Monday, April 4, 2011

Tolstoy: too big for two hours?

The second part of Alan Yentob's Imagine seriesThe Trouble with Tolstoy on BBC1 last Sunday (April 3) told the story of the writer's life from Anna Karenina onwards.

On the day it was shown, A.A.Gill had suggested in the Sunday Times that part one, the previous Sunday, had proved that Tolstoy was 'too big for television'. Gill complained that "we were overawed by the cinemascope of his life."

This film went some way to proving Gill wrong, making time for plenty of detail, from the way Tolstoy's religious convictions led to his paying for the mass emigration of an obscure religious sect to a new life in Canada, to the destructive impact on his marriage of his intrusive secretary and follower, Vladimir Chertkov.

By the end of the series, we'd been given an absorbing and coherent account of Tolstoy's life. Only thinking about it afterwards, I realised that what had been missing was any scrutiny of what made him a great writer. Viewers would just have to turn to the books to discover what all the fuss was about.

If this was a failure in the series, it was an honourable one. Tolstoy himself, in his words and deeds, insisted in his later years that literature was less important than living an ethical life - which he insisted on trying to do, despite its agonising consequences for his family.

Indeed, in his concluding piece to camera, Yentob stood up for the awkard, sometimes embarrassing older Tolstoy, the one his readers would have preferred to have had turning out great novels than trying to make his own shoes.

"It's easier to applaud Tolstoy, the greatest of novelists, and dismiss Tolstoy the idealist as a krank, an artist out of his depth." said Yentob, "But the real trouble with Tolstoy is that so much of what he advocated - that love is all that matters, that violence begets violence, that no man has a right to take control over the life of another - is uncomfortably and unavoidably true."

There was a sense of Yentob getting so close to his subject that this was almost how Tolstoy himself might have defended himself against the charges of krankiness.

Maybe another time we could have a film about the great books?

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