A scene from Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1966 film © RIA Novosti/TopFoto
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How should we live? That’s the not unimportant question posed by Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece, and it makes War and Peace-niks terrible bores. But we can’t help it: we need to evangelise, spread the word that there is no book quite like it; no book that encompasses almost the whole of humanity, and which collapses the space between ink and paper and flesh and blood so completely that you seem to be living it rather than reading it.

You emerge from this total immersion with your emotions deepened, vision clarified, exposure to the casual cruelty of the powerful sharpened. Which is not to say that the book is therapy for anything. In its pages the historical cavalcade looks like an unavoidable bad joke, while the search for a happy and meaningful life, embarked on by the clumsy hero Pierre Bezukhov, invites one torment after another. Only when he hits rock-bottom does a tantalising glimpse of light appear. And yet when Pierre backs into love, so do we, and the experience is overwhelming.

My first reading was a half-century ago. Weary of being told by a Cambridge friend that it was the best book ever written, that everything men and women do to each other was its subject, I gave in. I was stuck in a dull vacation job, the only straight in the village that was the soft furnishings department of a big West End department store. Every so often I would emerge from the back office cubbyhole to flog a thousand feet of plush curtaining to interior decorators for third-world dictators. But where I wanted to be was Bald Hills, Moscow, St Petersburg, the sanguinary, smoke-choked fields of battle.

Around the corner from the store was a salad-and-brown-rice lunch bar where you sat at tables of scrubbed pine and toyed with vinegary mounds of alfalfa sprouts. “Excuse me young man,” said someone parked opposite. The voice came from an elderly gent, salt-and-pepper whiskers, country-pub suit, regimental tie; not the brown rice type at all unless retired brigadiers were going vegetarian in 1965. I put the book down, trying not to seem put out by the interruption. “I hope you don’t mind,” said the brigadier, adopting the courtly tone of Count Rostov transplanted to Tunbridge Wells. “But I see you are setting off on the Long March.” (I was perhaps on page 100.) “Would this, by any chance, be your First Time?” Indeed it would. “Ah, so fortunate to have all that ahead of you.” His eyes shone with the benevolence of a gratified apostle. “Do you know, I myself will be setting off for the 12th time this summer?” Sure, I thought, not believing him for a second. Now I do; the next time will be my ninth.

In the role of Pierre Bezukhov: Paul Dano in the current BBC dramatisation © BBC Pictures

So if the BBC’s new dramatisation sends millions to the book, we must rejoice and try not to wince when Andrew Davies’s script Improves on Tolstoy. Early in the second episode the newly married Pierre trawls his hand through the conjugal bedsheets. “What are you looking at?” Hélène asks, as though baffled by a peculiar hobby. “My lovely wife,” he whispers breathily, spectacles fogging with passion, “you are an inexhaustible treasure full of wonderful, wonderful secrets and delights. The more I discover, the more it seems is left to discover, more secrets, more delights.” “Actually,” says Hélène, glued-on smile going with the Notting Hill diction, “one can get a bit tired of having one’s secrets and delights discovered all the time over and over.”

This 50-shots-of-vodka approach manages to miss the one passage of high erotic voltage that Tolstoy wrote describing the exact moment of Pierre’s entrapment. At a dinner organised to get him to pop the question, an *“aunt handed him the snuffbox right over Hélène, behind her back. Hélène leaned forward so as to make room and smiling glanced round. As always at soirées she was wearing a gown in the fashion of the time, quite open in front and back. Her bust, which had always looked like marble to Pierre, was now such a short distance from him that he could involuntarily make out with his nearsighted eyes the living loveliness of her shoulders and neck, and so close to his lips that he had only to lean forward a little to touch her. He sensed the warmth of her body, the smell of her perfume, and the creaking of her corset as she breathed.” And that’s how to script a sexual ambush.

