The cinematic nature of Tolstoy’s scenes, especially those involving battle, has been widely noted. His ability to give us an overall perspective of the war as a whole as well as up close and personal views of battle through the eyes of specific characters is astonishing. A short paragraph inserted during the scenes of the battle of Austerlitz captures both of these perspectives: “Every general and every soldier was conscious of his own insignificance, aware of being but a drop in that ocean of men, and yet at the same time was conscious of his strength as a part of that enormous whole.” I thought I would share a few examples of Tolstoy’s writing that have captivated me both for their literary brilliance as well as their display of raw emotion; Tolstoy consistently pans out wide and zooms in close to give us both a philosophical and a personal view of warfare.
In a passage describing the Russian army under Bagration’s command as it is about to fight the French in Austria Tolstoy writes:
A soldier on the march is hemmed in and borne along by his regiment as much as a sailor is by his ship. However far he has walked, whatever strange, unknown, and dangerous places he reaches, just as a sailor is always surrounded by the same decks, masts, and rigging of his ship, so the soldier always has around him the same comrades, the same ranks, the same sergeant-major Ivan Mitrich, the came company dog Zhuchka, and the same commanders. The sailor rarely cares to know the latitude in which his ship is sailing, but of the day of battle—heaven knows how and whence—a stern note of which all are conscious sounds in the moral atmosphere of an army,, announcing the approach of something decisive and solemn, and awakening in men an unusual curiosity. On the day of battle the soldiers excitedly try to get beyond the interests of their regiment, they listen intently, look about, and eagerly ask concerning what is going on around them.
Later on in the same battle, we get a view of the horror of warfare from the eyes of Prince Andrei who has suffered a terrible head wound:
On the Pratzen heights, where he had fallen with the flagstaff in his hand, lay Prince Andrei Bolkonsky bleeding profusely and unconsciously uttering a gentle, piteous and childlike moan.
Towards evening he ceased moaning and became quite still. He did not know how long his unconsciousness lasted. Suddenly he again felt that he was alive and suffering from a burning, lacerating pain in his head.
‘Where is it, that lofty sky that I did not know till now, but saw today?’ was his first thought. ‘And I did not know this suffering either,’ he thought. ‘Yes, I did not know anything, anything at all till now. But where am I?’
And later in the novel when Count Rostov is fighting French dragoons, Tolstoy gives us a vision of the enemy’s humanity through the eyes of the Count:
Rostov reined in his horse, and his eyes sought his foe to see whom he had vanquished. The French dragoon office was hopping with one foot on the ground, the other being caught in the stirrup. His eyes, screwed up with fear as if he every moment expected another blow, gazed up at Rostov with shrinking terror. His pale and mud-stained face—fair and young, with a dimple in the chin and light blue eyes—was not an enemy’s face at all suited to a battlefield, but a most ordinary, homelike face.
I have read 900 pages of the Maudes’ translation and am beginning to panic that there are only 400 pages left in the novel for me to read. I am utterly engrossed in this epic and I don’t know what I shall read after this!