Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tolstoy's general

In his introduction to the translation of War and Peace that he made with his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear, in the course of pointing out a paradox that is obvious to readers of the novel--that
the most real and even, in Tolstoy's sense, historical figures in War and Peace turn out to be the fictional ones; and the most unreal, the most insubstantial and futile, the historical ones.
--notes that the one important exception to that rule is the supreme commander of the Russian forces, Field Marshall Kutuzov, "who for Tolstoy is 'historical' in both senses of the word and thus becomes a touchstone figure in the book."

Kutuzov--old, half-blind, tired of both the trappings and the reality of war--is a character who has stood out in each of my readings of the novel. His weariness, if not his lack of resolve, is familiar from photos and accounts of Ulysses Grant,the reluctant destroyer. Before the battle of Austerlitz, Kutuzov sleeps through a high-level council of generals, knowing its pointlessness; only at the end of the meeting,after various impossible alternative battle plans have been proposed, more for the glory of their designers than for any hope of their actual implementation, does he rouse himself:
Kutuzov woke up, cleared his throat loudly, and glanced around at the generals.

"Gentlemen, the disposition for tomorrow, for today even (because it's already past twelve), cannot be changed," he said. "You have heard it, and we will all do our duty. And there's nothing more important before a battle . . . " (he paused) "than a good night's sleep."
General Grant comes to mind again when Prince Andrei reflects on a meeting with Kutuzov in the early days of Napoleon's invasion in 1812:
How and why it happened, Prince Andrei could in no way have explained, but after this meeting with Kutuzov, he went back to his regiment relieved with regard to the general course of things and with regard to the man to whom it had been entrusted The more he saw the absence of anything personal in the old man, in whom there seemed to remain only the habit of passions, and, instead of intelligence (which groups events and draws conclusions), only the ability to calmly contemplate the course of events, the more calmed he felt over everything being as it had to be. "He won't have anything of his own," thought Prince Andrei, "but he'll listen to everything, remember everything, put everything in its place, won't hinder anything useful or allow anything harmful. He understands that there is something stronger and more significant than his will--the inevitable course of events--and he's able to see them, able to understand their significance, and, in view of their significance, is able to renounce participating in those events, renounce his personal will and direct it elsewhere."
But the moment when Kutuzov most fully comes to life as a character is in a quiet moment with Prince Andrei earlier that day. The general, "flabby and swollen with fat," tired from a day in the saddle, dismounts:
He straightened up, looked around with his narrowed gaze and, glancing at Prince Andrei, obviously without recognizing him, strode towards the porch with his dipping gait.

"Phew . . . phew . .. phew," he whistled and again glanced around at Prince Andrei. Only after several seconds did the impression of Prince Andrei's face (as often happens with old men) connect with the remembrance of his person.

"Ah, greetings, Prince, greetings, dear boy, come along . . ." he said wearily, looking around, and went heavily up the steps, which creaked under his weight. He unbuttoned his jacket and sat down on a bench that stood on the porch.

"Well, how's your father?"

"Yesterday I received news of his passing away," Prince Andrei said shortly.

Kutuzov looked at Prince Andrei with wide-open, startled eyes, then took off his cap and crossed himself: "God rest his soul! His will be done with us all!" He sighed deeply, with his whole chest, and fell silent. "I loved and respected him, and I sympathize with you wholeheartedly." He embraced Prince Andrei, pressed him to his fat chest, and did not let go of him for a long time. When he did, Prince Andrei saw that Kutuzov's swollen lips were trembling and there were tears in his eyes. He sighed and took hold of the bench with both hands in order to stand up.
The mix of sincere emotion and ritual performance, the sense one gets of Kutuzov calling up and deploying reserves of genuine sadness generated by other, more important losses--it all serves to make Kutuzov believable and memorable in a way that Tsar Alexander and Napoleon simply can't ever be.

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