Anthony Hopkins in the BBC’s 1972 adaptation © Landmark Media

But much of the essence of War and Peace is there in the new BBC adaptation, thanks to deeply thought-through performances by Brian Cox (Kutuzov), Jim Broadbent (Prince Bolkonsky), Stephen Rea (Kuragin) and brilliant Jessie Buckley in the thankless part of Marya Bolkonsky — all of whom give unmistakable signs of having read the book, as does the perfectly pained Pierre (Paul Dano), whose every blink is a sonata of bewilderment. And if the casting director decided that the most frightening thing that could be done with Napoleon was to make him the spitting image of Malcolm Tucker, then that certainly works for me.

Never mind that adapting the “monster”, as Henry James lovingly called War and Peace, is an invitation to hubris; every generation must have a go and sometimes it costs them dearly. The Russian director Sergei Bondarchuk, who cast himself as Pierre in the seven-hour epic he made in the 1960s, survived two massive heart attacks towards the end of filming, during one of which he was pronounced clinically dead for four minutes. Touch War and Peace and you play with fire.

When he composed his War and Peace opera in the 1940s, Sergei Prokofiev knew he had to appease Stalin’s taste for patriotic bombast but somehow managed to smuggle in the exquisitely poignant waltz so that the endurance of tenderness registers amidst the dull boom of autocratic cannon. At the other end of the musical scale, the immersive “electro-pop opera” Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, which I saw performed in a tent two years ago (with an on-cue snowstorm falling on Manhattan), hits everything important about the Andrei-Anatole-Natasha triangle with manic brilliance. Did we well up at the crucial moment of Pierre’s speech to Natasha? You bet we did and it was nothing to do with the thin vodka and cardboard pirogis that come with the show.

Bondarchuk in his own film © RIA Novosti/TopFoto

Film and television versions of War and Peace have to steer a tricky course between romance and reverence. The 20-part BBC dramatisation in 1972 may have been a bit too much, beginning ominously with three minutes of a footman setting dinner plates on Count Rostov’s table, though Anthony Hopkins inhabited Pierre’s fumbling big-heartedness as though born for it, which is more than can be said for Henry Fonda in the 1956 King Vidor picture, basically Gone with the Balalaika. Bondarchuk’s stupendous movie has been the most faithful to the book and, with 13,000 Soviet soldiers and a budget of at least $70m in today’s money, you certainly knew you were in a war zone. I first saw it in Paris in 1966 in two parts; the first ending with the battle of Borodino, after which the audience exited ashen-faced, not unlike the remnant of the Grande Armée departing Moscow. Later, it was hideously dubbed and butchered for anglophone audiences. But I screened a sumptuously restored, uncut print at my local indie movie house on a hot July day a few years back, with only a 15-minute intermission for a compassionate dose of Stoli. Not a soul departed before the end. Bondarchuk used breathtaking helicopter photography and dizzy crane shots. His cameramen roller-skated through the dancers in the ball scene, synchronising their movements with the lilt of the waltz. The battle sequences, in their chaotic din and hacking slaughter, are the most historically credible ever filmed and the Borodino sequence, nearly 20 minutes long, ends with one of the most astonishing aerial shots in all of cinema: cavalry charges performing an endlessly looping ballet of carnage, while fire blooms from the cannon and infantry stagger back and forth in blind futility. That Olympian top-shot, both omniscient and despairing, exactly translates into film Prince Andrei’s brutal eve-of-battle exclamation to his ingenuous friend Pierre (come to see the battle dressed in a white topper). “War”, says Andrei, “is the vilest thing in the world . . . [men] come together to kill each other, they slaughter and maim tens of thousands . . . and then they say prayers of thanksgiving for having slaughtered so many people . . . how does God look down and listen to them?”

Bondarchuk was also brilliant at the intimate moments and understood how important soundscape was to Tolstoy. We are first introduced to Andrei’s father, the martinet Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, as he walks through the autumnal woods of his estate. A Haydn minuet plays over the action; all very pretty. But then the camera tracks back to reveal an actual quartet playing for the prince beneath the trees, which is precisely what a serf orchestra used to do every time Tolstoy’s maternal grandfather chose to go for a stroll. When the walk was over, as Rosamund Bartlett’s fine biography of Tolstoy tells us, the serf violinists went back to feeding the pigs.

