After the issues with the translation from last week, things have settled down a bit and I’ve now finished part 2, the first ‘war’ section of the book. I was a little apprehensive about this, to be honest, as battle scenes are not normally my thing. However, I needn’t have been, as Tolstoy, in his wisdom, focuses on more than just fighting and this part of the book was fascinating.

At the end of part one, Prince Andrei set off to war, abandoning his beautiful, young and pregnant wife – which possibly tells you a lot about Tolstoy’s attitude to marriage! Also setting off to battle was young Nikolai Rostov, eager to prove himself. This section of W&P follows both of their experiences, although they are moving in very different spheres: Nikolai is a mere cadet, but Prince Andrei has been attached to the higher ranks and is thriving.

Alan Dobie as Andrei in the BBC’s 1972 adaptation

Inevitably, we see more of Andrei’s adventures: throwing himself into battle, watching the troops move and fight, mixing with the high and mighty; and all through this his emotions fluctuate wildly. He’s obviously happy to be away from the restrictions of home and society, and in many ways has found himself within the manly structure and discipline of the army; but he has noble notions that are often dashed. Andrei has studied battle strategies and imagines these things take place like clockwork, following a plan; and his ideals are somewhat shaken by the reality of the conflict and the chaos around him.

Because chaos it certainly is, and Tolstoy captures this disorder brilliantly in a series of vignettes, conveying how it feels to be caught in the middle of a conflict with one element not knowing what the others are doing and no real cohesive command. He paints a vivid picture of the chain of command, from the generals at the top working on strategies down to the common soldier who’s the one who bears the brunt of the battle, often with his life. No-one in that chain really knowing what the overall picture is, instead dealing simply with their small area of the fighting. And it became obvious that the inability to communicate effectively was a major element in the failure of a battle – often nobody knew where they were and who they were meant to be fighting. The one successful action in this particular battle was because of a small battalion with an inspired captain who ignored orders and just fought.

However, just because this was a ‘war’ section didn’t mean there was no character development, because there was. We met a wonderful mixture of soldiers and civilians of all types, all memorable and well-drawn. I particularly warmed to Captain Tushin, the maverick soldier who kept his battalion fighting away when all around him were withdrawing; and Dolokhov, an officer reduced to the ranks, determined to redeem himself.

Somehow, despite his close-up view of the fighting, Tolstoy manages to convey the wide panorama and the sheer scale of the war. He doesn’t stint on his description of the conflict and portrays a muddy and bloody reality. Both Andrei and Nikolai enter the battle expecting one thing, some kind of nobility, and finding a very different reality. Nikolai, in particular, has his first skirmish and it’s anything but glamorous; and we leave him in a rather precarious situation at the end of the section.

So, a gripping and thrilling read, wonderfully written and capturing the gritty and confusing reality of being in the middle of an old-style battle. I found I really enjoyed it, which I wasn’t expecting – so that bodes well for the rest of the book, in particular the war sections!

Advertisements