Away for the weekend

Hi everyone,

I’m sorry I didn’t post on yesterday’s chapter – and you’re going to have to survive today and tomorrow without me as well, because I’m going away for the weekend – I’ll be back here by Sunday evening or Monday at the latest.

One-Year War and Peace 3.13 – Nikolai’s Adventure

Maybe it’s a throwback to my younger days of Jules Verne and other adventure novels, but there’s something a bit boy’s own about this chapter that I loved.  Also, despite the fact that film was far from invented then, Tolstoy also has a very visual sense of suspense, which someone like Alfred Hitchcock or Peter Jackson would love.

First, Nikolai is just riding along, and he’s not sure if he can see the French through the mist.  It might be a fire, it might not be.  And Tolstoy isn’t shifting the camera away from Nikolai’s point of view, so we don’t know what’s out there.

Then, the rather humorous interlude where he’s falling asleep, and then out of the darkness . . . shouts, cheers and small flames.  What’s going on?

When Bagration and Dolgurokov appear, that gives us a chance to go adventuring, so Tolstoy’s camera follows Nikolai’s mad horse race to see if there are still French pickets out there in the mist.  He gallops down the hill, across the road, not being able to see in front of him . . . and then bullets are fired at him!  And he turns and gallops back with shots ringing out after him.  If that’s not a classic film suspense/action scene, then I don’t know what is.

You’ve also got to love the similarity between Nikolai and Andrei in the first chapter – there’s a difference in age – but for both of them, there’s this fantasy-world that they’re living in where everyone thinks they’re wonderful because of their heroic actions.

Finally, Tolstoy pulls back out for a big picture historical view, by quoting from an actual letter of Napoleon’s that was read out to the soliders in the battle.  It’s going to be a big day tomorrow . . .

One-Year War and Peace 3.12 – Sleeping

As I write this, I am diabolically tired, so I think I shall have to let you make sense of and comment on this chapter all by yourself – however, I’m sympathising very much with Kutuzov’s thoughts on sleep.

You’ve got to love the contrast between him and Andrei – Kutuzov, letting things happen, on the one hand – and Andrei, still fantasising that he can single-handedly destroy the French.

I think I’m more of an Andrei normally, but at the moment, I think I’ll be a Kutuzov . . . good night all!

One-Year War and Peace 3.11 – Flanking Movements

This rather short chapter deals with layouts of the army, strategies, etc.  So I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain flanking strategy for those who aren’t sure what it is.  (This is only because I first read about it earlier this year, and learned a lot.)

Basically, if you imagine an army spread out in a line, the flanks are the sides of the army.  So your far left flank is your soldiers all the way over on the left, etc.

Obviously, this is the opposite for the army facing you.  So your left flank is their right flank. 

Where this all becomes important is when you try to do what the Russians are trying to do here – a flanking movement.  Quite simply, this is where you try to get your army to go around one of the sides (or flanks) of the enemy.

We don’t usually see this too much on war films, because most of the time, most battle scenes are usually front-on charges, where two groups of soldiers rush towards one another.  Whereas it’s a bit harder to show one group of soldiers heading around the side of an army line.

Why would you want to go around the flank of an enemy army?  Quite simply, it’s because if you can get around the side of the army without being touched, you can then turn around and attack that army from the rear.  Believe it or not, an army is not that easy to turn around when they’re facing in a certain direction.  (Certainly not artillery and cavalry, but it’s hard with foot soldiers as well.)

So if you send a bunch of soldiers around the flank and then they attack the rear of the enemy, you actually stand a pretty good chance of causing utter chaos.  Getting attacked from the rear is one of the absolutely worst things that can happen to an army on the battlefield.

Which brings us to this chapter – the Austrians have done some scouting, and they think they know where the French are.  Or think they know well enough to try going around the outside of them, anyway.  General Kutuzov, being more cautious, thinks it is far too dangerous to attempt this kind of move without knowing where the enemy is properly located and wants to just wait.

The other generals (Dolgurokov especially), think this is being totally soft – and after all, the French are obviously petrified out of their minds- so they’re all gung ho for the battle.  Of course, it’s these generals that start the great wheel turning (as Tolstoy so poetically puts in this chapter) that eventually leads to the defeat of Austerlitz. (He did say that in there, didn’t he?  Apologies if I just spoiled something.)  But only Kutuzov seems to see that coming . . .

One-Year War and Peace 3.10 – Champing at the Bit

Finally caught up . . . sorry, didn’t get a chance to post yesterday, so that’s why yesterday’s post didn’t go up till midday.

These chapters, which are somewhat shorter, are more little vignettes of what is going on in the lead-up to the battle of Austerlitz, which Tolstoy is already warning us is just around the corner.  I suppose the thing that I’m noticing here is that the mood before the battle is much different than the one at Schöngraben.  In Book 2, the soldiers were pensive, feeling the dreadful weight of the unknown.  Would they face death?  What would it be like?

But now that they’ve survived a battle and – much more importantly – now that Alexander is there to inspire them on – they can’t wait to get in the action.  You can sense the excitement in the air, when a bunch of Russians up the front come back with their French prisoners.  (That means, by the way, if you’re keeping up with Nikolai’s horse count, that I think he now has two horses.  Little Rook got done in Book 2.  He got his new one which he’s been riding, and now he’s just bought one from the captive Alsatian.  Is my maths right on this one, or did I miss something?)

Anyway, you can all dream of the Tsar tonight, and I’ll see you all tomorrow . . .

