Unforgettable Emotional Insight from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”

Vik RubenfeldNovelLeave a Comment

WAR AND PEACE has tons of amazing, unforgettable moments in it. There’s a thread listing many of them, on Goodreads. Here’s one of my favorites. BTW, this text is from the spectacular translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  I can’t recommend their many translations from great Russian writers, highly enough.

To the right Rostov saw the first rows of his hussars, and still further ahead he could see a dark strip, which he could not make out but thought to be the enemy. Shots were fired, but in the distance.

“Quicken the tghrot,” came the command, and Rostov felt his Little Rook kick up his rump, switching to a canter.

He guessed his movements ahead of time, and felt merrier and merrier. He noticed a solitary tree ahead. This tree was first ahead of him, in the middle of the line that seemed so terrible. But then they crossed that line, and not only was there nothing frightening, but everything became merrier and livelier. “Oh, how I’m going to slash at him,” thought Rostov, gripping the hilt of his saber.

“Hur-r-ra-a-ah!” voices droned.

“Well, now let anybody at all come along,” thought Rostov, spurring Little Rook and, outstripping the others, sending him into a full gallop. The enemy could already be seen ahead. Suddenly something lashed at the squadron as if with a broad besom. Rostov raised his sword, preparing to strike, but just then the soldier Nikitenko galloped past, leaving him behind, and Rostov felt, as in a dream, that he was still racing on with unnatural speed and at the same time was staying in place. The familiar hussar Bandarchuk galloped towards him from behind and looked at him angrily. Bandarchuk’s horse shied, and he swerved around him.

“What is it? I’m not moving ahead? I’ve fallen, I’ve been killed . . .” Rostov asked and answered in the same instant. He was alone now in the middle of the field. Instead of moving horses and hussar backs, he saw the immobile earth and stubble around him. There was warm blood under him. “No, I’m wounded, and my horse has been killed.” Little Rook tried to get up on his forelegs, but fell back, pinning his rider’s leg. Blood flowed from the horse’s head. The horse thrashed and could not get up. Rostov went to get up and also fell: his pouch caught on the saddle. Where ours were, where the French were— he did not know. There was no one around.

Having freed his leg, he got up. “Where, on which side now was that line which had so sharply separated the two armies?” he asked himself, and could not answer. “Has something bad happened to me? There are such cases, and what must be done in such cases?” he asked himself, standing up; and just then he felt that something superfluous was hanging from his numb left arm. His hand was like someone else’s. He examined the hand, vainly looking for blood on it. “Well, here are some people,” he thought joyfully, seeing several men running towards him. “They’ll help me!” In front of these people ran one in a strange shako and a blue greatcoat, dark, tanned, with a hooked nose. Two more and then many came running behind him. One of them said something strange, non-Russian. Among the men in the back, wearing the same shakos, stood a Russian hussar. He was being held by the arms; behind him they were holding his horse.

“He must be one of ours taken prisoner . . . Yes. Can it be they’ll take me, too? What men are these?” Rostov kept thinking, not believing his eyes. “Can they be Frenchmen?” He looked at the approaching Frenchmen and, though a moment before he had been galloping only in order to meet these Frenchmen and cut them to pieces, their closeness now seemed so terrible to him that he could not believe his eyes. “Who are they? Why are they running? Can it be they’re running to me? Can it be? And why? To kill me? Me, whom everybody loves so?” He remembered his mother’s love for him, his family’s, his friends’, and the enemy’s intention to kill him seemed impossible. “But maybe even—to kill me!” He stood for more than ten seconds without moving from the spot or understanding his situation. The first Frenchman with the hooked nose came so close that the expression on his face could already be seen. And the flushed alien physiognomy of this man who, with lowered bayonet, holding his breath, was running lightly towards him, frightened Rostov. He seized his pistol and, instead of firing it, threw it at the Frenchman, and ran for the bushes as fast as he could. He ran not with the feeling of doubt and conflict with which he had gone to the Enns bridge, but with the feeling of a hare escaping from hounds. One undivided feeling of fear for his young, happy life possessed his entire being.

“Me, whom everybody loves so?” That has stayed with me for years.

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