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Tolstoy’s Writing in War & Peace: Part 1

by John Cobley

Thursday Mar 18th, 2021



This is the first of five studies of Leo Tolstoy’s style in W&P. Each of them will focus on an excerpt depicting one of the novel’s five major characters. Despite its length--1,000 pages in my Russian version, 1,200-1,500 in my English versions—War & Peace contains passages of finely-worked writing more often found in short stories and poetry. Four different colour highlights are used to illustrate some of Tolstoy’s techniques in this excerpt from Volume One, Part Two, Chapter 19.



Nikolai Rostov's Second Engagement

War and Peace I.2.xix


In this excerpt (1,200 words in my translation), Nikolai’s second experience of battle is described. His first engagement had been an anticlimax for the officer cadet. Watched over by his friend Denisov, he was surprised not to see real action: “There was no one to cut down…nor could he help set fire to the bridge.” But he was traumatized by the wounding of a fellow hussar nearby and came away feeling he was a coward. However, all negative feelings were forgotten when he lined up with his fellow hussars near Schöngraben: “‘Come on, come on,’ Rostov thought, feeling that the time had finally come to experience the thrill of a charge.”


Tolstoy depicts Rostov’s battle experience with a variety of techniques. After two paragraphs of general description to set the scene, the focus falls entirely on Rostov, with a mixture of objective third-person narrative and Rostov’s thoughts. The third-person narrative of Rostov’s experience is punctuated eleven times by his thoughts (yellow highlights). Thus Tolstoy is moving in and out of Rostov’s head. As well, Tolstoy sometimes uses Rostov’s eyes to describe the battle scene: “Rostov could see” ; “He noticed.”  Another technique is the use of sound. As the blue highlighting shows, there is a lot of noise at the start; this contrasts with the lack of noise (except the shouting of the enemy) throughout Nikolai’s semi-conscious confusion and isolation after being injured. 


Tolstoy’s use of images is evident in the appearance of “line” nine times (highlighted in green) and the solitary tree. His famous predilection for repetition is seen in his use of run/ran/running (highlighted in orange) nine times in the last very long paragraph. 


Tolstoy’s description includes many other interesting features: the theme of aloneness with the tree, the sudden disappearance of all his fellow hussars, the death of his horse, his reversion to thinking like a child, and the “broad broom.”


The Text 

The hussars in Rostov’s squadron, barely having time to mount their horses, were positioned face to face with the enemy. Again, as on the Enns bridge, there was no one between the squadron and the enemy, but there was that terrible dividing line of uncertainty and fear, like the line separating the living and the dead. All the men were conscious of that line, and they worried whether or not they would cross that line and how they would cross it.


The colonel rode up to the front, angrily answered some questions from officers, and like a man desperate to have his own way, barked out an order. No one said anything definite, but the rumour of an attack spread through the squadron. The order to fall in was heard, and then the scrape of sabres being drawn from scabbards. But still no one moved. The troops on the left flank, the infantry and hussars, all felt that those in command had no idea what to do, and this indecision was felt by the troops.


Come on, come on,” Rostov thought, feeling that the time had finally come to experience the thrill of a charge. It was something he had heard so much about from his fellow hussars.  


“God be with you, men!” Denisov’s voice rang out. “Forward, quick trot!” 


In the front line the haunches of the horses began to sway. Little Rook pulled on his reins and moved ahead instinctively. 


To his right Rostov could see the hussars’ front line, and still farther ahead a dark line was visible, which he could not make out but presumed to be the enemy. Shots could be heard, but they were some way off.


Increase the trot,” came the command, and Rostov felt something like a kick from behind as his Little Rook broke into a gallop. 


He knew in advance all his horse’s movements, and everything was becoming more and more exciting. He noticed a solitary tree in front of him. That tree had once been well ahead of him in the centre of that line which had seemed so terrible. But now that he had crossed that line and nothing terrible had happened, everything became more exciting and lively. “How I‘ll slash them,” Rostov thought, gripping the hilt of his sabre.


Hur-r-ra-a-ah!” voices roared. 


