Through no fault of anybody else’s I find I’m reading three big books at the same time: Tom Jones, War and Peace, and Seven Pillars Of Wisdom.

Actually, I’m not reading Tom Jones, but rather leafing through it on the look out for divergences between the book and the BBC serialisation. Though faithful to many of the ideas in the novel, the BBC series, which is very enjoyable, manages to colour the story with some of its own agendas I think. For example, the Lord Felamar character is painted as an irredeemable villain in the TV version. Fielding has him contrite and helpful in the book – when he discovers that Jones is a jolly good chap, it is he who persuades Fitzpatrick to testify on Jones’ behalf in the court case near the end of the story. Similarly, Fielding doesn’t bring Lady Bellaston to justice the way the TV does. Is that we (in the 1990s) like to see our aristocrats as thoroughly evil? That we like to see them brought to justice? I can’t help feeling that such sensibilities weaken, rather than strengthen the story – as if the storytellers feel that we, their audience, need to be reassured that all will come out right in the end. Fielding doesn’t go so far. In his world there are loose ends, and some of them are very grubby.

Another difference is that the BBC puts into Fielding’s mouth a downbeat ending, a sort of authorial full stop – ah well, he seems to be saying, my story may have had a happy ending, but human life being what it is, it won’t be for long! This is pure late twentieth century stuff. Fielding himself, who had damn good reason to know the truth of that – it was the death of his first wife that probably prompted the writing of his masterpiece – takes a much brighter tone, ending on an endorsement of heterosexual marriage, and its good effects on society in general! Presumably the Beeb did not want to echo such an endorsement, or thought that we would not want it to!

I am reading the other two big books though…. one at a leisurely chapter by chapter day by day sort of pace. That’s the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. There’s something, to me, about T.E.Lawrence’s account of the First World War campaign of the Arab Revolt against the Turks that seems to make the overall shape of the narrative less important than its individual parts. The many journeys he takes, and events he is involved in are in themselves complete little stories. Perhaps it is the fine detail, of the places and people that I enjoy, as I might enjoy a series of still photographs, rather than the moving frames of a motion picture.

War and Peace, on the other hand, I’m reading at a faster pace. I read the novel many years ago, and then in four absolutely absorbed days. I couldn’t put it down. How strange, I thought, expecting to find it hard going this time. I did wade slowly through the first couple of chapters – but fifty pages in, I found I was sneaking back to the book to read a little more on every opportunity. Tolstoy winds us in to his massive story with deceiving rapidity. From the tiresome tittle-tattle and social manoeuvring of St. Petersburg we pass very quickly into the smoke and noise of the Napoleonic battle. Yet, we have already read 150+ pages, the length of an entire modern novel.

During the recent celebration of Grossman’s, Life and Fate, a conscious salute to Tolstoy, much was made of the comparison between these two Russian epics, with some commentators suggesting that the later was the better book. I was tempted to think so myself, until I started to re-read Tolstoy. The BBC celebrated Life & Fate by cherry-picking several scenes and having them dramatized and performed by some excellent readers – but do those scenes really have their full impact when plucked out of the book? Like diamonds stripped from a necklace they still glitter – but they are no longer the same precious piece of jewellery. There is a scene in Grossman’s book that surpasses anything in Tolstoy – and you’ll know it when you reach it, yet I find the Tolstoy much easier to read. I find it a much more compelling read. I wondered about this. Is it because the events in the later book seem more contemporary, those in the older more historical? Would that give a distance, a perspective that puts us as readers in a more detached relationship to the story? Or could it be that Grossman simply overwhelms us with characters, whereas Tolstoy allows to get to know (or imagine) fewer more intimately? Could it be that his writing style is simply more to my taste?

Another long book, but one which I’m not reading at present, is James Joyce’s Ulysses. The BBC gave that the celebratory treatment too…the Bloomsday readings and dramatisations ran throughout the day, and as with the Grossman, cherry picked scenes, which were hardened from imagination into actual scripts, with individual voices, specific intonations, and all the paraphernalia that is used to turn a potential story into an actual performance. I listened to one episode. It was well done, but not the way I imagined it. Of course, I’m of the generation which, courtesy of the vinyl LP, thought that Leopold Bloom sounded like Milo O’Shea, and Molly, like Siobhan McKenna. I was amazed when I heard what James Joyce actually sounded like.

What I fear of these cherry-picking exercises, is that, instead of encouraging people to read a book, they might rather deceive us into thinking we no longer need to. Writers like Joyce, and Grossman, and Tolstoy, and Lawrence, will whisper directly into your ear through their books, in a way that partial, and partial, dramatisations cannot.

Despite all this carping, I do remain an enthusiastic advocate of ‘the performance’, or at least, of the reading aloud – each individual one of which is, of course, a performance. What you aren’t doing though, when you read aloud to a live audience, is seeming to set some sort of national (or even international) standard or norm for the perception of what is being read. The voice of the BBC, because of what it is, can’t help doing that to some extent, or being thought to have done so. The idea of an ‘official’ version seems OK, when applied to a text, but not so good when it applies to a reading of one.

Many years ago I ran a small group that read (most of) Ulysses aloud over a winter. It was a great experience, though we struggled with parts of it. We’d set off and read as much as we could in a session a couple of hours long, then read to the chapter ending on our own before the start of the next session. I’ve often thought that it would be a good thing to do again…..Maybe I should read Ulysses again anyway!

My little project to create my own ‘official versions’ of my stories has continued apace, and there’s another one up on Vimeo.

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