A small comet and a very Big Book

August 18, 2020

Comet Neowise had already faded by the time I started watching the BBC’s mini-series of “War and Peace” on July 25, up here in Egremont.  I watched the whole series in just two days.  Another week, and I had the book in hand – the Anthony Briggs translation from 2005

I’d never read any of the novel, except back in my mid-20s when I read Part II of the epilogue, an entirely historiographical essay by Tolstoy.  I’d seen two movie versions but remembered little of them.  The only part of the 1956 movie with Audrey Hepburn and Hank Fonda that I remembered was the comet.  Bondarchuk’s version was impressive but didn’t stay with me, apart from the Battle of Borodino.

Neowise through my telescope on July 15
A long shot of the above

After hunting for and gazing at Neowise for weeks, I searched all my texts-on-file for the word “comet,” and of course “War and Peace” came up.  I read the famous passage and instantly Tolstoy had me by the throat.  I started reading my computer version of the classic Maude translation, from the beginning, until I got my Briggs copy.

I saw on YouTube that there was a six-part BBC adaptation from 2016, and I hesitated to take on a new project, particularly because Tolstoy’s reputation just screams at you: “Long. Tough. Important. Possibly Boring.” 

But the clips online drew me in.  I watched the series, and to my lasting surprise, “War and Peace” turned out to contain a story that was human and addictive.

Viv Groskop has a great review of the series.

On just a couple of things I disagree with Groskop.  Princess Marya is not a minor character.  And she says that Anatole needed to be presented as having some positive qualities that could attract Natasha, but it doesn’t seem to me that Tolstoy did this; the series seems to get the characterization right.

And now reading the novel, I am shocked once again – I should learn my lesson already – that a novel known as a Classic really deserves its reputation.

But what’s so delicious is that this one earns it with stories we can all relate to.  This is not some philosophical treatise posing as a novel (though God knows I can love those).  It’s a love story – several love stories, actually – filled with money and bored rich people.  That’s not even what I usually like to read or watch.  But this is different – and not because of Tolstoy’s asides about history and philosophy.  Those are interesting as ever, and easy to appreciate and take their point even when you disagree with them.  I just mean that the stories and the people win your acceptance as recognizable.

And yet even that would not be enough to do it, because I don’t mean that Tolstoy is some kind of hyper-realist bent on showing us our ugliness in all its forms.  His story is real, but it’s also fun.

That’s the real shock.

Here I have to say something else about that, because there are many kinds of fun.  A novel or movie about external thrills can be gripping, but that’s not what this is.  What is most engrossing is how we live every inner moment of the men and women – and even a wolf – as they struggle through ordinary life, enjoying it if they can; as they think about death, or risk it.  It’s a cliché to speak of how an author brings you the inner world of emotions, but all the emotions of life are here.  Not just joy, sadness, fear and anger in discrete moments but all of these experienced in a daily flow over time, producing everything between frustrating confusion and durable serenity.  That may be why it feels so real.

And Tolstoy’s characters are always feeling something when they look at the sky, which I love.  Tolstoy is no astronomer but his characters often glance at the day or night sky, and are moved or surprised by what they see there: 

  • Nikolai on the bridge burned by the retreating Russians, while cannonfire is raining down on him;
  • Andrey on the field of Austerlitz, lying gravely wounded;
  • Andrey again after his long talk on the ferry with Pierre about what meaning there may be in life;
  • Andrey gazing at the (night) sky through the windows at the Rostov house, his emotional life coming back from the dead due to Natasha, who from the floor above wants to fly to the nearly full moon;
  • Pierre sighting the comet after his tenderest meeting with Natasha;
  • Pierre catching the comet again after his long evening with Captain Ramballe (I was as pleased as a child to see this);
  • Pierre during his forced prisoner’s march (again a night sky);
  • Petya in his vast dreamworld of imagination, again at night, just hours before his death

Often the characters feel the contrast between the perfection they see above and an ugliness they cannot escape in the here and now.

A brief twist occurs during the sledge race, when —

there were so many stars sparkling in the snow that the sky was no attraction and the real stars were hardly noticeable.  The sky was nothing but dreary blackness, the earth as bright as day.

The BBC version does leave out or otherwise ruin the comet theme.  But the series is otherwise surprisingly faithful to the novel, even in little details, like Natasha describing how Pierre seems to have come through a moral bathhouse.

The movie version that I purchased on YouTube — separated into 8 episodes of equal length — seems to be shorter than the version originally broadcast on TV in 6 unequal parts.  The 8-parter is missing:

  • the wolf hunt;
  • Petya asking a soldier to sharpen his sword on the eve of a Cossack raid;
  • Pierre’s chance encounter with Prince Vasily right before going to see Natasha

The 8-parter does not show Napoleon looking at the dead bodies on the field of Borodino.  His speech as he is about to enter Moscow is moved in the 8-part version to just before Natasha’s family flees from Moscow, rather than right after Kutuzov’s decision to abandon Moscow.

The 6-part version opens one of its episodes with the comet hanging in the night sky.  The 8-parter does not have this apparition of the comet. 

But all that aside, I love that the 8-parter ends one of its episodes with the scene in which Pierre comforts Natasha and offers his love, Natasha’s theme playing in the background.  And it ends Episode 7 with Andrey’s death, and Natasha’s dual question, “Where has he gone? Where is he now?” It is the most silent of the cliff-hangers and the most moving. 

A photo I took of the comet on July 20

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