Audio at: “Letters from Russia” discussion on “Write Now!” radio show
DJ Snailmail: Our guest tonight for “Write Now, The Art & Action of Letter writing” is a letter-writer of sorts and a storyteller Dave Olson out of Vancouver, British Columbia. Dave, can you tell me about the two websites that I visited there? Can you talk about those two; I’m not sure, the podcast one and the other one?
Dave: Sure. Well, I do a whole bunch of different writing and creative projects and uncleweed.net (note: now daveostory.com) is my home for all my creative arts and crafts I make, whether it be my writing projects or academic projects, and then I do a bunch of podcasts.
I do a literary podcast called, Postcards from Gravelly Beach – you can subscribe to it in iTunes. It’s just like a little audio show I make that I send out from time to time, that’s just me doing some reading in a variety of locations and mixing up with the music.
DJ Snailmail: It was very cool I actually listened to your London podcast last night. Your podcast from London, that was very good.
Dave: Nice. I have a little portable recorder and I do a lot of travelling. So, I just go on long meandering strolls and love to find places where things were originally written. I kind of put in a little context like I did on early morning Jack Kerouac scroll in San Francisco one time where I found places from San Francisco Blues specifically on location and in situ. I love my arts and crafts.
DJ Snailmail: What is Gravelly Beach?
Dave: That was a place I lived one time and I did a lot of painting. That’s kind of where the show started when I was living out there near Olympia, Washington. I went to Evergreen College there. I lived out Steamboat Island Road. It’s kind of a little bit more of a countryside stretch to the inland. I managed to spend a few months on this beautiful location.
I rented this old trailer from an old lady who went south for the winter. It was the loveliest place with a great location, it was really artistically inspiring for me where I really kicked off that show series, as well as worked on the Letters from Russia project.
DJ Anon: That’s very cool.
DJ Snailmail: Yes, so can you give us a little intro to these Letters from Russia, how you came about the whole idea and then we’re going to actually read excerpts from the — what do you call it a short story?
Dave: I don’t really know what to call it. It’s called a project for the lack of a better name because besides the writing, there’s a bunch of paintings, and some kind of book and paper craft that goes through it. But, I call it a collection of letters because it doesn’t really fit as a short story. It’s not really a novella so I just say it’s a collection of letters.
DJ Snailmail: That works for me. That’s what we’re looking for.
Dave: When the project started I actually had an older brother who joined the US Navy. I was really surprised when he told me this, called and told me, “I’m joining the Navy.” I thought, “Canada has a Navy?” Of course, they do or whatever, but I was really surprised and really disturbed about this. So, I started thinking philosophically about what happens to people that sort of bring them in and get them to buy into this idea because my brother is a peaceful, easy going man. Both kind of psychologically and philosophically, what happened?
He went through a whole time now in Iraq and sort of philosophically what happened to him? I started studying literature, kind of looking at it in that sense. I’m a big fan of the old classic Russian novelists like Pasternak and Tolstoy. I got this notion to write something about it, make something out of it.
It’s really hard to kind of talk about these things being just another person here in this modern age and I’m a storyteller so I kind of came up with this pretence, so to speak ,of how I wanted to do it. Then an opportunity to really get some work done on it presented itself in my final quarter at Evergreen where we did a week long retreat called, Poets and Philosophers Discuss Love and War.
It was a great weeklong retreat on the lake, gave me an opportunity to really sort out what those philosophical questions that people have to sort out when they’re in that situation. It gave it some framework, as well as a beautiful setting to actually go out and start to write each of the letters which I wrote individually.
DJ Snailmail: Yes. I’ll read the note to the readers, that starts the piece out in a second but what struck me was how you must have really had to place your mind in basically that soldier’s boots whose writing as he crosses his way up to Moscow. I didn’t know anything about Napoleonic wars and that whole revolu — I don’t even know what it’s called but that whole like thing that happened up in Russia where they froze to death. I learned about this just reading from the story here.
Dave: There are a lot of great parallels actually with what’s going on with this modern age war too about some of the same tactical errors. So, I really took a lot of time to sort out the history of it so the whole ruse would be believable.
DJ Snailmail: Yes. As I read it, I actually highlighted those areas in particular. I mean, you just could rip it right from our current — the US little ploy or whatever is that little thing we’re doing over there. I’ll get right to starting with the story here. So, this is Letters from Russia by you, David Olson. So, you wrote this in the summer of ’04, here’s what you have in the intro, it’s called, the note readers. It sets the pretext — is that the word — for the story?
Dave: It sets up my whole scam.
DJ Snailmail: Well, it’s very good. Let me, if you don’t mind or would you — DJ Anon, want to go for it?
DJ Anon: I can read it.
DJ Snailmail: Okay, go for it.
DJ Anon: “Note to readers, what follows is a collection of letters all by osten…” That’s a big word.
DJ Snailmail: Ostensibly.
DJ Anon: See? You should’ve done it then. “…written by Henry Henri Lafleur, a cobbler in the French army during the Russian campaign of 1812 to Genevieve Vaschon, his fiancé in Paris.” Should I say Henri, because it’s kind of French?
