I read today that Andrew Davies’s television version of War and Peace will start on 3 January. Great. Something to look forward to after much of the dreadful stuff that we’re to be shown over Xmas. We’ve heard rumours about the making of this for a year or two now. One thing disappoints, though. It’s only going to be six instalments. Now Andrew Davies is a brilliant scriptwriter and adapter of novels. But why ever did he agree to compressing Tolstoy’s classic — surely the greatest novel ever written? — into six instalments? It needs a dozen at least, probably more like 16 or 20. I have a boxed set of DVDs of the BBC’s original version in 1972 and that was 12 instalments. Even that was insufficient to bring out Napoleon’s full range of personality.
I’ve read War and Peace four times in my life. Once as a young man in Engish. Then again as a young man in Russian when I was learning Russian in order to do some technical translation for a tyrecord factory my employers, Courtaulds, were building in Russia. Thirdly, in French when I’d bought a copy for one of my granddaughters who was learning French at school and I decided to have a peek at it first. Finally, a couple of years ago — in English! My previous attempt using my school-level French had not been very successful. My attempt in Russian was, truthfully, less than successful. More realistically, I’ve probably read the book something like two and a half times.
Nevertheless, Tolstoy is up there, along with Jane Austen and George Elliot, as among the great novelists in my pantheon. What was he actually getting at? He was trying to say that great historical events make great personalities — such as Napoleon in this case — rather than personalities make history, which is how historians used to write it. Was Tolstoy correct? The debate had gone this way and that ever since.
My own view is that Tolstoy is more nearly correct. When great economic pressures force a new historical change into existence, it’s always one personality who is pushed to take command. And that personality is of someone who has a very precise blend of talents — so precise, in fact, that they’re probably not learnable or copy-able from others. The blend has to be there at puberty — the time when all personalities are set for life — and that means that the success of the Napoleons of this world are not self-determined but a product of parental upbringing and imposed experiences of childhood. It’s as though the leader of a great historical change is just as much an automatic product of circumstances as the economic change itself.