Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Sebastopol Sketches by Leo Tolstoy.

Detail of The Siege of Sevastopol by Franz Roubaud (1904).

The Sebastopol Sketches (Севастопольские рассказы) are three short stories by Leo Tolstoy first published in 1855 based on his experiences during the Siege of Sevastopol (September 1854 - September 1855; also spelled "Sebastopol") during the Crimean War (October 1853 - February 1856). These three stories, Sebastopol in DecemberSebastopol in May, and Sebastopol in August, went on to form several episodes of Tolstoy's magnum opus War and Peace (1869).

Sebastopol in December has a wonderful opening paragraph:
The light of daybreak is just beginning to tint the sky above the Sapun-gora. The dark surface of the sea has already thrown off night's gloom and is waiting for the first ray of sunlight to begin its cheerful sparkling. From the bay comes a steady drift of cold and mist. There is no snow - everything is black - but the sharp morning frost catches your face and cracks beneath your feet, and only the incessant, far-off rumble of the sea, punctuated every now and again by the booming of the artillery in Sebastopol, breaks into the morning quiet. From nearby ships sounds the hollow chiming of eight bells.
Tolstoy continues to give a description of the camp at Sebastopol, particularly the hospital, and essentially sets the scene, writing everything from attitudes, the different ranks, and the geography of the area.

1888 English edition of Sevastopol.
In Sebastopol in May Tolstoy writes on the highers ranks, and the effects - the positive effects of the war on the careers of the majors (at leas the perception of such a possibility). This is contrasted with the battlefield and the loss of life of what are essentially the lower classes. He also considers the ideas of truces, a pause in which the dead are collected, and aside from that practical aspect otherwise pointless - the war goes on. This story concludes,
No, the hero of my story, whom I love with all my heart and soul, whom I have attempted to portray in all his beauty and who has always been, is now and will always be supremely magnificent, is truth.
It reminded me of the famous quote in War and Peace: "There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness, and truth."

In the final story Sebastopol in August Tolstoy writes on the end of the siege and the defeat of the Russians, telling the story of two brothers: Mikhail and Vladimir Kozeltsov. In this we see how the experience matches the brothers' expectations and hopes.

These are stories of suffering and the futility of war. Tolstoy, as ever, is a master at portraying the psychology of war and conflict, as well as detailing his experiences of the Crimean War. Though short, it's not an easy read: it's very dark and hopeless, but we learn a great deal more about Tolstoy the pacifist. I've been meaning to read these for quite some time now and I'm glad I've finally got to them.

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