DJ Anon: “Henri’s 14 letters offers his observations on the physiology of war, as well as, discourse and personal of sentiments on love, war, society, politics, and meaning of self. The accompanying landscapes give a sense of his search for solace and relief in the surrounding chaos of war. The letters were sent over an eight-month period beginning in Austria and moving through Prussia, Poland and into Russia.”
“First with battles in Smolensk and Borodino, then fires and pillaging in Moscow, and finally the well-documented November retreat. The final letter in the correspondence was sent on retreat near the Berezin Bridge at which location during three days, much of the remaining French army perished into the icy river while attempting crossing of the bridge. Others were stranded in on the Russian side with the pursuing Cossack troops when the retreating French army destroyed the bridge behind them.
“As it were —the collection of letters, along with a variety of sketches and paintings, was found bound and stored in an attic trunk, as per Henri’s written request before leaving Moscow. There is no further verifiable historical information to confirm Henri’s return home though regional folklore contends that he indeed survived and lived a long life in a small village near the sea with his dear love Genevieve.”
DJ Snailmail: First of all one of the things that I learned after reading this and then wanting to learn a little bit more about this November retreat and this whole endeavor was the huge numbers of soldiers and people who died. I mean I think they were something like 600,000 collectively representing the French side and out of that they were left like 20,000 or 30,000.
DJ Anon: Yes, it was pretty amazing.
DJ Snailmail: Left, that means over 500,000 died.
DJ Anon: The first time I ever saw this thing was — the whole tragedy of this whole thing was in a graphical map made by Edward Tufte or actually wasn’t made by Edward Tufte but it was made by a French historian. It basically shows the number a graphic of the numbers of people based on the geographic location and the timeline through the whole escapade, I guess for lack of a better term for it. Just you know it had a little historical references to like, all these guys died up in a river.
DJ Snailmail: …and that’s just the soldiers. I think I read maybe a million on the civilian side but I don’t even know how they represent or count that. It just blew me away, the sheer volume and numbers.
DJ Anon: Yes, it was pretty incredible.
Dave: To think that the people retreated Moscow and basically left Moscow to the French and burning the city behind them. I mean, this was their beloved Moscow, just what the personal sacrifice that people sort of threw themselves into and to see them in a historical light is really remarkable that we didn’t really learn more lessons from that.
DJ Snailmail: Yes, and what Henri, himself, questions is, “God, this many people dead, what is it we’re fighting for? What is it in the end?” I mean, but one of the other things in the letter and we’ll start reading one in a second is, I found that you did a really great job where I almost completely forgot that this was not a real person.
You probably don’t want me to even want to even mention that because the whole idea is to suspend disbelief, but I definitely felt the personal investment and just to struggle in his feelings, but keeping in mind here that these letters where found in the trunk in an attic, so Genevieve must have saved them. So, let’s see shall we start with a thought just for the — we probably don’t have time to read every single letter and talk about it.
I’m kind of was going with some excerpts and some summaries of the letter, but I want to also capture his personality. Maybe what I’ll do is on the first letter, summarizing a little bit of it but then I want to read one particular paragraph. Anyone at any point can read what they want to shout out, too. His first letter was dated April 6, 1812 and he notes that he is encamped near Vienna, Austria. “Cher Gen…” Am I saying this right Genevieve?
Dave: I’m moved between Genevieve and [Jeanviere]. The name kind of came accidentally. I was trying to come up with the name and when we were camping at Lake Crescent, there was a group of other students from some other horticulture program and there was some girl, her name was Genevieve and I was like, “Ching! I’ll take that name.”
All the rest of the names, honestly, I came up with from hockey players from the Montreal Canadiens. That word “Cher” is kind of like a French way of saying, “Dear.” So, I thought it would really help disguise the lack of — by using the occasional word of French, it really adds that level of…
DJ Snailmail: Yes, they are like bookmarked in the salutations and the endings of like a little bit of French. But, that’s cool because if it were in French I wouldn’t have been able to read the whole letter.
Dave: Yes, it would have been a big problem for me to write, at that point.
DJ Snailmail: Did I tell you how I came behind your website? It was in search of this way to connect the song that I want to play at the end of the show that I think it’s really great that I’ll reveal to you later. Did I tell you that yesterday when I talked to you?
DJ Snailmail: So, we’ll reveal it later.
DJ Anon: It’s a super-secret.
DJ Snailmail: Super-secret because I want to tease the listeners and make them hang on. So, “Cher Genevieve,” moving on with the letter…
DJ Anon: Help her out, Dave.
Dave: Genevieve, which ever.
DJ Snailmail: “I have only been gone for less than two weeks but already I miss you more than I thought I would after many long months! We can only hope my duty goes quickly so to return to you soon. For this, we’ll trust Napoleon’s judgment. After a hurried wagon trip, I’ve met up with my unit in a beautiful part of Austria. I’ve attempted a sketch to give you a sense of place. With the high mountain altitude come waves of late blooming wildflowers…”
Then he paints a very flowered, beautiful image of the Austrian mountains, I guess the Alps. He then speaks to a bit of about basically, it sounds like preparation and his anticipation of the coming war. Is that what you would summarize that first letter as?
DJ Snailmail: But then this last paragraph is what I really wanted, actually it’s the second to the last big paragraph. He says that, “Even if we move into Russia, we will surely be returning well before winter.” So, he has very optimistic view of what’s ahead of him. “Such a schedule will give me time to open up a cobbler shop of my own and marry you next spring.”
