Wednesday, October 31, 2012

You Think You've Had a Bad Week?

This journey alone has recompensed me for my departure from Paris by presenting me with so many new sights and experiences--things that  sedentary men of letters would not guess at in a thousand years. The most interesting days were the 25th and 26th of October . . .
So Marie-Henri Beyle, Stendhal,writing on November 9, 1812, from Smolensk in Russia to a friend back in France.  the "most interesting days" were the beginning of Napoleon's calamitous retreat from Russia.  In another letter the same day, he elaborates: we were mking our fires, we were surrounded by  mob of men who started firing at us.  Complete disorder, oaths from the wounded: we had all the trouble in the world to make them take up their muskets.  We repulsed the enemy, but we thought ourselves destined for great adventures. ... We decided to spend the night on our feet, and on the morrow, at first break of dawn, to form a battalion-square, set our wounded in the middle of it and try to break through the Russians; if we were driven back, to abandon our vehicles, to reform into another, smaller battalion-square, and to be killed to the last man rather than let ourselves be taken by peasants who would kill us slowly with knives or in any other amiable fashion. ...

[The experienced officers] agreed that our goose was cooked.  We distributed our napoleons amongst the servants, to try to safeguard some of them. We had all become close friends. We drank the little wine we had left.  On the morrow, which was to be so great a day, we all set off on foot beside our calashes, hung with pistols from head to feet.  

In the end, the battle turned out to be non event:  

The enemy did not consider us worthy of his fury; we were attacked only in the evening, by a few cossacks who lanced fifteen or twenty of our wounded.

Stendhal was back in Vilna by the 7th of December; he celebrated his 30th birthday in January, in Berlin.  The retreat was an almost unspeakable calamity for the army taken as a whole, not to mention the Russian peasants who had been so victimized by the entire affair.    For Stendhal, it was probably the high point of his life.  He spent his remaining years as a marginal diplomat and disappointed lover--and, yes, author of two of the greatest novels ever.

Source:  excerpts from To the Happy Few:  Selected Letters (Norman Cameron trans. 1986).


No comments: