Synopsis of “War and Peace”: Book 1, Part 2

In the second part, we have an abrupt change of scene. We are taken to the Austrian campaign, where the Russian armies have formed an alliance with the Austrian to fight against Napoleon’s French troops.

We see the campaign mainly by following the two contrasting figures who had been introduced to us in the first part – Andrei and Nikolai. Andrei is adjutant to Kutuzov, the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian forces: in the scenes dealing with him, we get a picture from above. Nikolai is a cadet in the hussars; and in the scenes dealing with him, we get a view from below. They have both gone to war with the most serious and idealistic of intentions, and their paths follow parallel courses.

Tolstoy is also careful to keep Dolohov in the picture. Dolohov, after his escapades in Petersburg (which haven’t adversely affected his aristocratic comrades Anatole & Pierre) has been reduced to the ranks as a private. But we see him as insolent as ever, and determined to win back his promotion. During the conflict, he is as daredevil as we remember him to have been, and we are shown him killing a French soldier at close quarters without so much as blinking an eyelid. This is war, after all.

As for Nikolai and Andrei, they are much happier here than they had been back at home. Andrei has lost his bored and languid look; Nikolai is bursting with a sense of purpose.

Nikolai has made friends with his commanding officer Denisov. Denisov’s money goes missing, and Nikolai soon realises that it has been stolen by a fellow soldier from the same regiment as theirs. Nikolai, not realising the intricacies of the situation, accuses the man of theft, and is surprised that the colonel of the regiment is unwilling to act upon this. Even worse, it is Nikolai who is expected to apologise. Denisov doesn’t want to tell his friend that he is wrong in the matter, but agrees when another soldier explains to Nikolai that such an accusation brings the whole regiment into disrepute, and that this is the last thing they need immediately before action. Nikolai’s mind isn’t made for such intricacies: he had expected life to be simple out here. But despite everything, he feels that he cannot apologise when he hadn’t been in the wrong.

Higher up in the military echelons, we see Andrei. The campaign gets off to a bad start when the Austrian General, Mack, appears out of the blue: he has lost his entire army at Ulm. Andrei’s comrades find this quite funny, and Andrei explodes with fury. Don’t they realise how serious a setback is to the whole campaign? From now on, the alliance is on the back foot. Kutuzov has no option but to retreat his men, hoping to meet up with the fresh battalions of Russian troops that are coming to meet them.

Nikolai sees his first piece of action at the crossing of the bridge at Emms. The Russians have orders to cross the bridge, and then destroy it; and the regiment of hussars to which Nikolai belongs is protecting the rear during the crossing. The French armies are close, and for the first time, Nikolai experiences what it is like to be under fire. He is very self-conscious. It seems to him that every order he receives has been given specifically in order to test him. Nikolai’s sense of fear when coming under fire is unforgettably described. Afterwards, he thinks to his dismay he must be a coward, and is surprised that no-one has noticed.

The crossing of the bridge itself is superbly described – with all its bustle, its confusion, its chaotic colours and movements.

Andrei, keen to become involved and to distinguish himself (as Nikolai is), is also involved in action, but Tolstoy does not describe it in any detail. For the first time, the allied troops achieve a victory over the French – modest though it is. The Austrian General Schmidt is killed in the process. Andrei is commissioned to take the news of the victory to the Austrian Emperor, who has now evacuated Vienna.

Andrei’s reception is cooler than he had expected, and he is annoyed by this. This is, after all, the sole success of the entire campaign so far. He stays with an old acquaintance, the Russian diplomat Bilibin, who explains in his typically half-jesting manner that Andrei cannot really expect the Austrians to be triumphant at the news – especially when Napoleon has taken Vienna. This is news to Andrei.

The next day, Andrei is given an audience by the Austrian Emperor Francis – and this scene should be read by anyone who thinks Tolstoy does not have a sense of humour. Francis has little interest in what Andrei has to tell him; he probably has little knowledge or interest in military matters at all. And yet, he has to pretend to take some interest in the matter by asking questions. And the only questions he asks are “What time did the battle start?” or “What time did such-and-such happen?” And Andrei, who has been dispatched merely to give the news, has to answer, patiently and most respectfully, these meaningless questions. And then, after meeting with the Emperor, he actually is greeted with enthusiasm, and even decorated. No doubt the Emperor has given orders for this.

