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Tolstoy Journal, February 23, 2017, “like ants from a demolished ant-hill”

Last night I was feeling kind of depressed about writing in general, how it seems sometimes you are sending your words into a black hole, so on and so forth. So I read a chapter of Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write, which always makes me feel better (even though she’s a bit wacky, I still love her), and then I dove into Tolstoy. I recommend both. Also, as Ueland quotes Van Gogh as saying, if you doubt you are a painter, then paint! In other words when you doubt yourself, work! (She also recommends taking long walks and keeping a diary.)

So I got up to page 198 in Volume IV. There are 341 pages in this volume. By the end of March, I will have read all of War and Peace and then comes Anna Karenina (which I have read once but look forward to reading again)!

The travel book for today, by the way, is Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism by George Steiner. I have never read this but have wanted to for a very long time; I have only dipped into it enough to have purloined the opposition of Tolstoy as the “seer of the flesh” vs. Dostoevsky as “the seer of the spirit.” And look at this first line: “Literary criticism should arise out of a debt of love.” Amen and amen.

I am in Part X of War and Peace now and what I most remember from this section is how it contrasts the world of the civilian from the world of the soldier. In other words, in this section war meets peace, the two themes of the book come together. The elder prince, cantankerous father of Prince Andrei, sends his servant, Alpatuitch, to Smolensk to carry out various errands and to discern whether his son is right that he should flee with his family to Moscow because Napoleon is on the way. When he gets there he can hear firing in the distance but he thinks nothing of it; his usual innkeeper says they will hold the line, no worries. But by the next day, Alpatuitch realizes, as does everyone, even the innkeeper, that the line will not be held. This is because of the cannonballs flying over their heads then into their streets:

“Alpatuitch went out into the street; a couple of men were running down toward the bridge. In various directions could be heard the whistling and crashing of round shot, and the bursting of bombshells falling into the city. But these sounds attracted little attention among the citizens compared with the roar of the cannonading heard beyond the city. This was the bombardment which Napoleon commanded to be opened at five o’clock, from one hundred and thirty cannon. The people at first did not realize the significance of this bombardment. The crash of falling shells and cannon-balls at first wakened only curiosity. Ferapontof’s [the innkeeper] wife, who had been steadily wailing and weeping in the barn, dried her tears, and came out to the gates with her baby in her arms, and gazed silently at the people and listened to the noise.

“The cook and the shop-tender came down to the gates. All looked with eager curiosity at the projectiles flying over their heads. Around the corner came several men, talking with great animation.

“‘What force there was!’ one was saying. ‘Smashed the roof and the ceiling all into kindling-wood.’

“‘And it plowed up the ground just like a hog!’ said another. . . .

“Once more, but very near this time, came something with a whistling sound, like a bird flying toward the ground; there was a flash of fire in the middle of the street, a loud, stunning crash, and the street was filled with smoke. . . .

“At the same instant, the pitiful screaming of women was heard on various sides; a child wailed in terror, and the people gathered in silence with pale faces around the cook. Above all other sounds were heard the groans and exclamations of the cook.

“‘Oi-o-okh! my darlings! my poor darlings! Don’t let them kill me! My poor darlings!’

“Five minutes later, not a soul was left in the street. The cook, whose thigh had been broken by a fragment of the bomb, was carried into the kitchen. Aplatuitch, his coachman, and Ferapontof’s wife and children and the hostler, were cowering in the cellar, with ears alert. The roar of cannon, the whistle of projectiles, and the pitiful groans of the cook, which overmastered all else, ceased not for a single instant. . . .

“Toward twilight, the cannonade began to grow less violent. Alpatuitch went out of the cellar and stood in the doorway. The evening sky, which before had been cloudless, was now shrouded in smoke. And through this smoke strangely shone the sickle of the young moon high in the west. After the cessation of the terrible roar of the cannon, silence fell upon the city, broken only by what seemed to be a constantly increasing rumble of hurrying steps, groans, distant shouts, and the crackling of flames. The cook’s groaning had ceased. In two different directions, volumes of black smoke arose from the conflagrations and spread over the city. Soldiers in various uniforms, mixed all together, no longer in orderly ranks, but like ants from a demolished ant-hill, came running and walking from various directions down the street.”

Now, what’s interesting to me, besides the sensuous skill and yet simplicity of the writing, is that Tolstoy has intertwined his two themes, war and peace, but only with minor characters. None of the major characters are here. In fact there is only one we have seen before, Alpatuitch, and we’ve barely seen him. Why does he do this? Part of it might just be that this happened away from where the major characters lived and Alpatuitch is the link so that Tolstoy can describe the attack on Smolensk from the civilian point of view. And maybe that’s the only reason. But I wonder if it’s partly to do with distancing the reader by taking major characters out of the equation. It allows the reader, so to speak, to be a character and to be more involved in what’s going on.

This section also reminds me of stories my late Lithuanian father-in-law told me about walking away from the Soviet advance during World War II. He and his wife walked across Poland with the retreating Germans because they feared the Soviets more. One of the things he told me was that artillery was so heavy that sometimes at night it was as bright as daylight from the flashing of the guns in the sky.


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