It’s in this chapter that all of Tolstoy’s literary powers really show themselves to spectacular effect.  The inner monologues of his characters, as always, are stunningly human.  His eye for the small, quirky details add up to a terrifyingly vivid picture of the danger the hussars are in, trying to set fire to the bridge, while being fired upon by the French.

Still, there is a touch of humour.  Nikolai is scared out of his wits – and yet his strongest reason for turning and doing his duty on the bridge – is to show the colonel, Schubert (the same one who accused him of being a liar a few chapters back), that he’s not a coward.  Such a pathetic little reason for putting yourself under fire, yet wouldn’t any of us in his shoes think along similar lines?

And is there a more fascinating meditation upon mortality, than Nikolai looking around, and realising how beautiful the sky is?  The mountains?  And how it only takes one bullet – to make those mountains and sky disappear from view forever.

Brilliant stuff.  But the quote of the chapter is easily the following (forgive me for putting in such a long one, but it’s really too good not to quote again):

“One step across that line, that suggests the line dividing the living from the dead, and unknown sufferings and death.  And what is there? and who is there? there, beyond that field and that tree and the roofs with the sunlight on them? No one knows, and one longs to know and dreads crossing that line, and longs to cross it, and one knows that sooner or later one will have to cross it and find out what there is on the other side of the line, just as one must inevitably find out what is on the other side of death. Yet one is strong and well and cheerful and nervously excited, and surrounded by men as strong in the same irritable excitement.”  That is how every man, even if he does not think, feels in the sight of the enemy, and that feeling gives a peculiar brilliance and delightful keenness to one’s impressions of all that takes place at such moments.

And what about you?  Did you get sucked into this chapter as well?

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3 thoughts on “One-Year War and Peace 2.8 – The Line

  1. Ah yes … totally sucked in here, too. What wonderful writing! Like almost everywhere in War and Peace, we feel that we are able to know what it would really be like, to face an enemy army, and the prospect of death, mixed in with all the adrenalin – we can feel it, even if we never have, nor ever would, actually experience it. There are so many times when I read Tolstoy,and I find myself thinking, “Yes, that’s what it must be like….”, and the passage you quoted is certainly on e of them.

    And I love the way that Nikolai notices the sun, which only two chapters ago mingled with the canonballs “into one cheerful and merry impression” – but now, this is what Nikolai sees:

    “Just then the sun began to hide itself behind the clouds. Ahead of Rostov, another stretcher appeared. And his fear of death and the stretcher, and his love of the sun and life – all merged into one painfully disturbing impression”.

    And the contrast with the vastness, the eternity, of the skies and mountains with the horrors of the groans, and the chaos, is something that reall shake me every time I read it.

    Terrific stuff!

  2. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  3. Yes, I was impressed by that little passage too . . .

    I thought this was funny . . .

    “Who’s that curtseying there? Cadet Miwonov! That’s not wight! Look at me,” cried Denisov who, unable to keep still on one spot, kept turning his horse in front of the squadron.

    I am adding the following to my count of 167 . . .

    Bagration – After his dismissal from headquarters Zherkov had not remained in the regiment, saying he was not such a fool as to slave at the front when he could get more rewards by doing nothing on the staff, and had succeeded in attaching himself as an orderly officer to Prince Bagration.

    Hussar – another hussar – He stood looking about him, when suddenly he heard a rattle on the bridge as if nuts were being spilt, and the hussar nearest to him fell against the rails with a groan.

    Kirsten – He rode up to Kirsten. The staff captain on his broad-backed, steady mare came at a walk to meet him.

    Mironov – Cadet Mironov ducked every time a ball flew past.

    Schubert – Their colonel, Karl Bogdanich Schubert, came up to Denisov’s squadron and rode at a footpace not far from Rostov, without taking any notice of him although they were now meeting for the first time since their encounter concerning Telyanin.

    Total – 171!

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