One-Year War and Peace 3.9 – Climbing the Ladder

In this chapter, we see Boris go about the process of bettering his position.  (Obviously, having learned well from his Mum.)  I think this chapter kind of speaks for itself, but I suspect that the inside glimpse it gives us into the politics behind the battles are fairly accurate.  My favourite moment would be the quote by the ever-cheeky Bilibin (while not making a physical appearance in this chapter, nonetheless his wit does), in which he advises the Russians to reply to Napoleon and refer to him as the ruler of France – thus refusing to acknowledge all Napoleon’s rule over the countries he has conquered.  The battle with Napoleon wasn’t just fought with cannons . . .

One-Year War and Peace 3.8 – For Love of the Tsar

Now this is something we don’t see much nowadays – total devotion to a leader.

In today’s day and age of newspaper cartoons and The Chasers, what leader (whether military or political) would we have such love and devotion for?

Actually, that’s not quite correct.  If you were to substitute “sports person” or “actor” or “singer” for military or political leader, the population could actually probably come up with a list of people we highly admire and would follow.

But what politician gets that kind of respect?  What kind of prime minister would?  What sort of President?

It’s just not something we do very much (well, least not in Australia anyway).

However, you must admit – it would be kind of nice to have someone to admire like that, don’t you think?  (Maybe not as blindly as Nikolai and the rest of the Russian army, but it would be nice to have some genuine heroes.)

One-Year War and Peace 3.7 – Boris, Berg & Duels

First of all, in this chapter, we see the return of Boris – he who no longer seems to hold much sway over Natasha’s heart (well, not as much as Pierre and the Italian singing teacher – but then again, as my wife always says – girls have a crush on all guys when they’re 12).

And Berg.  I must admit – I had been keeping up okay with most of the characters in this novel, until Berg reappared and then it actually took me a few minutes to remember who he was.  I may be the only stupid one among us here, but for anyone else who shares my level of forgetfulness, Berg was the young man we last met at the Rostovs, who was rumoured to be Vera’s “boyfriend” and had the memorable habit of only talking when the conversation was about himself.  Flick back to Book 1 if you really, really can’t remember at all . . .

Not that Berg features too heavily, because Nikolai shows up, gets nostalgic reading his family’s letter, and then manages to get worked up into a state with Andrei.

Now, I’ve got to say a word here about duels – what is it with the 19th century mind and fighting duels?  (Well, probably more of an 18th century thing, but still . . .)  In case you missed it (it was a bit subtle), when Andrei showed up, he was unimpressed with Nikolai because he could tell right off the bat that he was completely just making up his war story as he went along.

Nikolai was ticked off with Andrei because a) he knew that he was being a bit of a faker and b) his own strongly-held notions that soldiers are the “real” army and adjutants and commander’s staff are all just nancy boys getting paid to do nothing.

So when Andrei didn’t look impressed, he was getting fired up at him and making comments about adjutants in the hope that Andrei would get all upset, and challenge him to a duel.   Which Andrei wisely sidestepped, recognising that there would be enough bloodshed in the battle that was to come.  (Oh, did we tell you that they’re still fighting the French and there’s going to be another battle soon?  Sorry if you missed that . . . )

But how could a young man who was utterly petrified of getting shot by the French in the last battle suddenly want to fight a duel at close quarters?  Who knows?  I will never understand duels . . . but it’s not the last duel we’ll come across in this book . . . but more of that later.

The moment I enjoyed (apart from Andrei calmly defusing Nikolai) was the way that Nikolai both hated Andrei and wanted him for a friend.  Have you ever known people like that?  You hate their guts, but you’d give anything to have them as a friend . . . what a strange world . . . nothing much has changed in 200 years, really.

One-Year War and Peace – The Roll Call

I was just giving some thought to Ian’s suggestion on the last post – last I checked we were kind of spread across three states, so that would make it a bit difficult for everybody to get together for one last chapter, but it could be an interesting idea to organise a reunion/dinner on 30 June 2009 in each capital city.

I haven’t actually mentioned this before, but there are also a group of people in America and the UK on the Barnes & Noble forums, who are reading through War and Peace in three months and had been referring to my notes to start with – they’ve now overtaken me, of course, and will be all done by October.

But, anyway, it’s worth asking – who’s still with us, now that we’ve hit Book 3?

One-Year War and Peace 3.6 – A Return to the Rostovs

Like a little calm oasis in the middle of the storm, we return again to the home of the Rostovs.  After the skullduggery and manipulation of Prince Vassily and friends, it’s actually quite nice to be among the far more innocent Rostovs.

Yes, the Count is a bit of a gambler, the Countess is a worry-wart, and Vera is still an unpleasant snob – but these are all mild human flaws.  We can understand and find them amusing, rather than disturbing.

It’s also nice to get back to a chapter that has a sense of fun to it.  Nikolai’s letter arrives, and watching the grand mechanisms of Anna Mihalovna (Boris’ mum, in case you’re completely lost – but then again, do you remember who Boris is?) as she eases the Countess into reading the letter – all of this is gently humorous.

I just love the way that the characters have been so strongly defined back in Book 1, that when we rejoin them here for just one chapter, they act the way we expect them to.  Natasha is completely independent and full of fun.  Sonya is deep and passionate.  Petya is impulsive.  Vera is – well, she’s still a snob (and her mother is still wondering who she gets it from – carrying on the joke from Book 1).

Also, because this is War and Peace and it shows us the world both on the battlefield and off it, we get to see how people react to war news, when a letter is the only thing you’ve got to go on.  Notice how Nikolai is so bravely wounded.  (When we know the reality is that he threw his gun at the French and ran for the hills . . .).  Notice how he talks about Denisov, but the countess feels her son must be so much braver than all of the other soldiers.  We have seen both sides of it, and know the truth.  But it’s so much more romantic in the mind of the Countess.

Much to find amusing in this chapter – and also a segue into the next where, whether you like it or not, we’re going back to the battlefield (sorry, for all you soap fans, who were hoping for a bit more drawing-room intrigue . . .)

See you tomorrow.