“I am glad we told your parents of our plans before I left, though they weren’t as surprised as we thought! (Of course send my regards and best wishes to them.) But for now, I am bound by the wishes of Napoleon through the orders written for the day. The soldiers never question and maintain a sense of urgency to seize their place history.”
“This is Napoleon’s skill, a genius ability to motivate the troops with promises of glory, the causes of the revolution, importance of spreading French culture and our civil code throughout a united Europe. I must admit some reservations about the need of bringing Russia into our Grand Republic but I will leave such decisions to more seasoned minds. I can only trust the motives are not driven by ego.”
So, he believes that other people would never lead him into — there are those parallels that you were saying here already, the trust that soldiers place in their leaders to not put them in harm’s way needlessly. That’s his first letter and he continues on, “You and I and so many others will be the harvesters of the rich new, country. Rich in spirit, filled with light and truth,” lots of optimism and hope here.
Then he closes with, “I am eager to live in this France – a France as ideal as we believe it can be – where the unjustness of class and privilege at birth is eradicated; where fair courts and laws bring sense and equality from the arbitrary whims of unfit monarchs.” He pledges his love again, “Yours, Henri.” That’s the first letter, it just sort of sets up with his devotion; he’s devoted to Genevieve and his commitment to moving forward just because he trust the leaders.
Then not more than, how many days later, here? We’ve got April 6, two days later he’s still encamped near Vienna, Austria and with this he says, again he’s focused on love for Genevieve and talks a little bit about his philosophy and little bit about his thoughts on classism, society, politics, and the monarchy.
Again, he says, “Cher Genevieve, again, I spent all day gazing at clouds while I wandered the camp, thinking of you and us. Remembering long lunches of second-story cafes, peeking below at passers-by…” How would you paraphrase these early letters? How would you characterize his state and his perspective?
Dave: As the one of optimism and wide-eyedness. I kind of needed that at the beginning especially the naiveté so I could have something to transition from. When you mentioned how compressed the time was, when I really started documenting the dates, and I was pretty familiar with the sort of overall scheme of the battle, I was really surprised to see how quickly everything happened.
I tried to think, was this realistic that someone or one — I don’t even know if the whole thing at all is realistic, probably some studied professor would say, “No one’s going to be writing like this. This is treasonous speech and how could he say this, and people were trained to do this,” or whatever. But in the sense of the story, I’ve really needed to force them into questioning things right away, in order to do that I needed to set up an area.
As you go along you’ll see like, “The other day I was polishing the boots of a general,” and tadah, tadah, tadah. That was the tricky part for getting going on each letter was I sort of framed out the philosophical point that I wanted to address and where it was happening. Then I had to start to squeeze in some structure for a narrative around it and kind of wrap it all up in really the space of a letter.
On each one of them I’ve went out on a hike with just that one piece of paper and a different kind of pencil or a pen each time and try to really catalyze and build that engine so it all went into that one short letter. It was a little bit strange to think, would he be really thinking this or would he be just thinking right from the beginning like, “What the hell’s going on?”
DJ Snailmail: Yes, you can see. Definitely I’d say these early letters are his expressions of love for her, his devotion to her, his optimism. Well, he somewhat questions the cause, he trusts that it’s not his to necessarily question that out loud. He’s internally struggling a little bit but it’s not an overwhelming choice. So, on the eight they’ve got that there. Then on the — is it the 15th?
DJ Snailmail: I guess DJ Anon is going to read this one but what starts here is they finally begin the march to war. They’ve left their camp and now it’s really moving. So, what you got there DJ Anon?
DJ Anon: “Mon Cheri Genevieve, We are on the move now, a tremendous length of soldiers on foot, trudging with their packs and sleek polished weapons. Other plumed in comical hats, proud on horses that seem indifferent to the rank of their riders and more impressed with their importance. Since my letter last, the camp became a flurry of activity as we readied to move through Austria quickly on into Prussia, Poland, and then Russia who continue to allow British ships into port despite N.’s blockade.”
“Austria, now defeated again will march along with us, with the Italians, Dutch, Polish and more forces from 20 European countries unified under France. I wonder how they feel about their conscription by an enemy. But, such things are not discussed, dissent is grounds for persecution and ridicule — my aim is to avoid both and thus, consider my thoughts alone.”
“My hope is N. will not drag this campaign deep into Russia for my own selfish reasons, that of keeping me far away from your slender, giving arms for any longer than absolutely needed for the great of the Republic. It is you that is important to me! Yours, Henri.”
DJ Snailmail: There you go. He’s with his optimism again on his love.
Dave: Yes. I like how he’s getting all familiar with Napoleon.
DJ Anon: Yes.
Dave: Who does he think he is?
DJ Snailmail: I know.
Dave: I tell you.
DJ Snailmail: Then there we go with the, was it “coalition of the willing” or the unwilling or the — I like that part there. But it gets even more blatantly — you know what? It’s not just that you wrote it that it’s similar with these dates and these times, it just is like, it’s a shock that we’re repeating so much of our history over and over again.
