Thursday, January 15, 2009

Austerlitz and after

I just finished Volume 1 and am well launched into Volume 2 of War and Peace. The last bit of V1 was Tolstoy's version of the Battle of Austerlitz. And apparently, it's not just we southern Americans who can't stop fighting wars long gone and lost. Courtesy of the BBC, the picture accompanying this post is a somewhat recent re-enactment of said battle.

I'm very taken with W&P. The characters are marvelous and, although I knew it was set during the Napoleonic wars, I don't think I realized how much of it would be based on the history of those actions. It's always interesting to figure out how writers decide where history and fiction part ways. For example, one of the "characters" is General Kutuzov -- a real person, but I'm assuming the young adjutant Prince Andrei is Tolstoy's creation. I love it. I've always been interested in the Napoleonic wars, but mainly Napoleon's dueling with Wellington, so this earlier part is educational.

I read with nerdly relish the battle scenes and try to imagine how it must have looked. I learned to love battle maps for that reason. I'm not very good with maps, but even I, after staring at them long enough, and reading the descriptions can finally begin to see how the geography shaped the action. I first had this breakthrough when reading WWII accounts of the ground war in the Philippines. Suddenly, some of what I read started to make more sense.

And speaking of maps, I like the way Tolstoy treats the drawing rooms and dining rooms of Russian society in the same way he sets the stage for the war scenes. He's always careful to say exactly where everyone is sitting or standing in relation to one another, and he tracks their movements and conversations with the same careful attention to detail. There are as many schemers, glory-seekers, and adversaries in these settings as on the fields in Austria. There's Anna Mikhailovna with the heavy artillery, Prince Vassily with the feint, and there's poor, blundering Bezukhov in full retreat. I should try to sketch one of those out! One of my favorite scenes has been the deathbed struggle over securing old Count Bezukhov's will before he finally croaks. It's deliciously funny. Well, maybe it isn't supposed to be...but it is. Thankfully, I've managed not to find out too much about this novel -- I suppose people don't find it easy to sum up such a plot and cavalcade of characters, and I've never seen the movie versions. I know Henry Fonda played Pierre Bezukhov but I'm seeing someone who looks a lot more like Oliver Platt or even P. Seymour Hoffman. He needs to be more rumpled and portly (at least, thus far).

On another track entirely, a much shorter and amusing read is John Crowley's latest blog post about his recent run-in with the law.

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