Reading for Friday 10/10/08

This is a fascinating chapter, with too many quirky little details to mention.  But notice the black humour of Alexander (to please Napoleon) having to arbitrarily pick out the “bravest” Russian soldier, so the French can give him their medal of honour.  The little farce where Lazarev (a random soldier from the ranks, if I read it correctly) is picked just to save face would be funny under other conditions.

But I tend to be more like Nikolai here.  The contrast between a random guy on the street getting high honours and Denisov rotting in a hospital, unjustly accused of a crime, is one that is grossly unfair.

And that’s what really drives Nikolai’s spectacular meltdown at the end of the chapter.  His world has been turned upside-down.  Everything he fought for has come to nothing.  Everything that everyone died for has been in vain.  Napoleon, far from being the enemy, is now the country’s friend.  Where is justice?

Now, we must remember, for those Russians who would have read this original novel, they would have known what was going to happen next in the history books.  Those with a small knowledge of Russian history would have known that this peace treaty in 1807 was only a false treaty.  Five years later, in 1812, Napoleon was going to break that peace treaty and invade Russia in full force . . .

So it must be remembered that as we read this chapter and the uneasy peace that follows in the next few books, that 1812 is looming.  (It’s a little bit like seeing a WWII movie that starts in 1939 . . . you just know big things are going to start happening soon.)  So we’re meant to reach this peace with a feeling of, “What the?!” and a sense that Russia is not out of the woods yet.

And at this point, I should say that depending on which translation you’ve got, this counts as the end of Book 5.  The Maude translation that I have has a 22nd chapter, which is very brief and talks about “real life”, but in my Garnett translation (whose numbering I am working off), this section is just counted as the first few paragraphs of 6.1.

I’ll remind you about this tomorrow, but if you’re reading the Maude, you might either want to read that section now or read it with 6.1 tomorrow.

It’s also time, I think, to break out Film 1 of the Bondarchuk War and Peace.  If you’re still here with me . . . great reading everyone!

See you soon for Book 6.

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One thought on “One-Year War and Peace 5.21 – To Do Our Duty . . . And Not To Think

  1. You’re right, Matt: there’s quite a sense of doom and futility in this Chapter – and it’s certainly another great chapter, showing us how fragile and hollow the peace between the Russian and the French really is and, in the process, reminding us that these things are infinitely more complex than the agreements that might be made over a handshake between two emperors. We see it first in the scene with Lazarev getting his decoration, and the disdain he feels, and barely conceals, for Napoleon. And we see it again in Nikolai’s dark thoughts about all the gruesome suffering and horror that he saw, and smelled, in the hospital. It’s all a reminder that the decisions and actions of the men at the top are often a long way removed from the personal and private realities of the pawns who fight, suffer and die in the name of it all.

    The final scene with Nikolai getting drunk struck me as a really dark kind of humour – Nikolai looking really pretty ridiculous after his two bottles of wine, but then saying things that are, when all is said and done, only too true when it comes to war: who are they to question anything? But, of course, he’s drunk – and many a true word is spoken in drunkenness!

    And then a magical ending to the Chapter and to this whole Part – Nikolai, after all his carrying on, calling for another bottle of wine. I somehow think the next morning is going to be very ugly for poor Count Rostov!

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