What I also kind of learned in reading your piece and then reading more about the history is, God, there’s just been so many wars all the time it’s just, it almost makes you wonder if we’ve ever functioned on this world without wars. It’s depressing.
DJ Anon: Very.
Dave: Well, it was an interesting time in history too, because Napoleon is really taking France; he was the revolutionary. He was the one that brought all these increased freedom. “We’re moving away from the monarchy and I’m a non-noble, I’m the man of the people.” A lot of a Russians too were all like, “Wow! Napoleon’s really going to free us from the monarchy.”
It was a really confusing time because people didn’t have this fullness of information. They’re still so programmed and I suppose in some ways still true, as well, to look to other people to lead them. It was fashionable in Russia to speak French. “War and Peace” really goes into this really a lot. It was my first real deep introduction to approaching this war from a philosophical standpoint rather than just a historical one.
DJ Snailmail: Really, from reading, “War and Peace?”
Dave: Yes. I had this job once, well, it’s a long story but I ended up in Belize. I had a broken arm and 10 days in Belize. So, I sat on the front porch of this little cabin I rented for $8 a night and read “War and Peace” and ate lots of burritos.
DJ Snailmail: Nice. I don’t mind breaking my arm and doing that — no, I don’t mean that really.
Dave: There’s a lot more to the story but you know…
DJ Snailmail: But for Henri, poor little Henri, he’s let’s say somewhere in Russia enroute to Prussia on April 25th in 1812. I also found it interesting to track how frequently he was able to get to a letter. I know you were saying it was hard to plot all that. In April, he was able to write more frequently because obviously he isn’t really in the throes of war yet.
Dave: Right. I don’t even know if really they had any letter writing — letter transportability at all.
DJ Snailmail: That’s true.
Dave: That could totally throw a hole on the story.
DJ Snailmail: Okay, so I won’t focus on that. So we’ve got the love for Genevieve, the optimism, the hope, the historical perspectives. Now in this one, in this letter, he again professes his love for Genevieve and he talks a little bit about his friends that he has in the war. I’ll read a little bit of the different parts.
“My Sweet Genevieve, when the corporal told me of a letter from Paris, I was overjoyed! Ah, to read the first words from you since that morning which now seems so long ago. I remember you in a daisy yellow dress blowing me kisses all way until disappeared. Me standing atop the carriage ‘til you faded from view. Now I see you in my dreams and,” he goes on and on about his love. I don’t mean to disrespect your beautiful writing.
Dave: Who wrote it? Over the top, sounds like a soap opera.
DJ Snailmail: No, it’s really great, it’s a great read. Then he talks about his friends, “Oh, but life is not so bad as we travel,” because he’s a non-combat soldier, he’s a cobbler for the soldiers. “I ride in the wagon with Maurice and…” Is Eugenio a hockey player?
Dave: No, actually he was my neighbor. He owns an Italian restaurant in Olympia called Tranacria So, if you’re ever through Olympia, Washington you can…
DJ Anon: What is it called?
DJ Anon: Tranacria
Dave: Cash only, reservations, cute, family, like real style Italian. Again, I needed a name — Opps! Italian neighbor Eugenio.
DJ Snailmail: So, he talks about Maurice and…
DJ Anon: Wait, which hockey player is Maurice?
Dave: Maurice Richard, “Rocket” Richard
DJ Anon: Of course.
Dave: Actually, his brother was Henri Richard. They were two brothers that played with Canadiens hockey team.
DJ Snailmail: DJ Anon is a hockey player, believe it or not.
DJ Anon: I’m a big hockey fan.
Dave: That’s the Rocket, Rocket Richard.
DJ Anon: Awesome.
Dave: Now, the whole ruse is broken. Now, you know all my secrets.
DJ Snailmail: I haven’t listened to hockey since the Bruins. “We know we are fortunate and work hard, even en route. The wagon has heavy cloth sides & canopy to protect our supplies and we often stop away from most of the other troops so to enjoy the countryside. I’ve taken to sketching and using E.’s watercolors. He paints with oils but allows me to watch him and my good natured ramblings.”
He goes on and he talks a bit about the countryside. What he noticed here though about the countryside I find interesting because his perspective in contrast to his position as a soldier. “We move quickly through villages of only a few shops and houses, across fields of wheat with farmers looking much the same as home. A couple of oxen, a small barn, chickens, vegetables. They look on, deciding how to feel, it seems.”
“Their home and environs are important to them, no matter who sits in power. It’s their surroundings and ‘home’, more than ‘homeland’ or king, they would fight for. Let us hope that they are allowed in peace. We should all be so lucky — all of us I mean — to have a piece of land that we reap the whole of our labors from. Free to exchange our efforts for a result of our choice without encumbrance or malice. I hope this is what our revolution brings to Russia. Always, H.” The ever eternally optimistic, Henri.
Dave: This starts to get into a little bit of economic theory here, too.
DJ Snailmail: Yes, I did note that.
Dave: The hint of John Locke and Jean-Jacques are so creeping in at this point.
DJ Snailmail: Yes, there is. I forget wish I noted it somewhere but he really sinks his teeth into the economy later. So, May 25th, now we’ve gone a month here, we’re getting at the end of spring.
Dave: The incredibly efficient French military postal service to be commended.
DJ Snailmail: I know. I was wondering that myself.
