Having finished the first major section of War and Peace, ending with the Battle of Austerlitz in November/December 1805 (the novel was originally going to be called The Year 1805), I am once more struck with what a good writer Tolstoy was. (I know, who’d have thought?) Before I read his account of the battle, I worked my way through Robert Goetz’s 1805: Austerlitz: Napoleon and the Destruction of the Third Coalition, and having done so, I wondered how Tolstoy was going to handle it. The battle was a complicated one; the French and Allied forces were drawn up facing each other in roughly north-south lines between Brünn (Brno) and Austerlitz, the initial strategies didn’t work out (the Allies planned to turn the French right and cut them off from Vienna, Napoleon intended to turn the Allied right and drive them into the lakes and swamps to the south), and the fighting went back and forth over widely separated patches of territory before the Allies were definitively routed. Goetz took hundreds of pages to describe it, and a novelist could easily do the same, but Tolstoy disposed of it in a little over twenty pages in my Russian edition. Furthermore, a good bit of that is preparation and aftermath; the battle proper takes up only ten pages, a little over two chapters. Here’s how he does it.
Chapter XVI describes the first, shocking view of the French, appearing out of the morning fog within a few hundred paces of the Allied troops near the village of Pratzen; the panicked flight of the troops, followed by Kutuzov’s anguished plea for someone to stop them; and Prince Andrei’s heroic attempt to do so, seizing the fallen regimental standard and advancing with it, only to be shot. The chapter ends with one of the most famous passages in the novel, Andrei’s thoughts as he lies on his back looking up at the “quiet, peaceful, and solemn” sky and rejoicing in having seen it at last: “Everything is empty, everything is deception, except that infinite sky.” Chapter XVII opens with young Rostov, on the right (northern) flank commanded by the unenthusiastic Bagration, being given a message for either Emperor Alexander or General Kutuzov asking for instructions: “Bagration knew that because of the distance of almost ten versts between the two flanks, even if they didn’t kill the messenger (which was very likely), and even if he found the commander in chief, which would be very difficult, he would not be able to get back before evening.” Rostov rides off with his heart “full of joy and happiness”; in a few brilliant paragraphs, Tolstoy shows him—and us—clouds of cannon smoke covering incomprehensible movements of indistinguishable troops, some uhlans returning from the action, some Horse Guards galloping towards it (Rostov has to brandish his whip at one of them to keep from being ridden down), and some excited friends of his who detain him and want to tell him about their experiences, before he hears “musket fire quite close in front of him and behind our troops, where he could never have expected the enemy to be,” and realizes things are going very wrong; the chapter ends: “The idea of defeat and flight could not enter Rostov’s head. Though he saw French cannon and troops right on the Pratzen Heights, on the very spot where he had been ordered to look for the commander in chief, he could not and did not want to believe it.” At the start of the next chapter, he rides endlessly through the crowds, unable to find anyone who can tell him what’s going on; he grabs a soldier and asks “Where is the Emperor? Where is Kutuzov?”: “‘Eh, brother! They’ve all bolted long ago!’ said the soldier, laughing for some reason and shaking himself free.” And that’s basically that; he eventually finds his beloved emperor sitting alone in an empty field and is unable even to approach and deliver his message, which he realizes is now useless—the battle is lost.
The key sentence comes in Chapter XVII, after Rostov decides reluctantly he’d better continue trying to deliver the message rather than join the dashing Horse Guards in their assault on the French: Ростову страшно было слышать потом, что из всей этой массы огромных красавцев людей, из всех этих блестящих, на тысячных лошадях, богачей, юношей, офицеров и юнкеров, проскакавших мимо его, после атаки осталось только осьмнадцать человек. ['It was terrible for Rostov to hear later that of all that mass of huge and handsome people, of all those brilliant, rich men on their thousand-ruble horses, youths, officers and cadets, who had galloped past him, after the attack only eighteen were left.'] It’s a similar effect to the one I discussed here, but more compressed and brutal. Once we’ve seen the sudden appearance of the French where they were least expected and experienced the shock produced, and assimilated that brief foretelling of massacre, we know all we need to know about the battle.
Incidentally, I have to thank commenter “Gosaca Menacle” (a nice Jimmy Cliff reference) in this thread for calling my attention to “the cries of the soldier being punished for stealing in [Book II] chapter XV, as witnessed by Prince Andrei,” which are described as “desperate but feigned”; as a result I paid attention to this sentence in III:XVIII, while a despairing Rostov is still searching for his emperor: Раненые сползались по два, по три вместе, и слышались неприятные, иногда притворные, как казалось Ростову, их крики и стоны. ['The wounded crawled together in twos and threes, and you could hear their unpleasant, and sometimes (as it seemed to Rostov) feigned, cries and groans.'] Since these soldiers are not being beaten, all I can think is that while Tolstoy was serving in the Caucasus and hearing men suffer, he was struck by the fact that their outcries sometimes sounded притворные (‘affected, feigned’). I’m quite willing to take his word for it.