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

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Tolstoy's battle plan

Everyone's surprised (and relieved?) to come across, at about page 750, a map! This is Tolstoy's sketch of the lines of battle at Borodino, where General Kutuzov faces off against Napoleon. In this chapter, Tolstoy again works through his theories or views on history, particularly military history. As brother-in-law Jay Stone pointed out to me, his views (like Solzhenitsyn's much later) are that the outcome of a battle is determined so much by chance and happenstance, so many factors come into play, that it's almost meaningless to speak of military genius or tactical decisions. History is made up of thousands, millions, of discrete and chance events - not only a general's decision as to where to deploy the forces but also a foot soldier's decision as to whether to eat breakfast. Seems odd for one who devotes so much time to analyzing the character and behavior of military and political leaders. Tolstoy uses Pierre, perhaps the character closest in POV to Tolstoy himself?, as a lens through which to see the battle preparations at Borodino (just west of Moscow). Military operations are extremely difficult to depict in fiction - for the very reason that Tolstoy raises. Writers tend to focus on the vast movement of troops, the strategy, the outcome - but fiction calls for individuals and characters and specific actions - not the advance of the cavalry but the feelings and observations of a soldier on horseback. Easy to lose the big picture in the particulars or to lost the individuals in the massive action. Reminds of the old quip about the line in screenplays that drives directors insane: The army crosses the battlefield. Oh, great - one line of direction, and million different ways to show it. Same with fiction: many decisions, and the challenge of both big canvas and sharp focus. Part of what Tolstoy is working toward is the sense in which military life and even warfare can include great stretches of tedium, even serenity, whereas "peace," civilian life during time of war, can include great moral and emotional turbulence.

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