Dave: If anyone is following along too, there are some pictures to go along so if you dig around, you can find the link to it. There’s like a water color of the countryside.
DJ Snailmail: Did you do those water colors, too, as you were envisioning the story?
Dave: Yes. I kind of use them for sort of setting up and thinking about where I was at and stuff. I used a whole bunch of different mediums as I went along through that summer writing the stories. It was a way to sort of warm up for doing the letter. I got to give an extra layer of expression because I was limiting myself to such a short amount of writing for each thing. Again, because it’s so hard to get a letter away, I thought probably more like it to be short stuff.
DJ Snailmail: Moving on to the really — I really want to sink in to the part where it gets serious so…
DJ Anon: …because the love part is not serious.
DJ Snailmail: It is. It is totally serious and I don’t mean to shortchange love, that’s for sure. So, May 25th, I’ll summarize this letter, again here but I hate to take away from the prose. He talks about the March and it’s been a rainy, rainy day or a few days now. They’ve been trudging through this. The troops are grumbling and they’re just not comfortable.
Then he goes from that into a lot about his love for Genevieve. “I’m kidding somewhat but I admit my longing to be entwined with your long white fingers watching your tiny, almost round ears bounce as you laugh.” He has lots of detail about things that he notices about her.
DJ Anon: Dave, did you paint a picture of Genevieve?
DJ Snailmail: It’s better to leave that to the imagination.
Dave: I’m strictly landscape. I’m sort of a specialist.
DJ Snailmail: Yes, it’s always good to leave the imagination for people. Then, he gets in his letter to the details on the march to war. I wanted to read parts of that. “First, I am surprised by the quick pace and progress by which we move across the countryside. The marches are long but the soldiers and the supply caravans, et al seem to move as a single unit with a sort of collective consciousness moving on ahead.”
“Of course, there are orders and officers and marshals directing the flow on a specific schedule, but to my vantage point, I feel the army would move on its own volition and end up in the same place at about the same appointed time, without any direction.”
“Next, the sheer size of moving this many men to do battle elsewhere seems like an unproductive effort considering the expenses and effort. I can’t help but wonder how this vast number of men will be needed for a battle and how no other option was devised of that eliminate this parade of lost potential.” But they’re referenced to, like seriously is this the last choice? Is this like the last possible choice we had to march this many people to war?
He says that, “The method of the revolutionary action however, must be chosen with a sense of what is best for a greater number of people. With this in mind, we should seek to enter as friends if we hope to benefit from the great cost of lives already expended.”
Thirdly, the brief topic of the wisdom of the blockades of British ports, that’s where you talk about the economy and how he’s saying “Hey, you know what? It’s going to make French economy better because people can’t use the other options.”
Then he kind of says he believes in open trade. “To my observations, I suggest that open trade in good results increase knowledge understanding communication and trade ultimately resulting in peaceful progressive reform.”
Dave: Pretty radical.
DJ Snailmail: Yes, he’s a crazy guy as ever, Henri. Then, we actually go into June 24. Now, he uses word that I love and I don’t know how to pronounce. But I know it means camp, bivouac.
DJ Anon: Don’t you know anyone in RMTC?
DJ Snailmail: I’ve been to a bivouac; I just didn’t know how to pronounce it.
DJ Anon: Really?
DJ Snailmail: In Sahara.
DJ Anon: Wow, that’s cool.
DJ Snailmail: What would you say Dave to summarize that June 24th letter? Could you summarize that?
Dave: It’s a lot about diplomacy here and about personal honesty, extending up to the highest levels. Really with how the negotiations went, the historical record of that is Napoleon pretty much went in and made King Alexander of Russia look like a jackass and sort of made him capitulate. Instead of doing that, why don’t we go in there and be straight up and honest and not take advantage of people because that’s just not polite.
DJ Snailmail: Okay, that’s cool.
Dave: A belief for diplomacy and honesty, I think both.
DJ Snailmail: Okay, that’s valiant I think for him, especially to tell Genevieve. Then in July, a month later…
DJ Anon: I’m going to read this one. “Cher Genevieve…”
DJ Snailmail: Where is he?
DJ Anon: He’s near Drisa, Russia. He’s already in Russia here. “Cher Genevieve, Last night, at the fire with Eugenio, I asked, ‘Where will the battle be?’ The air was anxiously quiet, crackling fire and restless horses louder than still air. ‘Here,’ he said. It cannot be here, this is two peaceful a place for so many to die, I thought. I was wrong.”
“They call them small battles but I see now the method of war and am awake to the pain and embarrassed by the honor of countries who care so little for their sons that they would ever subject them to this reckless risk of death. This action, while merely counted numbers of units to a General or King, mean that everything for the counted, their families, and their children — they and we are all victims.”
“Such waste is unforgivable; a moral travesty and make mockery of our (alleged) ability to reason as civilized humans. I fear the killing and the dying, I do not want to kill and go so far as to say I am incoherent as to why anyone would – save for the immediate attack to one’s self or family. I fear that in this expansionist campaign, we may lose our freedoms, both mentally and politically, if even are able to save our lives. Continually yours, H.”
