Blog Post

February 3, 2017

Yesterday I was in bed with either a very bad cold or a mild flu; either way I was able to finish Volume II and start Volume III. I had to start using a letter opener to cut pages that have never been read. Doing so is an aesthetic delight, at least for me, and to turn to Tolstoy after Twitter and current events is like swimming in the ocean after splashing in mud puddles.

There is way too much to cover in the pages I read so I will just discuss the highlights, the things I remember most. The first would be Prince Andrei’s experience in war when he is wounded. Up till this point all he has thought about is how he will be a hero, but now he is lying on the ground. (Tolstoy is a master, by the way, of showing how when one is wounded one doesn’t know it at first; he always has the soldier saying, what’s wrong, why isn’t my arm working anymore, or, why is my horse lying down so suddenly?)

“Over him he could see only the sky, the lofty sky; not clear, but still immeasurable lofty, and with light gray clouds slowly wandering over it.

“‘How still, calm, and solemn! How entirely different from when I was running,’ said Prince Andrei to himself. ‘It was not so when we were all running, and shouting, and fighting; how entirely different it is from when the Frenchman and the artilleryman, with vindictive and frightened faces, were struggling for possession of the sponge: the clouds then were not floating over those infinite depths of sky as they are now. How is it that I never before saw this lofty sky? and how glad I am that have learned to know it at last! Yes! all is empty, all is deception, except these infinite heavens. Nothing, nothing at all besides! And even that is nothing but silence and peace! And glory to God! . . . .'”

And then after a couple of chapters with Rostof, who comes to realize the Russians are losing the battle but can’t believe it at first, we are back with Prince Andrei lying wounded on the battlefield:

‘Voila, une belle mort,’ said Napoleon, gazing at Bolkonsky. Prince Andrei realized that this was said of him, and that it was spoken by Napoleon. He heard them address the speaker as ‘sire.’ But he heard these words as if they had been the buzzing of a fly. He was not only not interested in them, but they made no impression upon him, and he immediately forgot them. His head throbbed as with fire; he felt that his lifeblood was ebbing, and he still saw far above him the distant, eternal heavens. He knew that this was Napoleon, his hero; but at this moment, Napoleon seemed to him merely a small, insignificant man in comparison with that lofty, infinite heaven, with the clouds flying over it.”

Napoleon realizes Prince Andrei is alive and has him taken to the doctor, then comes to see his Russian prisoners. He comes up to each of them and says something, they respond, but Prince Andrei can think of nothing to say, even when his hero is praising him for bravery:

“Although five minutes before this Prince Andrei had been able to say a few words to the soldiers who were bearing him, now he fixed his eyes directly on Napoleon, but had nothing to say . . . . To him at this moment all the interests occupying Napoleon seemed so petty, his former hero himself, with his small vanity and delight in the victory, seemed so sordid in comparison with that high, true, and just heaven which he had seen and learned to understand; and that was why he could not answer him.”

How refreshing that was to read on a day when the president had been acting up again, this time with Australia. And then, in War and Peace, comes a return to peacetime and Andrei’s wife is having her baby. They think Andrei is dead. ALERT: spoilers ahead. His wife has her baby, but dies giving birth, and after seeing Andrei but not really realizing he’s back. So you have birth, death, and birth (in a sense) from death and you buy it because it is told so simply and well. No emotions are wrung sentimentally from the reader, he just tells what happens. And Tolstoy says she died with a look on her face that said, (I’m paraphrasing here), Why has this been done to me?

That is, Tolstoy is getting all of life into this book. Later on, Rostof goes to visit his wounded friend, Denisof, who is in a “hospital.” This section is hard to read, but it is part of the whole story of life Tolstoy is telling:

“The effluvium, which he had already smelt in the corridor, was still stronger here. It had also changed somewhat in character: it was sharper, more penetrating, one could be certain that this was the very place where it originated.

“In a long room, brilliantly illuminated by the sun, which poured in through the windows, lay the sick and wounded in two rows, with their heads to the walls, leaving a passageway between their feet. The most of them were asleep or unconscious, and paid no attention to the visitors. Those who had their senses, either lifted themselves up, or raised their thin, yellow faces, and all, without exception, gazed at Rostof with one and the same expression of hope that help had come, or reproach and envy at seeing another so strong and well.

“Rostof went into the middle of the ward . . . . In front of him, almost across the narrow passageway, lay, on the bare floor, a sick man, apparently a Cossack, as his hair was cropped, leaving a tuft. This Cossack lay on his back, with his huge legs and arms sprawled out. His face was a livid purple. His eyes were rolled up so that only the whites could be seen, and the veins in his bare legs and arms, which were still red, stood out like cords. He was thumping his head on the floor and hoarsely muttering some word which he repeated over and over again. Rostof listened to what he was saying, and at least made out what the word was: this word was ‘water–water–water!'”

There is more to write about what I read yesterday. But for now I will wait till Monday and keep reading. I hope to get ahead enough in my reading to start reading some of my travel books, such as biography of Tolstoy, et. al.


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