The uncanny physical immediacy of War and Peace is the result of Tolstoy bringing together personal memory, family history and dense archival research into the making of his narrative. His hero, he said, was truth. Before writing the Borodino chapters he walked the battlefield in the company of a 12-year-old boy for several days. But other kinds of memory-archive came into play, too. His presence at the siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean war, both as soldier and war reporter, gave Tolstoy first-hand knowledge of what it felt and sounded like when shells landed and bullets came flying like “flocks of birds”. The figure of his rustic “Uncle” ’s Tatar mistress is drawn from Tolstoy’s earlier service in the Caucasus, plus his own affair with the wife of one of his serfs, who bore him a child. Earthiness was everything. Where sensation was most intense in his memory, as in the book’s wolf hunt or the Christmas Eve sleigh ride, fake moustaches applied with burnt cork, his prose takes wing.

With typical preference for honesty over kindness, Tolstoy insisted that he and his wife Sophia, not long after their marriage, read each other’s diaries; his, of course, full of his sex escapades recorded in hurtful detail. And yet the early years of that marriage — he began War and Peace in 1863, just a year after their wedding — he believed to be his happiest. Tucked away in Yasnaya Polyana, the estate he inherited from his mother’s family, he was, with Sophia’s crucial help as amanuensis (for his handwriting was so illegible he could hardly read it himself), at liberty to create a masterwork. Six years on, the 5,000 pages of manuscript, 600 characters, three changes of title and a complete alteration of plot (1805 was originally the back-story to a tale of the doomed Decembrist uprising of 1825) were delivered to the world. By this time Tolstoy was already a successful writer and had committed himself to changing Russia, freeing and educating the serfs, rather than indulging himself in further fiction. So the moral zeal bled into the pages of the book. In fact, he indignantly refused to call it a novel at all, “still less a poem and even less a historical chronicle”, but what the author wanted and was able to express in the form in which it was expressed. Stylistically, it was also unlike anything anyone else had written before: raw, richly inelegant, sometimes directionless, bursting through the confines of good literary form yet stained on every page with the juice of life.

Strenuous physical immediacy is but half of the book; its deep core is concerned with the rest of us, the inner life, especially of the passions and what happens to them when abraded by the force of ambition, cupidity, vanity and violence. Accordingly, the most radically exhilarating passages document the workings of that inner life in broken diction, interior monologues (you even get inside the wolf’s head) and the repetitions and linguistic contortions that form and unform in our minds. One such passage has the young hussar Nikolai Rostov, on the eve of the impending disaster of Austerlitz, fighting off sleep while still mounted on his horse, peering dimly at some sort of white spot in the darkness — a tache.

“ ‘Tache or no tache . . . ’ . . . ‘Nat-asha, my sister, dark eyes. Na . . . tashka . . . (she’ll be so surprised when I tell her how I saw the sovereign!) Natashka . . . take the tashka . . . Na-tashka, at-tack a . . . yes, yes, yes. That’s good.’ And again his head dropped to his horse’s neck. Suddenly it seemed to him that he was being shot at. ‘What? What? . . . Cut them down! What? . . . ’ said Rostov, coming to his senses. The moment he opened his eyes, Rostov heard ahead of him, where the enemy was, the drawn-out cries of thousands of voices . . . ’ ”

All he can make out, however, is “aaaa! And rrrr!”

“ ‘What is it? What do you think?’ Rostov turned to the hussar standing beside him. ‘Is it from the enemy?’ ”

Eventually, Nikolai realises he is listening to the full-throated acclaim of the enemy soldiers — “Vive l’empereur” — as Napoleon rides through the French camp. But Tolstoy has us hear the overture to calamity through Rostov’s drowsy senses, as an obscure, distant hum and roar, the shapeless aaaa and rrrr of life into which we are inexorably pulled and through which we struggle, as best we can, to find a place of safety.

*Quotes are from the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of ‘War and Peace’ (Knopf/Vintage 2007)

Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor

Photographs: Topfoto; RIA/Novosti; Landmark Media; Eyevine; BBC Pictures

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