Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Better-Late-Than-Never Week 4 Recap

Okay, apologies. I got wrapped up with other things (work, Lakers-Celtics, dog, new-found tennis-playing obsession, etc.) and got way behind on putting out the Week 4 recap. So, at long last, here it is.

This week involved a lot of scenes from the battlefield in Austria. I'm sorry to say that I found much of this stuff quite boring and slow. And a lot this week's reading centered on Nikolai Rostov, whom I find to be extremely boring and uninteresting. There are endless scenes of Rostov getting aroused watching the young "frisky" Emperor Alexander, fantasizing about dying in Alexander's arms, etc. It's tedious.

The endless build-up to the actual final battle scenes was also quite tedious, I thought. We get a long scene of the war council coming up with the best-laid plans that will ensure that the Russians and Austrians will be totally wiped out by the French. Once the plan is set out, most of the meeting realizes the plan is stupid, but it's late, and it can't be changed, so why not get a good night's sleep before marching off to certain doom? "'Gentlemen, the disposition for tomorrow, for today even (because it's already past twelve), cannot be changed,' [Kutozov] said. 'You have heard it, and we will all do our duty. And there's nothing more important before a battle ...' (he paused) 'than a good night's sleep.'" (W&P at 263-64.)

The battle scenes do come alive in the end, with a good helping of blood and gore. As they beat a hasty and messy retreat (Id. at 279), the Russian troops get smacked and splattered into oblivion by French cannonballs as the Russians beat a retreat from Austerlitz. Andrei, sickened by the scene of cowardice and disorder, "seiz[es] the staff of a standard and hearing with delight the whistle of bullets, evidently aimed precisely at him," charges towards the French. And then, "[i]t seemed to him as though one of the nearest soldiers, with the full swing of a stout stick, hit him on the head. It was slightly painful and above all unpleasant, because the pain distracted him and kept him from seeing what he was looking at [on the battlefield]." (Id. at 280.) He falls onto his back and, in his daze, contemplates the sky above: "How is it I haven't seen this lofty sky before? .... Yes! everything is empty, everything is deception, except this infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing except that. But there is not even that, there is nothing except silence, tranquility." (Id. at 281.)

The Russians continue to retreat in a panic, "crowded men disfigured by the fear of death, crushing each other, dying, stepping over the dying, and killing each other, only to go a few steps and be killed themsleves just the same," while every "ten seconds, pushing through the air, a cannonball smacked or a shell exploded in the midst of this dense crowd, killing and spattering with blood those who stood near." (Id. at 289.) A general trying to command the panicked crowd is eliminated by a cannonball with a "wet smack" and falls into a "pool of blood." (Id. at 290.)

Meanwhile, Andrei is where we left him, still "bleeding profusely" and "letting out soft, pitiful, and childlike moans." (Ibid.) Who should find him and rescue him? Why, Napoleon, of course. Andrei distantly recognizes that Napoleon is standing above him and talking about him, but it does not matter to him: "He knew that it was Napoleon -- his hero -- but at that moment, Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant man compared to what was now happening between his soul and this lofty, infinite sky with clouds racing across it." (Id. at 291.)

Later, in Napoleon's camp, under the care of Doctor Larrey, Andrei continues the philosophizing brought on by his injury and loss of blood
[E]verything seemed so useless and insignificant compared with that stern and majestic way of thinking called up in him by weakness from loss of blood, suffering, and the expectation of imminent death. Looking into Napoleon's eyes, Prince Andrei thought about the insignificance of grandeur, about the insignificance of life, the meaning of which no one could understand, and about the still greater insignificance of death, the meaning of which no one among the living could understand or explain.
(Id. at 293.)

It's not clear where Andrei is going with all of this, but it appears to be toward some epiphany of faith in the former cynic: "Nothing, nothing is certain, except the insignificance of everything I can comprehend and the grandeur of something incomprehensible but most important!" (Ibid.)

So Week 4's reading was a bit of a slog for much of the way, but picked up nicely with the Russian troops getting obliterated near the end of Volume I. I'm finding this week's reading to be going along at a much faster pace. (Spoiler alert: there's a duel!)


  1. Agreed. I was around four or five days ahead of schedule but completely losing interest in the book amidst the overly-wrought battle sequences I fell behind. Prevailing, I found the splattering at the end quite graphic and for my money, cinematic. I could see Mel Gibson pitching a fatty for the fricking glory of getting your head taken off by a cannonball (silly person he is).

    I rather loathe Rostov myself, simpleton he seems to be (and SPOILER what a fuckup he turns out to be in Week 5 reading). It seems to me that his rah-rahing is a counterpoint to Andrei's beautiful epiphany you quote in full in your post. Here it seems Tolstoy's view on the wastefulness of war is spoken through Andrei, the false pride in medals and battle scars and such compared to being alive.

    Week 5's reading is much better, faster-paced. Is it because after 350 pages, the characters are becoming less paperish and more human?

    I feel like we're all getting a second wind going...

  2. Week 5 is definitely full of pay-offs for the long-suffering reader. [SPOILERS] Adultery, duels, gambling debts, spurned marriage proposals!