War and Peace is full of Tolstoy’s unoriginal ideas about history in essay form, and his original ideas about death in novel form. Tolstoy is among the greatest writers about death – sudden or prolonged, in combat or illness, actual or threatened.
If you are bothered by learning about the deaths of characters in a book you have not read and with whom you have no associations whatsoever, skip this post, I guess.
A combat death, Petya Rostov. His death in XIV.2. is preceded by his great musical dream, where a whetstone, horses, and snoring are somehow combined into a “harmonious orchestra playing some unknown, sweetly solemn hymn.” Seven hundred pages earlier, Tolstoy suggested that Petya’s sister is synesthetic; perhaps Petya is, too. I mention the dream because it shows how intensely subjective the point of view has become. Everything is interior. To make the text work, I am identifying with Petya, whether he is observing other soldiers, sleeping, or riding into combat.
His charge alongside the Cossacks is chaotic, a breathless blur:
“Wait?... Hurrah-ah-ah!” shouted Petya, and without pausing a moment galloped to the place whence came the sounds of firing and where the smoke was thickest.
A volley was heard, and some bullets whistled past, while others plashed against something. (ellipses in original).
Tolstoy plays a terrible trick here. The “something” is or includes Petya, but for two more headlong sentences I do not know that the perspective has shifted to the other cavalrymen. Something has gone wrong. “Petya fell heavily to the ground. The Cossacks saw…” Now I know the truth. What a masterful use of a perspective shift.
A number of the best death scenes are attached to Prince Andrew, over and over – he is thinking about death, he is wounded in combat, etc. Here he is part of the hot, dusty retreat towards Moscow, before the battle of Borodino:
The dust always hung motionless above the buzz of talk that came from the resting troops.
That by itself is an interesting sentence, isn’t it?
As he crossed the dam Prince Andrew smelled the ooze and freshness of the pond. He longed to get into that water, however dirty it might be, and he glanced round at the pool from whence came the sounds of shrieks and laughter. The small, muddy, green pond had risen visibly more than a foot, flooding the dam, because it was full of the naked white bodies of soldiers with brick-red hands, necks, and faces, who were splashing about in it. (X.5.)
Tolstoy emphasizes the “health” and pleasure of the soldiers (“joyfully wriggling his muscular figure and snorted with satisfaction”), but bathing himself Andrew can only imagine them as the corpses that many of them will soon be:
“Flesh, bodies, cannon fodder!” he thought, and he looked at his own naked body and shuddered, not from cold but from a sense of disgust and horror he did not himself understand, aroused by the sight of that immense number of bodies splashing about in the dirty pond.
Later, wounded, the bodies in the hospital remind Andrew of the bodies in the pond – “Yes, it was the same flesh” (X.37.). All of 120 pages later, almost adjacent for this book.
Maybe it is a paradox of War and Peace, of much of Tolstoy, is how exhilarating so much of this material about death can be. Or not a paradox – the reason is art.