This morning I was reading War and Peace, and had just reached this passage when news began to come through of the carnage in Brussels, and the casualties mounted. It’s the scene during the battle of Borodino when Prince Andrei is is hit by an exploding shell and suffers a terrible stomach wound. Lying in agony in the dressing station, he sees Anatole Kuragin, the man he despises for attempting to elope with Natasha to whom he was engaged; Anatole’s leg is being amputated.

The tent which serves as a dressing station is a scene of bloody horror. Everything changes, it seems, but nothing changes.

There were three tables in the tent. Two were occupied, Prince Andrei was laid on the third. He was left alone for a time, and he involuntarily saw what was taking place on the other tables. […] On the [an]other table, around which many people crowded, a big, sturdy man lay on his back with his head thrown back (his curly hair, its colour, and the shape of his head seemed strangely familiar to Prince Andrei). Several assistants leaned their weight on the man’s chest and held him down. One big, sturdy white leg kept jerking quickly and rhythmically with a feverish quivering. The man sobbed and spluttered convulsively. Two doctors – one was pale and trembling – were silently doing something to the man’s other leg, which was red. […] The doctor in spectacles, wiping his hands, came up to Prince Andrei. He looked at Prince Andrei’s face and quickly turned away. “Undress him! What are you standing there for?” he cried angrily to the assistants.

His very first, distant childhood came to Prince Andrei’s mind as the assistant, his sleeves rolled up, unbuttoned and removed his clothes with hurrying hands. The doctor bent down over the wound, felt it, and sighed deeply. Then he made a sign to someone. And the tormenting pain inside his stomach made Prince Andrei lose consciousness. When he came to, the shattered hip bones had been removed, the shreds of flesh had been cut off, and the wound had been dressed. Someone sprayed water in his face. As soon as Prince Andrei opened his eyes, the doctor bent over him, silently kissed him on the lips, and hurried away.

After the suffering he had endured, Prince Andrei felt a bliss such as he had not experienced for a long time. All the best and happiest moments of his life, especially his most distant childhood, when he had been undressed and put in his little bed, when the nanny had sung to lull him to sleep, when, burying his head in the pillows, he had felt happy in the mere consciousness of life, presented itself to his imagination not as the past, but as a reality.

The doctors were bustling about a wounded man, the shape of whose head seemed familiar to Prince Andrei; they were lifting him and calming him.

“Show me . . . Oooh! oh! oooh!” his moaning, broken by sobs, was heard, frightened and resigned to his suffering. Hearing those moans, Prince Andrei wanted to weep. Whether it was because he was dying without glory, or because he was sorry to part with life, or from those memories of long-lost childhood, or because he was suffering, others were suffering, and this man was moaning so pitifully before him, he wanted to weep childlike, kind, almost joyful tears.

The wounded man was shown his cut-off leg in a boot caked with blood!

“Oh! Oooh!” he sobbed like a woman. The doctor, who was standing in front of the wounded man, screening his face, stepped away.

“My God! What is this? Why is he here?” Prince Andrei said to himself.

In the unfortunate, sobbing, exhausted man whose leg had just been removed, he recognized Anatole Kuragin. They were holding him up in their arms and offering him water in a glass, the rim of which he could not catch in his trembling, swollen lips. Anatole was sobbing deeply. “Yes, it’s he; yes, this man is closely and painfully connected with me by something,” thought Prince Andrei, not yet understanding clearly what he saw before him. “What is this man’s connection with my childhood, with my life?” he asked himself, without finding an answer. And suddenly a new and unexpected memory from the world of childhood, purity, and love came to Prince Andrei. He remembered Natasha as he had seen her for the first time at the ball in 1810, with her slender neck and arms, with her frightened, happy face ready for rapture, and in his soul love and tenderness for her awakened, stronger and more alive than ever. He now remembered the connection between him and this man, who was looking at him dully through the tears that filled his swollen eyes. Prince Andrei remembered everything, and a rapturous pity and love for this man filled his happy heart.

Prince Andrei could no longer restrain himself, and he wept tender, loving tears over people, over himself, and over their and his own errors. “Compassion, love for our brothers, for those who love us, love for those who hate us, love for our enemies-yes, that love which God preached on earth, which Princess Marya taught me, and which I didn’t understand; that’s why I was sorry about life, that’s what was still left for me, if I was to live. But now it’s too late. I know it!”

That’s from the magnificent new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky which Orlando Figes praised in his review for the New York Review of Books for ‘revealing more of its hidden riches than any who have tried to translate the book before’.

Andrei is wounded at the Battle of Borodino in the BBC adaptation by Andrew Davies
Andrei is wounded at the Battle of Borodino in the BBC adaptation by Andrew Davies

2 thoughts on “Reading War and Peace as news arrives from Brussels

  1. I’ve read War and Peace recently, after having seen the BBC adaptation. It’s a truly wonderful book and one that never ceases to be relevant…

  2. Today people have been saying “We are Bruxelles” & “We are Paris” etc etc etc, indicating a certain solidarity & Oneness … Logically therefore those sentiments must also extend to our Arab/Muslim brethren & some other enemies that even claim to be on “our side” … whatever that means … many years ago Dylan sang “With God on our side” … and Lev Tolstoy writes … “Compassion, love for our brothers, love for those who love us, love for those who hate us, love for our enemies – yes” … nothing changes, but everything must change … surely the time for separation is over … For The One x

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