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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Saturday, January 9, 2010

The smoke clears, the battle ends

End of the battle at Borodino. Here Tolstoy really lets Napoleon have it, the most judgmental and tendentious part of the book so far. He quotes from N's diaries as to how this was a war to expand civilization, and then Tolstoy cuts to the battlefield, 50,000 or so dead, many wounded, suffering, smoky ruins, and pretty directly states that the invasion of Russia was naked aggression and ambition, cruel and unprovoked. To be fair, the Russian general (Kutuzov) is no great hero, either - perhaps more humane than N., with his teary eyes and his signature "my dear" and "my good man" as he gives orders. He does, however, light into one of the German/Prussian generals, whom he suspects of giving him bad intelligence. Tolstoy at times veering toward the xeonophobic - only the Russians ("our forces," he often says) a noble and valorous. As to the final battle scenes, has anyone written better about the tedium and terror of troops waiting to attack (or be attacked)? We've kind of lost site of Pierre by this point and are entirely with Prince Andrei, pigheaded and impatient, blown apart by some sort of explosive, unnecessarily it seems, then carried off to the field hospital, an incredibly gruesome scene, the doctor with his small and bloody hands, exhausted, the wounded screaming and moaning, four men holding a soldier down while a surgeon cuts off his leg. One of the improbabilies that could never happen in the world but that we accept in the diminutive world of even a massive novel: Andrei and his nemesis, Anatole Kuragin, whom he had sought across Europe, is on the next litter (he's the one who's leg is being amputated), and Andrei fogives him in his heart - another vision. As this section ends (spoiler), it appears that Andrei is dead but we don't know that, yet, for a fact. That would certainly clear the way for Pierre and Natasha, right? The whole section very wrenching, draining - you feel as if you've fought the battle. The Russians hold off the French, but don't have the strength in reserve to finish off the French army. So many lives lost, such carnage, for what? On another note, old friend Leslie Gutterman reminds me of the Woody Allen line: he took an Evelyn Woods course, read War and Peace in 7 minutes. It's about Russia. (I read it first 30 years ago and could have said about the same.)

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