Reviving the Glamour of the Past


This being the Fashion Issue, here’s the most fashionable thing English elites did throughout the cold, dreary months of January and February past: watch the BBC’s version of War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy’s epic, televised over six Sunday evenings, proving yet again that the elegant past (Downton Abbey), and the even more elegant farther past (War and Peace), can never be equaled by the grubby present.

Mind you, in this version of the classic novel, there was no “downstairs.” We were only shown servants serving their masters, but unlike Downton, we were never privy to their loves, fears, or concerns. Count Tolstoy did not busy himself with staff. The main characters are all princes, counts, tsars, and the odd emperor (even if the latter had crowned himself in the presence of a Pope). And of course T.V. will never do justice to Tolstoy’s greatest work because, in the end, a great novel can never convincingly make the leap from page to screen. The idiot box rarely does justice to great books. In this case, however, it gave it the old college try.

Count Tolstoy wrote more than a thousand pages in 1869 about events that had taken place only 60 years earlier. One member of the Tolstoy family had commanded a battalion and had fought bravely in the battle of Borodino. Although there are two beautifully filmed battle scenes in the six-hour T.V. epic, it would have been impossible to depict the novel’s scenes that had a young Taki’s heartbeat racing to the sky when he first read them. There was the spiritual manner in which Russian soldiers readied themselves for battle against the invading French, as the miraculous icon of the Virgin of Smolensk was taken around the Russian positions in procession. Or the massed ranks of French cuirassiers keeping steady and unmoving under withering Russian fire, many of them being cut in half by cannon balls, yet still keeping in parade order.

Tolstoy’s readers would have known all about these events. Their fathers and uncles had fought and died in them. In the T.V. series, posh Russians speak in posh English accents, and it works. The peasants speak in northern English accents, and it also works perfectly. And now we come to the main point of my story: How many among you Quest readers have read W&P? Be honest about it. It is the one great novel that more readers have put down then gone through and read. That’s because old Leo put so many characters in it with so many Russian names confusing us, that only real fans could go through it. Papa Hemingway was one of them. When he compared himself in boxing terms to various writers, he bragged that he would have knocked out André Gide in the first round, beaten Flaubert on points. But Tolstoy? “I would have gone to the weigh in and refused to go into the ring with him.”

People may claim falsely to have read the works of Tolstoy for fear of being though uneducated. Nothing criminal about that, since, after all, most people go to the opera to be seen, not to listen, it’s human nature. Condensing a 1000-page book into six hours is a Herculean task, and the adaptor, Andrew Davies, has done a wonderful job. An awful lot of brilliant stuff is left out, but if this adaptation tempts viewers to read the book, the BBC has performed a public service.

Here you have the beautiful, broken Countess Natasha Rostova; the jaded, proud Prince Andrei; the soul searching Count Pierre Bezhukov; and the scheming Prince Kuragin, whose son ruins Natasha’s and Andrei’s love affair and who dies next to Andrei after the battle of Borodino. (Andrei forgives him.) Yes, they’re all fabulously rich aristocrats with gangs of serfs tending to their every need. Tolstoy does not bother with the common man, and I hate to think what the New York Times or the New Yorker would do to him if the novel were published today (which it would not be). For Tolstoy, this was normal. As was patriotism. Every aristocrat immediately goes to the front to fight for the motherland.

War and Peace is a universal novel. It touches on every human emotion and desire. It is spiritual, grand in scale, and answers all questions about the human condition. And I will spoil it for you. The T.V. series has a Hollywood ending. And—surprise, surprise—I agreed with it. In the novel, Nikolai Rostov bickers with his very rich and gentle wife who has saved his family from financial ruin, and beats the peasants to keep them in line. Prince Andrei’s son grows up to be a wreck. But it’s Natasha, the main heroine of the book, who has the most depressing end. She becomes a fat, slovenly nag, jealous of her husband Pierre’s absences, never singing nor dancing.

In the Hollywood ending, one that gave me great pleasure, there is a family picnic in the sun-dappled countryside, with Pierre gazing in adoration as the children chase butterflies and Nicolai laughs happy and content. Did Harvey Weinstein, the producer, have something to do with this? I wouldn’t put it past him. They say one should never alter or modify a classic but, in this case, I’m with Harvey. Don’t miss it.

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