Did anyone else watch The Trouble With Tolstoy - BBC 1 last Sunday evening at 10.25pm?
I have to say Alan Yentob gets all the best jobs doesn't he, I can think of nothing better than sitting on a train travelling across Russia, with a notebook and novels to hand, gazing out of the window and just being able to think, look and read of nothing but Tolstoy (and whether I've brought the right coat with me...more of that in a minute) but I really did enjoy the programme and have bonded even more closely with my copy of War and Peace in the Professor Anthony Briggs translation (along with my Maudes) now that I've heard him talk.
I have purposely not done too much delving into Tolstoy's life whilst we've been Team Tolstoying preferring to get the book well in progress first, and just to explain for anyone who has been on Mars, we are doing a year-long shared read of War & Peace here at dovegreyreader in the centenary year of Tolstoy's death,starting on November 9th 2010, convening to discuss in comments on the 9th of each month, so it was good to get some background on the man.
So there he is our awkward, brooding but brilliantly clever anti-establishment literary hero and Alan Yentob following in his tracks, criss-crossing Russia by train, so fitting given Tolstoy's frequent use of railways in his fiction, those 'rich, complex, profoundly moral stories.'
I especially loved the original, juddery film footage of that rather bandy-legged old man (Leo not Alan) with the long white beard, the shots of Yasnaya Polyana, the samovar and there was even the barest glimpse of the ride from on board a galloping troika and all surrounding the moving account of Tolstoy's scarred childhood, the loss of both parents (his mother when her was two, his father when he was nine) and how often he may have imagined or yearned for that loving family life when he was sent off to live with his aunt in Kazan.
Then how much more in later life might be explained by the disastrous and guilt-ridden trip to the brothel when he was fourteen and at this point the lovely Professor Briggs came in to talk about the 'raging, uncontrollable spirit' that was our Tolstoy. My only concern was the sight of Professor Briggs's double stacked shelves of upright books over his right shoulder...the spines will be ... oh well, Professors must know best.
Of course Team Tolstoy have passed that point in War & Peace, the gambling exploits but no generous family around to bail out Tolstoy when, at the point of possibly losing his life on the brink of going into battle during the Crimean War and thus with a slightly devil-may-care attitude about him, Tolstoy squandered his birthright and gambled away the home that he had loved so dearly.
By this time Alan's in Sebastopol and outlining how Tolstoy's disillusionment with war is setting in.
Next thing Alan's in St Petersburg (I told you this has to have been the best job going at the BBC last year) and referring to Tolstoy's diaries... in fact I swear I caught a glimpse of turquoise, if so Faber Finds have very kindly sent me the same editions and I am now dipping into them. The early diaries, as Alan Yentob explained, reminiscent of something akin to Adrian Mole as Tolstoy writes lists of rules, things to be accomplished and, on achieving precisely none of them, writes another list with just one rule, to do things on last list and doesn't do that either. It's reassuring to know I'm in good company with my diary efforts.
There were accounts of meetings with Turgenev who referred to Tolstoy's 'buffalo-like obstinacy', Tolstoy's easy admittance into St Petersburg high society given his privileged status as a Count, the emancipation of the serfs and then the meeting and marriage to Sofia Behrs (also known as Sonia) The shocking wedding night which left Sonia feeling she had been raped whilst Tolstoy remained emotionally cold and unaffected and Anthony Briggs confirming that Tolstoy had frequently been given the benefit of the doubt when in fact there was no doubt... he was brutal and treated Sonia very badly indeed.
But Tolstoy was always going to write the epic for which it seems all bad behaviour could be forgiven, and War and Peace would become the gold standard, the bench mark by which all other novels would be judged. There was some lovely footage of the annual re-enactment of the Battle of Borodino, and I really don't want to cast any clouds of gloom but this takes up 250 pages in the book according to Professor Briggs, we have much girding of the loins to come.
At this point I'm also getting a bit worried about Alan Yentob's coat, a sort of grey parka-like affair (unless this is the Tolstoy look) which only needed a Lambretta to match, and which didn't look very BBC nor well suited to the Russian steppes, but I still managed to concentrate on the detail about the seeds of pacifism growing in Tolstoy's mind, and the voice that was about to get ever-louder in its proclamation of the vile evils of war.
The programme ended with Tolstoy's mid-life crisis, the inexplicable nightmare, the tormenting voice of death that took him to the brink of a form of existential madness, an encounter with his own mortality and an experience that was to remain with him and shape the rest of his life so now we've had the Tolstoy, next episode we're in for the trouble.
As the programme ended I'd got over Anthony's double stacked books and Alan's coat sufficiently to feel a rush of love and enthusiasm for War & Peace, for this extraordinary writer and for the community reading spirit that this year's Team Tolstoy adventure is generating here, I'm so glad we decided to read it and thank you all for reading it too.
Second episode of The Trouble With Tolstoy :: Sunday April 2nd BBC 1 - 10.25pm
Next Team Tolstoy gathering :: Saturday April 9th - all weekend