I’m ready for anyone,” Rostov thought, spurring on Little Rook into a full gallop and overtaking the others. Already the enemy could be seen ahead. Suddenly, something like a broad broom lashed across the squadron. Rostov raised his sabre, ready to slash, but at that moment the trooper Nikitenko, who had galloped ahead, became separated from him, and Rostov, as if in a dream, felt that he was rushing along at an unnatural speed and yet at the same time not moving. A fellow Hussar, Bandarchuk, bumped into him from behind and glared angrily. Bandarchuk’s horse shied and galloped by.


What’s happening? Why can’t I move? Have I fallen? Am I dead?” Rostov asked himself and answered simultaneously. He was alone in the middle of a field. Instead of galloping horses and hussars’ backs, all he could see around him was the still earth and stubble. There was warm blood under him. “No, I’m wounded. The horse is dead.” Little Rook struggled to get up on his forelegs but fell, pinning his rider’s leg. Blood flowed from the horse’s head. The horse was thrashing about and couldn’t get up. Rostov wanted to get up, but he too fell back down because his scabbard was caught in his saddle. Where were our men? Where were the French? He didn’t know. There was no one around.


Freeing his leg, he got up. “Now in which direction was that line that so sharply separated the two armies?” he asked himself but couldn’t answer. “Has something bad happened to me? These things happen but what’s to be done in such cases?” he asked himself while getting up. Just then he felt there was something wrong with his numb left arm. His wrist didn’t seem to belong there. He examined his arm, looking in vain for blood. “Well, here are some men,” he thought joyfully, seeing a few soldiers running toward him. “They’ll help me!Running in front was a man in a strange shako cap and blue overcoat. He was swarthy and sun-tanned and had a hook nose. Two more soldiers came, and then more ran up from behind. One of them said something in a strange non-Russian language. Among these men in the rear, who were wearing the same shako caps, stood a lone Russian hussar. They were holding him by his arms, and his horse was being led behind him.


He’s one of ours, taken prisoner. Will they take me too? Who are these men?” Rostov thought all this, hardly believing his own eyes. “Is it possible they’re French?” He looked at the approaching Frenchmen, and although only a moment before he had been galloping after these Frenchmen in order to hack them down, their closeness now seemed so terrible to him that he could not believe his eyes. “Who are they? Why are they running? Could it be after me? Are they running after me? Why? To kill me? Me, whom everybody loves?” He remembered his mother’s love for him, his family’s, his friends’, and it seemed absurd to him that the enemy wanted to kill him. “But perhaps they will!” He stood stock still for more than ten seconds, not understanding his situation. The leading Frenchman with the hooked nose had run up so close to him that he could see the expression of his face. Rostov was frightened by the flushed alien face of this man who was running easily in his direction with fixed bayonet and bated breath. He grabbed his pistol, and instead of firing, hurled it at the Frenchman and ran toward the undergrowth as fast as he could. He did not run now with the feeling of doubt and aggression that he had experienced on the Enns bridge, but with the feeling of a hare fleeing hounds. He was completely possessed by a single fear for his young and happy life. Quickly leaping over obstacles with the speed that he had once used when playing tag, he ran across the field, now and then turning his pale, good-natured young face, only to feel a chill of fear run down his spine. “No. Better not to look,” he thought, but when he reached the undergrowth, he looked again. The French soldiers had fallen back, and right at the moment that he turned, their leader slowed from a trot to a walk and turned round to yell to a comrade behind. Rostov stopped. “This can’t be right,” he thought. “It’s not possible that they wanted to kill me.” Meanwhile his left arm felt heavy, as though a 20lb weight was hanging from it. He couldn’t run anymore. The French soldier stopped and took aim. Rostov screwed up his eyes and crouched down. One bullet whistled past him, then another. He summoned his remaining strength, put his left arm in his right hand and ran into the undergrowth. In that undergrowth were Russian riflemen.


Translation by John Cobley with the help of published translations by Anthony Briggs, Rosemary Edmonds, Louise and Aylmer Maude, and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.




THOUGHTS        SOUND        RUN/RAN        LINE


Photo: Sylvester Morand as Nilolai Rostov in the 1972 BBC production of War and Peace.


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