DJ Snailmail: Well, that last sentence definitely reflects where we’re at right now, “an expansionist campaign where we lose our freedoms mentally and politically.” I don’t know Dave, I picked that, he’s kind of struggling with the realities of war a little bit more now that he’s getting closer to it. He’s coming — these conflicts within.
Dave: Right. Where these battles really happen, especially once we get into Russia, is when there’s really accurate date as to when these battles happened. That’s when the history really had to line up and I made this as sort of the tipping point in the thing where he thought — that was like the first time he really saw that the battle just means two teams lined up on other side and shooting until they’ve ran out of bullets or gets dark out. So, the two are sort of the tipping point for him to realize, “Holy shit, I really am in over my head.”
DJ Snailmail: August 12th. This is the first letter where he’s witnessed war from Smolensk, Russia. This is, as you say, the more historically accurate points, right?
DJ Snailmail: We won’t read all of this one, but I want to read parts of it or if you want to read parts of it. I just want to summarize that. He kind of details some of the graphic grim realities in describing war to Genevieve. He starts with, “Cher Genevieve, Frightful days! We pursued the Russians as far as Smolensk where I witnessed a horrific sight, one hitherto unimaginable to my eyes or mind.”
“The sudden burst of activity coming closer more focused, & our expressions turning maniacal with fear, resolve, and dare said – bloodlust. Oh the killing! While I expected (and thought I had steeled myself for), the battles, and the last week since crossing the River, I’ve seen several incidents, I under estimated we human’s ability for waste and intolerable agony.”
“The brutality stunned me raw and left an empty sickness, both physically and mentally. My basic human sensibilities were overwhelmed by how humans can even consider, no matter the feud, to resolve to kill enough others to force submission and an acceptance of terms – a lifetime of dominance, no matter the form?”
There’s one point here I thought was interesting or well put, “The wide valley filled with bodies like milk poured from a pitcher. The dying! The dying is not gallant, nor precise. Bodies slashed, skewered and pummeled into capitulation, laid to suffer in muddy earth, hoping for horse hooves or errant cannonballs to end their writhing.” I just thought that was just the brutal reality of what he was saying there in that letter. It must be disturbing to Genevieve now.
Dave: Yes, I can imagine it would be kind of starting to freak her out but he needed someone to talk to. So much of the remembrance of wars, all of it is so gallant and there’s always (unclear) stories around me.
I remember the day that you hear about the World War I, they’d always just say, “He died instantly, where really most people died of disease and being left alone and there was no field medics and no hygiene and everything. It was a slow, agonizing pain that these guys go through and even in modern time, I’m sure.
DJ Snailmail: Yes, and then, where would they bring them?
Dave: Yes, we’re out in the muddy field, they’ll take them to a slightly less muddy part of the field. What do you do at that point?
DJ Snailmail: Exactly. Then in September 8th, they moved on to Borodino, Russia. So they’re moving still forward towards Moscow, is that their path there?
Dave: Right. This Borodino is really a pivotal point in the whole history of the thing. When I first started the project, I figured out sort of how was I going to construct it? Okay now, I got to go write letter one. Who was Henri and how did this happen? I sort of did a draft of letter one, but it was this letter that I really sat down and one afternoon I went on a big long hike and spent it up in the woods, and really kind of figured out what this was all going to be like with this letter.
This was sort of the first and it’s the longest one by far of the whole collection. This was the first one I really sort of figured out what it was I was going to say and how I’m going to say it.
DJ Snailmail: Would you mind summarizing the letter and kind of describing — you think there’s a way to convey what it’s saying?
Dave: I think it’s a little bit political and about his views of a republic. A lot of this here it gets into — Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his “Confessions” were a really pivotal literary piece during the French revolution.
I also during this, I reflected back on Plato’s “Republic,” which are those early underpinnings of what constitutes a republic and what a republic can expect from its citizenry, as well as, moving into Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” and starts talking a little bit about civil disobedience and really the role and the rights of the citizen in a modern democracy and a republic and what happens when the rulers ask too much of its citizens?
DJ Snailmail: Right. Like with the letter as I read it, he starts out describing again the war which has clearly left him disturbed by this and, he says, “Cher Genevieve, Comment C’est va? For me, I am well as I could expect after the carnage I’ve witnessed the past weeks, but yesterday, the battle went on as waves of men met death as a flood, a race to escape this uncertainty.”
“We continued further into Russia, the villages burned by the time we arrived, the looters scavenge like stray dogs. We meet no one that isn’t killed or dying already. The Grand Army (of almost 600,000) of just a few weeks ago bears little resemblance to the haggard troops marching today.”
Then he goes on to say that he wonders even if some of these losses aren’t due to desertion, how much is due to desertion and sickness rather than deaths and battle. I thought one interesting point was he said that both sides claim victory, after so many dead. But he philosophizes about the role of leaders. But he still ends this letter, that letter in September with dreams of his ideal future and his love for Genevieve. So, he’s still clinging on inside to those hopes and dreams.
DJ Snailmail: Now, the next one here, I couldn’t help but notice I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that you didn’t know about September 11th, 1812. Was that a joke?
Dave: It was kind of hard to avoid having the double barreled symbol with that date but it just happened to be a date. I was sort of sketching out the notes and I came to that I was like, “Oh really?” So, I double checked it, you know.
