Today’s “travel book” is Rosemary Edmond’s translation of War and Peace. This is the version I read about half of before I dropped it, not because I wasn’t mesmerized but I just got interested in another book and way led on to way. The cover illustration is a detail from “The 1812 Retreat–The Battle of Borodino” by Vereschagin. Of course the retreat took place a month after the battle of Borodino.
I have read the first forty-four pages of Volume VI of the Works of Lyof Tolstoi, or up to Chapter XII of Part XIV. The pages started out as one of Tolstoy’s lectures on military history and how to measure the strength of an army. It seems to me he applies science in a clumsy way to his arguments, a confusing way too, and yet the whole time, underneath the science so to speak, runs a river rushing the other way in the direction of God or the spirit.
Here is the kernel of his argument about military strength: “The x is the spirit of the army; in other words, the more or less intense desire of all the men composing the army to fight and expose themselves to perils, independently of the question whether they are under the command of men of genius or otherwise, whether they fight in three or two ranks, whether they are armed with clubs or with guns delivering thirty shots a minute.
“Men who have the most intense desire to fight always put themselves in the most advantageous position for fighting.”
During Napoleon’s retreat, small bands of Russian fighters, some official, some not, attacked the retreating French, guerilla style. Tolstoy says the French historians complain that this was against the rules–as if, he adds, there could be rules about killing your fellow man–and that what happened is akin to if two men were dueling with foils and one man, realizing he was about to be killed, threw his foil away and picked up a nearby club and fought with that. That is, the Russians did what they had to do, and once they had done it, they were braver in spirit than the French, and weren’t afraid to attack in small bands because they already had the French whipped mentally, just as the French had had everyone they attacked previously whipped mentally.
The rest of these pages describe how Denisof and Dolokhof, respective leaders of guerilla bands attack a part of the French retreat. Big spoiler ahead: Petya Rostof, Nikolai’s little brother, about sixteen, is able to attach himself to Denisof, and the night before the attack accompanies Dolokhof–both of them wearing French uniforms–into a French camp to gather information. Denisof, the family friend, it will be remembered, of the Rostofs–Dolokhof was a friend too, both of them fell in love with Natasha–is relieved when Petya comes back alive. It is hard to restrain Petya from his romantic love of glory; and Tolstoy shows how immature but loving and generous he is. He keeps offering the other soldiers raisins and fresh flints.
The next morning during the raid, Petya, inspired partly by Dolokof’s audacity from the previous night, charges ahead of everyone and is killed by sniper fire. Then follows a very short but extremely powerful scene that is quintessential Tolstoy, so real you think–or at least a part of me does–he shouldn’t have written it.
“Denisof . . . . rose up to Petya, dismounted, and with trembling hands turned Petya over, looked at his face, already turned pale, and stained with blood and mud.
“‘I like something sweet. Splendid raisins, take them all,’ occurred to him. [This is what Petya always said while giving away his raisins.] And the Cossacks, with amazement, looked around as they heard the sound, like the barking of a dog, with which Denisof, quickly turned away, went to the hedge, and clutched it.”
That “barking of a dog” is what startles one with the truth.
Now I’d like to continue with some quotes from Roland Blythe’s introduction to The Death of Ivan Illyich.
“‘We deliver death into the dim hands of instinct,’ he [Maeterlinck] writes in La Morte, ‘and we grant it not one hour of our intelligence. Is it surprising that the idea of death, which should be the most perfect and the most luminous, remains the flimsiest of our ideas and the only one that is backward? How should we know the one power we never look in the face? To fathom its abysses we wait until the most enfeebled, the most disordered moments of our life arrive.'”
“The real thing involves a recognition of death as a natural corollary of life.”
“Yet nature, art, religion, literature–all the great progenitors of our living awareness–tell us that death is a positive and quite individual occurrence, and that to refuse to look at it is the most certain way of shrinking our responses to everything else.”
Maeterlinck [again]:”We impute to it the tortures of the last illness . . . but illnesses have nothing in common with that which ends them.”
“The Christian-scientific philosopher Teilhard de Chardin prayed that he might have an understanding of the terminal process when God was painfully parting the fibers of his being in order to penetrate to the marrow of his substance and bear him away within Himself. Tolstoy’s own egotism made it impossible for him to accept death in these passive, mystical terms, and Ivan Ilyich’s dreadful struggles are an honest description of how Tolstoy thought he himself might have behaved in similar circumstances.”
“Above all the gulf dividing the dying from the living is no less now than when Ivan Ilyich sees that ‘the awesome, terrifying act of his dying had been degraded by those about him to the level of a chance unpleasantness, a bit of unseemly behavior (they reacted to him as they would to a man who emitted a foul odor on entering a drawing room); that it had been degraded by that very “propriety” to which he had devoted his entire life.'”