Essays: Cuddling up with Tolstoy |
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Cuddling up with Tolstoy

DEAD ground is the territory you can’t judge the extent of until you approach it: seen from a distance, it is unseen. Almost uniquely amongst imagined countries, Tolstoy’s psychological landscape is without dead ground — the entire vista of human experience is lit up with an equal, shadowless intensity, so that separateness and clarity continue even to the horizon.

This creative characteristic is so powerful in Tolstoy that we go on regarding it as his most important distinguishing mark even when his progressively doctrinaire intellect imposes the very stereotypes and moralistic schemes which his talent apparently came into existence to discredit. The formal perfection and retributive plot of ‘Anna Karenina’ don’t, we feel, represent an artistic advance on ‘War and Peace’ — quite the reverse. And yet we never call our reservations disappointment, any more than we are disappointed with Titian’s last phase or with the original, Great Fugue ending to Beethoven’s Opus 130. If a great talent pushes on beyond what we have loved in it, it is usually because a great mind has things it feels forced to do.

Besides, Tolstoy’s gift remains so obviously the same gift, from first to last, that it does our criticism for us: in ‘War and Peace’ Napoleon is an unsatisfactory characterisation according to the standards set by Tolstoy himself (in Kutuzov, for example) and even in the most inflexible of the moral parables (‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’ or — to go the whole hog — ‘Resurrection’) we are obviously in the presence of the same all-comprehending vision that brought back its clinically objective reports from the bastions at Sebastopol. Any aesthetic experience obliterates all other aesthetic experiences for as long as it lasts, and with Tolstoy it lasts for days and days, so that the reader may feel — as he feels with Shakespeare and Dante — that his life is being remade.

The merest moments in Tolstoy can take your breath away, as when you are suddenly shown a beautiful, self-possessed young lady at a soirée falling in love with her own arm. Pitiless is the wrong word for such a vision: it is simply, inescapably, pure. The technique of the novel, or even the medium of prose, has no separate conceptual meaning in such a context: there can be no question of transposing Tolstoy from the page to the screen, since he is not on the page in the first place. He is like Michelangelo and Mozart in that the attempt to grasp him entails a sacrifice of comprehension. Universal genius is its own medium and transpositions out of it are impossible — it’s one of genius’s defining characteristics. That Verdi re-created Othello in music doesn’t make Othello a transferable asset. It simply means that Verdi is in Shakespeare’s league.

So far, the BBC’s ‘War and Peace’ has done nothing like a good enough job of being not as good as the book, and instead of driving the viewers to read Tolstoy — which is the best, I think, that a TV adaptation could hope to do — might well lull them into thinking that Tolstoy is Russia’s answer to Mary Renault. Marianne Moore wanted her poems to be artificial gardens with real toads in them. This production reverses that desirable order: the sets and costumes are as real as research and technology can make them, while the people who inhabit them are of an artificiality no amount of good acting — and there is plenty of appalling acting on tap — can defeat.

Working together as fatally as Laurel and Hardy trying to climb a wall, the script and the direction do a brilliantly thorough job of boiling Tolstoy’s complexity of dialogue, commentary and revealed action down to a simple narrative line which simultaneously faithfully reproduces and utterly betrays the novel’s flow of events. ‘Papa’s arranged a little dinner party for my name day,’ breathes Hélène, her piercing boobs heaving in a frock closely resembling a two-car garage: ‘I hope... you’ll be there.’ Pierre, valiantly played by Antony Hopkins, can only goggle, bemused. Except when the occasional voice-over supplies a brief stretch of interior monologue, goggling bemused is what Pierre goes in for full time. At Hélène’s party, during which her sensational norks are practically on the table among the sweetmeats, Pierre is asked to do a worried version of the bug-eyed act Sid James turns on when he is abruptly shoved up against Barbara Windsor.

Hopkins would be the ideal Pierre if the part were nearer half-way to being adequately written, but all he can do, given the material to hand, is project the necessary inner confusion without transmitting the bashful radiance which Tolstoy stunningly insists that Pierre and Hélène share: there is no such thing as mere passion in Tolstoy, and even while racked by doubts Pierre is supposed to experience in his contemplation of Hélène the kind of visione amorosa which helps drive Anna Karenina into the arms of Vronsky. What I’m saying is, he’s not just hung up on a pair of knockers, right? So those tight shots of Pierre peeking sideways through his prop specs at where his companion’s lungs pulsate off-screen might look like clever direction but are in fact graffiti.

The hamming contest between the marriage-mongering old Princes is a groan-inspiring trial, but in the long run not so debilitating as principal casting that has gone wrong. Given, which one doesn’t give, that the characters are types, it would have been better to cast against type than to cast to type — at least complexity would have been hinted at, if not embodied. Alan Dobie’s whole screen persona is confined by his face and voice to the band between melancholy and preoccupation, with occasional joyful leaps upward into apprehensiveness. Putting him into uniform and calling him Andrei Bolkonsky gives us one aspect of the character while instantly eliminating all the others. As for Morag Hood’s Natasha — well, I am not in the business of baiting actresses for errors of casting they did not commit and can do little to overcome. Miss Hood has been excellent in other things and will be excellent again, once she has got over being told to jump up and down rapidly on the spot, lithp with her sinuses, skip on to the set like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and declare with a jaw well-nigh dislocated by youthful vitality that she is Natasha Rostov. Poor mite, can she help it if she arouses throughout the country an unquenchable desire to throw a tarpaulin over her and nail down the corners?

This is not to say that a few things have not gone right. As Princess Maria, for instance, the delicate Angela Down is turning in one of her customary elegantly modulated performances, and some of the wide-open location spaces capture your imagination for the brief time before a sequence of restricted camera movements forcibly reminds you that even the most expensive television is a very cheap movie when the cathode tube is pre-empted by emulsion. Like most people, I’ll go on watching, but I won’t be gripped. It’s no use saying that a chance has been lost. The chance was never there. The series could have been a lot better, but my point is that it would still not have made television history. Television history is made out of television, not out of Tolstoy.

The Observer, 22nd October 1972

[ An edited version of this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]