Et bien, mes readers-along, si vous n’avez rien de mieux à faire, go to the master post for the read-along schedule and more.
THE FIRST OF THE DREADED WAR PARTS.
And it was okay! Fascinating, even. As a Canadian, I’ve read plenty about World War I. I read Fifth Business in grade 11 and The Wars in first year University. Both were stark, realistic portrayals of the horror and confusion of war. Lots of mud and gas. But neither got that deep into the bureaucracy of war. The posturing, the double speak, the sycophancy, the ass-covering…. the memos.
We spend most of our time with Andrei and Nikolai, along with various real-life historical figures, and a bit of Dolohkov, for flavour. It occurs to me that there are more parallels with Office Space than just the inane bureaucracy. Our Russian soldiers have counterparts over at Initech:
Andrei is kind of a big shot, but a junior big shot. An “adjunct” to the famed (and real) General Kutuzov. A straight shooter with upper management written all over him who doesn’t care if he lives or dies. He’s Peter Gibbons. By the end of this section, Andrei defies orders and impresses everyone with his “calm, manly” manner. Damn, it feels good to be a gangster.
Nikolai is a hussar, which means he gets a horse, but he’s much lower status than Andrei and a much bigger baby. He’s scared, confused, ready to run away at a moment’s notice, and just wants to go home – he’s hapless Tom. Nikolai is mortally offended that anyone could think of killing “me, whom everybody loves so”. He’s a people person, damn it!
Dolohkov has been demoted thanks to his after-party antics, makes a scene about his precious blue coat during inspection, and sneers at his superiors. He declares that he won’t change his ways, much like Michael Bolton refuses to go by Mike to avoid questions about his possible relation to the Michael Bolton (“Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks!”):
I don’t claim that there’s perfect symmetry between part II and Office Space, because sadly, Andrei & Dolokhov do not devise a plan to defraud the military of money so they can live their dream of “doing nothing.” On the other hand, everyone seems to have four bosses, no one knows what the hell they’re doing, and there are so many memos! Here are just a few instances of familiar office-life-problems in part II:
- When you overdo it to impress the boss: An infantry regiment scrambles to dress up and look presentable ahead of an inspection by commander in chief Kutuzov, only to find out they look *too good* and need to tone it down so Kutuzov could argue that his troops are in no condition to fight and must retreat.
- When you get a promotion, but you’re not really comfortable being a manager:
one could see that he fulfilled his duties as a subordinate with still greater pleasure that his duties as a superior
- When you’ve worked somewhere forever and have to train an eager newbie:
[Kutuzov] turned away and winced, as if wishing to express thereby that all that Dolokhov had said to him and all that he could say had long, long been known to him, that is all bored him, and that it was by no means what was needed.
- When you have to suck it up and tow the company line: Nikolai learns a harsh lesson about tattling when a colleague steals money from his beloved Denisov and he confronts the thief and runs to an officer. Instead of the head pats he expected, he’s told that he should keep his mouth shut rather than disgrace the whole regiment. As Lumberg might say, you have to ask yourself, “is this good for the company?”
First of all, can we talk about Denisov’s speech impediment? Pevear & Volkonsky translation:
‘Ah, ghreally! And I blew eveghrything last night, bghrother, like a son of a bitch!’ shouted Denisov, swallowing his r’s.
“Weally! And I’ve been losing, bwother. I lost yesterday like a damned fool!” cried Denísov, not pronouncing his r’s.
These are two TOTALLY different ways of speaking! The first makes me think of a grizzled heavy smoker who wants to hock a loogie. The second makes me think of…
Tolstoy keeping us grounded: A quick shout out to Tolstoy for zooming out in chapter XI, about halfway through this section, to remind us what the hell is happening.
Pursued by the French army of a hundred thousand men under the command of Bonaparte, encountering a population that was unfriendly to it, losing confidence in its allies, suffering from shortness of supplies, and compelled to act under conditions of war unlike anything that had been foreseen, the Russian army of thirty-five thousand men commanded by Kutúzov was hurriedly retreating along the Danube, stopping where overtaken by the enemy and fighting rearguard actions only as far as necessary to enable it to retreat without losing its heavy equipment.
This section is impressive for covering all types of people, from Emperors to diplomats, to rookie hussars and officers, while keeping us grounded in dates and real-life people and battles. I didn’t get confused much, though I should really make a list of all the various ranks and types of soldiers.
Twitter celebs of the 19th century: Andrei has a sleepover with his friend Bilibin in Vienna, and I hope we see him again. I’m pretty sure he’d have a huge following on Twitter if he was around today:
His conversation was always sprinkled with wittily original, finished phrases of general interest. These sayings were prepared in the inner laboratory of his mind in a portable form as if intentionally, so that insignificant society people might carry them from drawing room to drawing room. And, in fact, Bilíbin’s witticisms were hawked about in the Viennese drawing rooms and often had an influence on matters considered important.
Fearful and Merry: As the action at Schongraben starts, the men, including Andrei, are described as “fearful and merry” and generally super pumped to start killing Frenchies. It made me think of that scene in Farenheit 9/11 where the American troops talk about the music they listen to, to pump themselves up:
To wrap up, let’s see how our three main characters fare after the battle of Schongraben:
Andrei lives up to the hype. He shows extreme bravery when he is the only officer who will face heavy fire to reach a far flung cannon squadron. But is he brave, or does he just have a death wish? Like Peter Gibbons, who stops caring about work and received an immediate promotion, it all feels rather empty.
Prince Andrei felt sad and downhearted. All this was so strange, so unlike what he had hoped for.
Nikolai’s not-that-serious arm injury is his ticket out of battle and back to partying with the boys, just like Tom’s freak accident gets him a big settlement so he never has to go to the office again.
Dolohkov goes buck wild: kills a man point blank, takes the first prisoner, and sustains a showy head wound. As Michael Bolton might say, “PC Load Letter? What the fuck does that mean?”
Stay tuned for nip-slips, Tsar fandom, incest rumours and more war stuff in Part III!