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?