Friday, March 12, 2010

You know the shell is heading in your direction - Tolstoy's early war writing

I had the idea that I was going to somehow balance Early Tolstoy week between Childhood, Boyhood, Youth (1852-7) and the exactly contemporary Sevastopol Sketches (1855-6), three stories about the Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War.  In the 1850s, Tolstoy began his career by writing War and also Peace, but in separate books.

The Sevastopol Sketches at times resemble some form of reporting, and are certainly based on Tolstoy's own observations.  My understanding is that they were treated as reporting, as dispatches from the front.  But they are fictional, obviously fictional.  The first sketch, "Sevastopol in December" takes "you," a young officer like Tolstoy, on a tour of the city, all the way to the battlements, with detours to a field hospital and a tavern.  The hospital scene not much less grisly than it would be in a novel today, so fair warning to the squeamish.  Let me just swerve around that section and pull out a bit of Tolstoyan battlefield psychology:

At the moment you know the shell is heading in your direction, you are bound to think it is going to kill you; but a feeling of self-respect will sustain you, and no one will observe the knife that is lacerating your heart.  When, however, the shell sails past, leaving you unscathed, you will recover your spirits and be seized, if only for a moment, by a sense of relief that is unutterably pleasant. (199)

The second story, "Sevastopol in May," hops around among a group of officers - the main characters in the Sevastopol Sketches are all officers - on a more or less ordinary day.  I was startled by how much Tolstoy's officers are motivated by vanity.  Sometimes they want to be brave, but mostly they want to look brave, to expose themselves to as little danger as possible while maximizing their visibility.  And, as one might guess, the importance of looking, or being, brave varies from one moment to the next when the officer is actually in battle.  Tolstoy is insightful, so perhaps my surprise is that this unflattering portrait of the Russian officers was so easily published.

The center of this story is an extraordinary scene in which two officers take cover just before a shell explodes.  Both expect to die; one does, one does not.  If there is any doubt that the Sketches are fiction, the detailed interior thoughts of a man just before his death should remind us that, however truthful the story seems, Tolstoy is making it up, since he did not experience dying in battle.

'Thank God, I'm only contused,' was his first thought, and he tried to touch his chest with his hands - but his arms seemed to be bound fast, and his head felt as though it were caught in some kind of vice.  Soldiers flickered past his gaze - and he found himself unconsciously counting them: 'One, two, three - ah, that one in the tucked-up greatcoast is an officer,' he thought; then there was a flash, and he wondered if it had been a mortar or a cannon; a cannon, more likely; and now there was some more firing, more soldiers going past - five, six, seven. (242)

The bald declaration at the end of the chapter, by the plain old omnisicent narrator, that the officer "had been killed on the spot by a shell splinter," seems entirely unnecessary, a bit of clumsiness that Tolstoy will learn to excise.  Many passages, though, would not seem out of place in War and Peace.  It all sounds like Tolstoy.  What a powerful writer.

Quotations from The Cossacks and Other Stories, tr. David McDuff, Penguin Classics, 2006.

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