DJ Snailmail: So, what do you want to say about this particular — this one here, I’ve got my own comments and notes but curious about what you…
Dave: I think really what this is, is he starts to see his comrade — his fellow Frenchmen — starting to really slide down that path of blood lust and wildness. The French go and think that they’re the organized and civil and refined ones, as soon as it gets deeper into Russia and they start getting caught up in that blood lust and the spoils of war, and really forget their decency. As soon as your decency is gone then your whole persona changes.
DJ Snailmail: That’s what I felt here. I thought that he really commented on the degradation and the depravity that started to just become so overwhelming, the overwhelming inhumanity that he was being surrounded by. But also in his last paragraph there, he’s certainly struggling to maintain his own humanity and his decency. I’ll just even quote a few of the pieces of the letter.
“Of course this folly of being strongest and ‘most right’ fills the armies or else there would be no reason to fight.” I thought that was an interesting comment. To get people to do that, you’ve got to have them believe that they are the most right. In order for you to be able to kill another person, both sides have to feel that absolute belief. I just thought that was a powerful sentence.
Dave: This was also interesting because so many words before and after this was really centered around “God is more on our side.” This wasn’t really about that, Napoleon was really secular and he was all about having a secular France. The Russians were conveniently religious when the time came, but it wasn’t about God so much as some previous conflicts in Europe event.
DJ Snailmail: Right. We would just keep repeating these things over and over. You can just change the country and re-date this and re-read it.
Dave: Letters from Iraq.
DJ Snailmail: The unredacted version. Then in the end of September, they’re actually in Moscow, it’s called French Russia and he writes “Cher Genevieve,” he comments on his admiration and appreciation and his respect for Maurice, his good friend there, who sounds like a really terrific guy. He just sort of devotes that letter basically to him as a real role model.
Dave: Right. I think really what that was going for, once they were into Moscow and the soldiers and the people started to realize, “Oh we’re really going to be stuck here and this could get really dicey.” People start to cling to small, tribal units so to speak and the traditional hierarchy started to break down and people started gravitating towards the officer who they’re supposed to follow.
When people start gravitating towards people who have that leadership quality, it really is because they know how to treat other people.
DJ Snailmail: Right. Good point. Kind of more on the true leadership rather than the assigned leaders. I’ll go on to the next one, the leaving Moscow. We’re on October 20th now. Are we beginning to see the retreat here? Is this the November retreat yet? I believe it starts…
Dave: This is where they’re really starting to realize like what happens if Napoleon pulled in and no one showed up? Everyone was like what town and they’re like, “Sure have Moscow, come and get it. We’re over here if you want it.” So, they didn’t really know what to do and this is sort of like how things started to gray, and it started to be every man for himself. Really the French started just to live like wild animals in Moscow.
DJ Snailmail: Wow, that just sounds really — I read about that. I can’t imagine what that would have been like.
Dave: It really becomes like a survival instinct.
DJ Snailmail: Yes, beyond an animal. So, on the 20th, but he’s still near the end there. Did you want to read that part? On the 20th, his letter, still the last half is very much devoted to love for Genevieve. I keep wanting to come back to that because he’s clearly — this is a dialogue between how love and war was fitting into this guy’s life. But then, the final letter, this one is really interesting.
Dave: There’s one thing I want to point out on this letter on the 20th, and this just sort of sets up the pretext that we talked about in the notes of readers at the very beginning. In the very bottom, the last sentence on the letter from the 20th, he says, “Please bind these letters, and store them somewhere…”
DJ Snailmail: Yes, that’s the 20th.
Dave: “One day, they will prevent things from happening.” The other thing that I really wanted to point out to this one is giving and even in his dire moment, he was thinking of ways to help other people that helped him — in this case Maurice because he needs to start to form that alliance because anyway he was leaving and he was going to need someone to keep an eye out for him.
DJ Snailmail: Yes, actually I’m glad that you’ve read that because I was pushing you ahead a little too quickly. But yes, this letter on the 20th, it’s huge. That last sentence is huge and I would read it actually specifically because it’s the pretext of the entire way the letters were found. But, he kind of acknowledges in this letter that there’s a chance he may not make it back.
There’s something that has made him write that he says, “Now my sweet, please do not concern yourself unduly, but in seeing the savagery of death around me for so many months & knowing the inhospitable lands ahead, I must tell you two things and request one of you, in event I am unable to return. To you, please know that no one has ever been loved more by anyone than I love you.”
He goes on and then he says…
DJ Snailmail: Yes, but it’s sweet. “If I do not return to sit with you on the veranda drinking wine in the afternoon, please allow yourself to find someone else to spend your glorious days with. Please do not settle!” Then his last request is, “For me, please bind these letters and store them somewhere safe in hopes that one day my discourse may help another generation avoid such madness. Forever yours, Henri.”
Then he writes his last letter.
DJ Anon: I’ll read it?
DJ Snailmail: Yes.
DJ Anon: This one’s dated on November 27th, 1812, Near Berezin Bridge, Russia. “My sweet Genevieve, It has been a journey of horrific proportions since I last was able to chance a letter. The cold is equaled only by the depravity of desperate humans in its numbing pain. And yesterday, my friend Maurice joined the untold thousands of dead — scattered, abandoned aside the muddy cart path, deep-rutted in the frozen earth.”