At Bilibin’s, Andrei meets some other Russian diplomats – including Hyppolite, the elder son of Prince Vasily Kuragin. He is obviously known to be a fool, and is the butt of everyone’s jokes. And indeed, he is such an idiot, that he laughs along with them. And Andrei thinks back to the incident at Anna Scherer’s soiree where he had actually been jealous on account of the way this same fool had behaved with his wife Lise.

Bilibin offers to take Andrei to a safer zone, but Andrei declines. He still has his sense of duty.

The second part ends with the conflict at Schon Graben. The French have cut off the Russian troops from their line of communication, and the Russians have to charge their way through them. Andrei, as usual, takes the initiative by offering to examine positions on the front line. Here, he meets Captain Tushin, who is reprimanded for not wearing his boots. Tushin, who strikes one as a faintly ridiculous figure, half-heartedly says that it’s easier without boots, but he isn’t heard. Later, Tushin does not receive the order to withdraw, because the staff officer entrusted to give him that order loses his nerve, and doesn’t get to him. Tushin holds his position heroically, and Andrei helps him withdraw. Later, Tushin is brought up in front of Prince Bagration and asked why he had lost his guns. Andrei, disgusted by such treatment of a man who, despite his appearance, has been heroic, speaks out on Tushin’s behalf, and walks out quickly. Tushin later thanks Andrei for having got him out of a scrape: it never even occurs to him that he had been a hero, who should have been rewarded. This is not what Andrei had expected from war.

Nikolai, too, encounters the unexpected. The hussars are involved in a cavalry charge. Then suddenly, in a superbly described sequence, Nikolai seems to be going faster than ever without actually moving, and the noise ceases. The next thing he knows, he is on the ground, his horse is dead, and there is no-one in sight. For a moment, Nikolai wonders if he himself is dead. He has been badly wounded in the arm, although he can see no blood. Then, he sees soldiers, and his instinct is to appeal to them for help. But they are French soldiers, and they are trying to kill him. Why are they trying to kill him? This is Nikolai – whom everyone loves! His mother, his sister, Sonya – they all love him! So why should anyone want to kill him? And, holding his wounded arm, Nikolai runs as fast as he can – as he used to do as a child when playing tag (what a marvellous touch!)

The whole description of the campaign is absolutely masterly. Tolstoy paints the big canvas: the strategies, the movements of troops; the confusion, the chaos, the fears, the heroism, the suffering and misery. It’s all there, with incomparable vividness. And he also depicts what’s happening on the smaller scale – Nikolai’s thoughts that the orders were merely to test him, his surprise and relief to discover no-one noticed his fear. Even the minor characters are characterised. For instance, there is the man at Prince Bagration’s tent who examines the captured French standard because, being hungry himself, he’d rather not see the food being laid out at Bagration’s table. No-one is just a name: everyone is characterised to some degree, no matter how unimportant their role in the overall picture. Even the animals: there’s that marvellous detail of the horse prancing on all fours as if unsure which leg to put first on the ground.

At the end, we’re left with both Andrei and Nikolai reflecting on how unlike their experiences have been to their expectations. We shall return to them both later. But before that, at the start of the third part, we return to Russia.

[All excerpts quoted are taken from the translation by Rosemary Edmonds, published by Penguin Classics]

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2 responses to this post.

  1. I just finished this section late last night–full of masterful scenes as you’ve noted. Hope Tolstoy can keep this level of artistry up the rest of the way!

    Reply

    • Hello Richard, as you have possibly guessed, I have something of an obsession for Tolstoy: I encountered his works at a very impressionable age, and his literary aesthetics have frankly coloured everything else I have read since. War and Peace does, I suppose, have its flaws: those interpolated essays in the second half of the novel really shouldn’t be there. But in the face of the magnitude of the achievement, it seems to me pointless to dwell on flaws.

      Cheers for now, Himadri

      Reply

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