatened by the great evil of her age: not the French, but pesky peasant serfs, who, suspicious of the pious princess, take violent exception to her rule. So mourning Mary is now a damsel in distress, but fortunately for her there is a knight in shining armour passing through the neighbourhood – none other than Nicky Rostov, who gallantly storms in on his mighty steed, vanquishes the pesky peasants with his noble knuckles, and escorts the now very-much-smitten spinster Mary to safety.
Meanwhile at Russian army HQ, Mary’s brother Andrei is having much less fun. Being still rather melancholy and morbid following Natasha’s betrayal, Andrei gets himself into General Kutusov’s naughty books by declining an offer to serve on his staff (bad form, old boy). Not even the unexpected arrival of Pierre can lift his spirits; indeed, Andrei rather brings his spirits down with his extensive monologues on life and death (but mostly death). It’s not exactly the warm welcome Pierre had in mind when he first decided to selflessly forsake the Moscow salon scene and ride out on a little outing to watch the war.
And that war is about to turn nasty; Pierre has caught up with the army as it prepares for battle at Borodino. Over in the enemy camp, poor Bonaparte has the sniffles, but is nevertheless busy sending out orders for the coming clash. These orders, Tolstoy claims, have absolutely no influence on the battle whatsoever, nor does his presence necessary. Napoleon, however much of a genius he thinks himself to be, has as little influence on the action as Pierre, who spends the day bumbling around the battlefield, tagging behind busy officers, bumping into old love rivals, sheltering in overcrowded redoubts and generally getting in everybody’s way. At least Pierre, with his big white hat and detached touristic interest, provides welcome light relief to the actual combatants.
Pierre miraculously survives his comedy turn on the fields at Borodino, but there are many thousands who are not so fortunate. Prince Andrei for one is severely wounded and taken to the field hospital where his high social standing wins him a fast track to the operating table. There he witnesses old enemy Anatole having a leg amputated and sheds tears of love for the cripple – it’s funny what a bit of metal in the stomach will do for your sympathies.
Meanwhile, the battle grinds on to bloody stalemate, the belligerents suffering roughly equal numbers of casualties and neither budging an inch. Out of this confusion of smoke shrouded slaughter, mistimed advances, misplaced orders and ineffective action, it is impossible at the day’s end to establish with any incontestable certainty who ‘won’. Kutusov’s advisors recommend immediate retreat, but Kutusov is adamant that the ‘spirit of the army’ will allow for an attack in the morning. Tolstoy concurs with this view, and claims that Borodino was a great moral victory for Russia, vital to the eventual downfall of imperial France herself. The fact that the Russians actually did retreat the following day is beside the point, and, if anything, further evidence of Russian superiority. Nevertheless, at the close of book ten, the Russian army’s retreat leaves Moscow itself open to the invaders…
Georgina Phipps, Editorial Administrator
Read the next installment: Books Eleven & Twelve, Part I