“Littered with wreckage – dead horses, men frozen solid, eyes gaping, boots taken. Many stumble barefoot roasting frostbitten toes by their final fire. Pillages of war dumped — no weight or relic worthy of any carrying. Golden candle sticks, Persian rugs — objects of decadence, objects of art, holy relics – deserted now.”
“One must survive by wits and cunning and in that, my dear Maurice helped me along so much. He appeared one morning (though there is little difference between day & night – just walking and not-walking), with a sturdy walking cane for me! He was the one who coaxed me each dreadful day as we trudge into uncertain horizons. Oh the peace he feels now, free of this madness!”
“As I sit looking down from the hilltop, watching as thousands fall dead – by bullet, by Cossack sword, or pushed into the icy river with the mob pushing across. For me, there is little chance of me making my way across the bridge, not alone, not without help from my friend.”
“Surely when the officers have crossed, the bridge will be destroyed like so many broken dreams — leaving the Russians and French separated as we began. I will not rush to death, rather for me, I will have the courage to determine my own fate to stride purposefully and resolutely, free of heart, clean of conscience, ruling only my sovereign self.”
“For you – for the days we missed together & the years in which we‘ll never part – I will find a way to survive. For the thousands of dead faces I have seen, and for Maurice, I renounce this war but pledge that I will not let this tragic madness defeat me. My dear Genevieve, look for me in the spring, my return will be later than hoped. With love, freedom and conviction, Henri.”
DJ Snailmail: Wow! That’s quite a story and it really communicated the place. But there’s this last piece you have, the Declaration. Can you explain that? What is that exactly? Is that something to just sort of…?
Dave: Well, I thought that it just sort of needed one last — and I don’t know really where it came from, when you read that last letter, it totally take me back to where I was writing and it was really hard to write, as this journey went on and I would go out and really get myself into character.
I was getting up on this mountain on the Oregon Coast and it just sort of felt right to write that, I didn’t really know how it felt fit into the letter. I just wrote it and put it there and didn’t really think about why. But it was just something that it came out and just summarizes this whole personal oratorio out of the whole experience I think.
DJ Snailmail: It sounds a little bit to me like he’s kind of got this narrative ending. It’s not in a letter format. There’s the legend in the beginning that says, “He went back to Genevieve but then…” I wasn’t convinced. The odds were against him, really.
Dave: I almost thought that this was something that he had written down to himself to keep his own sanity. To have those little mantra to kind of keep himself from cracking or going down to those other people, to the level that he’s seeing from the other people.
DJ Snailmail: Yes, I just sort of felt like in his own heart, he just couldn’t believe the situation he really has found himself in by the end of November. It was just really great — a really good read. I want to thank you for letting us read that and sharing and then also being on the air with us to discuss it, it really fills it out.
Dave: My pleasure, I really enjoyed that you had taken an interest in it. It was a lot of fun for me to create and really bring these letters to life. So, it’s a real treat for me as well, thank you.
DJ Snailmail: Yes, I bet you’re surprised, there’s a radio show on letter writing and you’re like, “What the heck? How did you find these?”
Dave: No, this totally makes sense. I’ve travelled all over the world and spend a lot of time curled up with letters and I still send snail mail and I love collecting these papers to do it on and ephemera. So, you have a kindred spirit in me.
DJ Snailmail: Yes, and by the way you can send us a postcard anytime. We’ll give you our address in case you want to drop the line, we’ll read your postcard on the air. Maybe it’ll be from Henri, who knows from the dead. You can send it to P.O Box 7507 Santa Cruz, California, 95061.
So, you know that song I was talking about?
DJ Snailmail: This is why it’s so appropriate, these stories fit so well. This is a song that I love and I heard, and I’ve known the word but I’ve never sat down and thought about it. I’m going to give you what this song is about. I’m not going to give it away in any moment yet.
DJ Anon: By the way, DJ Snailmail has kept me in suspense for weeks without the song.
DJ Snailmail: Yes, so I hope she likes it. Anyway, it chronicles a wife’s desire to test her husband’s loyalty. So, I’m kind of thinking of this as like, supposed Henri and Genevieve did get together and they got married, and they’re like 50 years later — 40 years later.
Genevieve is like, “Yes, is he still going to go for me?” So, she takes on the nomme de plume of Babushka and writes to her husband in the guise of a young seductive woman — something which she feels is the opposite of how her husband currently sees her. So, the trap is set when in her bitterness and paranoia, Babushka arranges to meet with her husband who is attracted to the character that reminds him of his wife in earlier times.
She thereby ruins the relationship due to her own paranoia and so with that, I would like to also let you know that Babushka is the Russian word for grandmother. Actually, I’ve read elsewhere that in Russian, they only refer to it as like a bandana — wait, is it the opposite? I don’t know, it’s on Google, look it up.
But the important thing is here comes the song, you guys ready for this?
DJ Snailmail: All right, let me push the buttons. I love it. Do you recognize it yet?
Dave: I can’t hear it.
DJ Snailmail: Well, I’m going to play it, you’ll hear the mp3. Thanks, Dave.
Dave: Thank you very much. Take care in Santa Cruz!
DJ Snailmail: You too.
END OF AUDIO
Duration: 57 minutes 6 seconds