War and Peace Newbies Read-Along Volume III, Part II: Napoleon Bonaparte Has a Cold


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.

Several of our main characters do important things in this chapter. Pierre joins the war as a spectator, which is apparently a thing you can do. The old prince dies, and Marya tries not to be happy about it. The peasants revolt, and Nikolai gets a chance to help a (rich, single) damsel in distress. Andrei broods, and is badly wounded.

The real star of this section, though, is Napoleon Bonaparte. And he has a cold.

Many historians say that the French did not win the battle of Borodinó because Napoleon had a cold, and that if he had not had a cold the orders he gave before and during the battle would have been still more full of genius and Russia would have been lost and the face of the world have been changed. 

I’d never read the famous Esquire article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese, but I knew the title, and it kept running through my head while reading about Bonaparte and his sniffles.


I finally read it, and after 15,000 words at one in the morning I fell into a Wikipedia rabbit hole, following the the paths of Sinatra’s wives, children, and hangers-on. Here was a man at the height of his fame but losing his grip, surrounded by an entourage of adoring fans and enablers, known for making comebacks, for passionate love affairs and multiple marriages, for violent outbursts and fierce loyalty. A man who was almost undone by a simple cold.

You can see where I’m going with this, yes? The same words could describe Napoleon on the eve of the battle of Borodino. But the form of “Frank SInatra Has a Cold” has something to say, or perhaps a debt to pay, to War and Peace as well.

“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” is an early example of “New Journalism,” which involves using literary techniques usually reserved for fiction in journalism. It is also an example of a “write-around”, or a story about a person that’s written without their consent, and hence, without access to an interview. An unauthorized biography.  

When it was published in 1966, “New Journalism” wasn’t a thing. There was no easy way to describe what Talese had done. Similarly, there wasn’t (and still isn’t) a clear classification for War and Peace. Tolstoy says, in “A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace” that it is “not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle.” Tolstoy suggests that books that do fall easily into such categories cannot be anything better than mediocre. While “New Journalism” is hardly new anymore, and is pretty ubiquitous, I’m not sure about the legacy of Tolstoy’s rejection of traditional literary forms.

But is War and Peace a “write-around?” Not in the traditional sense, as Tolstoy rejects any claim to writing a history or biography. But I can’t help but see this section, and much of the book, as a “write-around” of Napoleon. We see certain historical documents and hear from people around him, both those in his inner circle and those just outside his orbit. He is presented as a figure to be alternately feared, idolized, and made fun of. Tolstoy imagines conversations and even his inner thoughts.

Did Napoleon’s cold really cause the deaths of tens of thousands of men? It sounds silly, but it’s a theory man historians take seriously. The history books say Borodino was a victory for French, but it was actually the beginning of the end for Napoleon. He was too confident, too impetuous, too insulated from the real world. By writing “around” the battle of Borodino, Tolstoy presents the facts, but also presents Napoleon as a human being – a single human being who could not cause the deaths of tens of thousands of men, not matter how clear his nasal passages were.


As for Frank, many of his greatest hits were ahead of him when “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” was published in 1966. It would be three years till he did it “My Way” and fourteen years before he could “make it anywhere” – sentiments familiar to Napoleon. But this profile remains the standard on Sinatra, and the standard text when teaching New Journalism, just as War and Peace remains the final word on Russian literature and classic literature in general, nearly 150 years after it was published.

Please head over to The Terror of Knowing for a much more thorough run down of what happened in this section.




  1. Rick @ AnotherBook.blog

    We’re on the same page in this section, I think, but we wrote about it in very different ways.

    You wrote, “Tolstoy presents the facts, but also presents Napoleon as a human being – a single human being who could not cause the deaths of tens of thousands of men, not matter how clear his nasal passages were.” I talked about how Napoleon, no matter how great or large a figure he was, couldn’t have turned the tide all that much on his own (in Tolstoy’s opinion).


    This was a really interesting approach to this section. I loved it. Great job 🙂

  2. Emma

    I’m taking “thorough run-down” with both a pinch of salt, but I’m feeling flattered – thanks! 😛

    “Pierre joins the war as a spectator, which is apparently a thing you can do.” – I have never been so bemused by a character ever, he just seems to accidentally wander into a war zone which, yeah, easily done I’m sure??

    The only way I actually got through the sections about Napoleon were *because* of the silly cold bit. It’s weirdly refreshing to consider that we can think about this general and that general and be told it was their strategic nous hat won (or lost) a war, but when it comes down to it a lot of it is down to the conditions on the day and whether their orders can be (and are) actually put into action. I actually enjoyed a lot of the points Tolstoy was making about war and history (less so when he tried to make me understand calculus) and how we perceive a grand narrative to events when it’s rarely ever as simple as cause-to-effect – I’ll take some more of that alongside the updates on how Napoleon’s cold is coming along.

    • lauratfrey

      You have the best summaries! I scan over the whole section again before I write mine (usually…) and still miss things that you catch. I liked the parts about orders that couldn’t be put into action even if the orders are given. A lot of this would be good leadership/management advice.

      The calculus bit I tweeted last night was from the next section but yeah,it’s funny how often calculus comes up in fiction?? I always think it’s the author showing off that they actually understand it, I never really did!

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent piece Laura, and although I smiled when I read your title, I think you’ve pulled out an extremely element of the book. Tolstoy is always keen to humanise Napoleon, not demonise him, but it’s useful to be reminded just how much hung on his moods and whims – always bearing in mind Tolstoy’s regular reminders of the random forces at play!

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