N.B.: This post will discuss only the events through the end of Chapter 8, Book II of Part 1. Unlike with The Odyssey, the eventual resolution of the story is not necessarily common knowledge, so I will make every attempt to avoid spoilers as we go. Also, there seems to be some weird chapter numbering going on with some editions of the novel, Kindle and otherwise. I've updated the reading schedule to make it clearer where the readings end and will be more than happy to answer any questions if you're confused.
"Vous voyons le Malheurex Mack."
This reading, and the one to follow, show us the very beginning of the direct Russian involvement in what came to be known as the Napoleonic Wars. By having two characters at the front, in different roles, and at different points in their lives, Tolstoy can show us, as if his tendency, a cross-section of life at the front. For most of this reading, however, life on the front involves waiting for the war to begin. Nicholas Rostov, in the hussars (light cavalry), and Prince Andrew, attached to commanding general Kutuzov (a real person), each have an experience that, in their own way, brings home to them what this war is really going to be like.
First, early on in the reading, we have the chapters dealing with Prince Andrew at HQ with Kutuzov and some fellow officers. While the commander is in a meeting with an Austrian general, essentially trying to stall deploying his Russian forces for as long as possible, Prince Andrew sees history unfold. General Mack (again, a real dude), having just surrendered the vast majority of the Austrian army at the Battle Of Ulm (again, real), arrives to essentially tell the Russians: you're on your own. He refers to himself, possibly apocryphally but quite famously, as "le malheureux Mack," the unhappy or unfortunate Mack. The hussar Zherkov, who's been mocking pretty much everything going on around, makes a sarcastic comment to another Austrian general. Prince Andrew, however, realizes the utter seriousness of the situation they find themselves in. While there are a few other nations in the current alliance against Napoleon, the two that have any real military power in Central Europe are Austria and Russia. Or, such was the case until Ulm. Andrew knows now that, in the end, the fight will be between Russia and France. Thousands on both sides will die--clearly, this is not a time for jokes and sarcasm. Andrew is a serious character and not necessarily easy to like. But he seems to understand, possibly because of the instruction he's received from this father, that he is living in serious times. Serious times can make men great and give them a purpose, and what Andrew seems to want more than anything is a purpose.
Nicholas, too, craves for purpose, for seriousness, but the way he goes about trying to achieve it display a fundamental immaturity to his character. Wars are planned by old men who give orders to middle aged men who send young men off to die. That's the way it works. The scenes of Nicholas and the theft of the coin purse and of the skirmish at the bridge, however, remind us why that system works, as it fundamentally relies on young men to be young men--stupid, egocentric, and liable to do anything fool thing that comes into their damn head, especially if they think it will impress or help their friends.
Nicholas is striving to be seen as brave and honorable, but he is foolhardy as opposed to brave. Bravery is knowing and feeling the fear and acting anyway--Nicholas is to young and stupid to be brave. He's foolhardy in his approach to the theft of the coin purse, and he's foolhardy during the skirmish at the bridge. The first almost costs him his career--the second almost costs him his life. Even his harsh self-judgment afterwards, calling himself a coward, fails to understand that, in the literal fog of war, the most a new cadet can hope to do is survive to fight another day. Also, put a pin in the idea of the sky during a battle: Nicholas' fixation with the sky while war is raging around him--save that idea. We'll come back to it--eventually.
This is also the first time we met Denisov. One of my most vivid memories of reading War and Peace the first time, almost thirteen years ago, involves Denisov, but that will come later. The post for the next reading will almost certainly be delayed for several days as I will be on vacation in Los Angeles, indulging my other obsession, Doctor Who, so look for a post around the 20th or so.
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