Beautiful Terrible Vilna

Daniel Mendelsohn at the NYRB:

Stendhal didn’t like Vilna, either.

In Book Five of his History of Painting in Italy, the author describes Vilna as the site of his own personal trauma, a bad moment that had occurred on June 6, 1812, as he stood, he says, on the banks of the Neman, watching the Grande Armée pass into Russia. This was at the triumphant beginning of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, when there was no reason yet for despair. And yet, he wrote in this book—the manuscript of which, as it happens, he gathered together for the first time while he was in Lithuania, having brought it from Paris and worked on it steadily all the time he was serving in the Armée—he felt a certain sadness pass over him as he watched this innumerable army cross the river, one composed of so many peoples, and which was to suffer the most memorable defeat history can tell of. The glum future that I perceived in the depths of Russia’s endless plains, together with our general’s erratic genius, filled me with doubt. Wearied by these pointless conjectures, I turned my mind to positive thoughts, that faithful stay in all manner of fortune.

more here.