Tuesday, 10 February 2015

War and Peace

More than 45 years ago, on Tuesday, December 30, 1969, BBC Radio 4 broadcast the first of 20 hour-long episodes of Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Edited by Michael Bakewell and directed by Ronald Mason from the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, doubtless with sound effects from the innovative BBC Radiophonic Workshop, this audio epic would have kept me indoors for most if not all of those 20 Tuesday evenings after The Archers, from 7pm to 8pm.

My poor old mum would have had no say in the matter. The cast included great radio actors such as David Buck as Count Pierre Bezukov, Martin Jarvis as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Stephen Murray as his stern father the old Prince Bolkonsky, Denys Hawthorne as Tolstoy, Sean Barrett as Fedya Dolokhov, Kate Binchy as Natasha Rostov, Anna Cropper as Prince Andrei's ill-fated wife Lise and Patricia Gallimore as Sonya.

Those 20 hours dramatised the novel with Tolstoy as the narrator. Broadcasts like that were electrifying then. Napoleon figured prominently, of course, which would have been meat and drink to me aged 20. At the tail end of 1969 I saw only the historic man of destiny, moving armies across Europe and winning battles as though they were European Cup Finals. I got hold of Emil Ludwig's dramatised chronicle - "more readable than reliable," according to one critic - unable to believe my luck. Had I seen Abel Gance's movie Napoleon I'm sure I would have convinced myself that it was a piece of cinema verite. My imagination pictured things in cinemascope in those days. Of all the actors probably the one whose voice I can still hear in character is Stephen Murray's irascible Bolkonsky, hiding his feelings by storming off to some obscure part of his Bald Hills estate to resume shoe-mending or carpentry.

Timberlake Wertenbaker's adaptation of War and Peace for Radio 4 on New Year's Day has the credit of attempting something different. The ten-hour dramatisation doesn't have a scene-setting story-teller; instead, members of the Rostov family and their friends, including Pierre Bezukov and Lieutenant Colonel Denisov, recount their experiences of the wars against the French to their children: these experiences are then dramatised. The only thing wrong with this is that you know right from the start who survives. I also missed Prince Andrei's vision of the eternity on the bloody battlefield at Austerlitz. It was recounted rather than dramatised as I remember it being 45 years ago. This adaptation has a lot of telling.

Again, the voice that made the most impact belonged to the old Prince Bolkonsky, this time played by John Hurt. Tolstoy's philosophical historicism is explained by Pierre the erstwhile defender of Napoleon, who attempts to assassinate him. Tolstoy had a short way with the great men of history idea, declaring that the Battle of Borodino, outside Moscow, would have happened irrespective of the wishes of either Bonaparte or Tsar Alexander I. Great men are the pawns of history not its prime movers. The whole point of War and Peace is the futility of this delusion. I think Tolstoy should have dramatised this view, put it in the mouth of a character, the way he puts worldly scepticism in the mouth of Levin in Anna Karenina. Having Tolstoy banging on about it gets tiresome, as tiresome as Henry Fielding's prefaces in Tom Jones.

Tolstoy believed people were naturally good and required only freedom to realise their goodness. History, he thought, was the story of the fall from paradise. Interestingly, William Blake had a similar view about the story of Eden, the fall from eternity into historical time. Tolstoy maintained that truth is eternal, not conditional upon culture or events. The Bible, the Illiad, folk tales and folk songs, spring forth from ordinary people and are intelligible to all everywhere, as are fables.    


Edward Spalton said...

When in Riga last year I was surprised to see a fine bronze statue of Barclay de Tolly, the scots - descended Russian general who had persuaded the tsar to let Napoleon deep into Russia,,so that Generals January and February would do most of the killing.

He was dismissed and replaced by old Kutuzov because the nobles were outraged at the policy. However, he was later reinstated and led the victorious Russian troops into Paris.

Anonymous said...

Barclay de Tolly - to quote John Bernard Books in The Shootist - "That's a crackerjack of a name."