I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia - Woody Allen
I open with the Woody Allen gag because it reminds me of when I was a kid, maybe about ten. Having learned that, according to many, War and Peace was regarded as the greatest novel ever written, I ordered the book at my local library. It was a popular tome and so when it arrived I was only permitted to borrow it for two weeks. I made a valiant attempt to get through it but after the fortnight when I tried to renew it I was told other people were waiting and had to hand it back in. I never attempted to read it again.
All I can remember about it is that it was about Russia . . . oh, and the names were all terribly, terribly long. Since then I’ve made my way through a number of Russian novels, all of which had two things in common, they were about Russia and all the characters had terribly long names. And variants on those names depending on the circumstances, which can be confusing. So, before I start talking about The Last Station a brief breakdown on Russian names.
Every Russian name consists of three parts: a first (given) name, a patronymic name and a surname. Let me illustrate:
● Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev
The first name is given by parents shortly after the child's birth. Accordingly to Russian laws child can change the name after majority. The first name is the main name of Russian people. Most of Russian names have a variety of forms:
● The full form Mikhail Sergeyevich is used in formal relationships
● The short name Misha is used by friends and family members.
● The affectionate form Mishenka or Mishunya is used by parents or grandparents.
● The rude form Mishka is an uncouth derivative of the name.
Each chapter in the book is written as if in the first person by five different people:
● Countess Sophia Andreyevna (Sofya) – wife of 48 years
● Vladmir Grigorevich Chertkov – closest friend, confidant and promoter of his work
● Valentin Fedorovich Bulgakov (Valya) – secretary
● Alexandra Lvovna (Sasha) – youngest daughter who acted as a typist and secretary
● Dr Dushan Petrovich Makovitsky – personal in-house physician
These, along with Tolstoy, are the main protagonists. Mention should be made of three secondary characters:
● Masha, a tall girl, Finnish in appearance who has recently joined the Tolstoyans at Telyatinki (Chertkov’s home). Not to be confused with Tolstoy’s daughter, Masha. She and Bulgakov become romantically involved.
● Varvara Mikhailovna, Sasha’s intimate friend who also does secretarial work at Yasnaya Polyana (the Tolstoy estate).
● Sergeyenko (Chertkov’s secretary)
Leo and Sofya had thirteen children, five of whom died during childhood. Apart from Sasha, only Sergey and Tanya, their eldest son and daughter, receive more than a passing mention. There is also Tolstoy’s bastard son, Timothy, who has grown up to be a coach driver on the estate.
In addition to the five narrators already mentioned there are also chapters headed L.N. and J.P., the former being excerpts from Tolstoy’s letters, diaries and other writings and the latter being three poems by the author which personally I found out of place but they don’t take up a lot of room.
I was curious why Parini had chosen this approach to his novel. In the book’s afterword he explains that it was because most of the people who were there had either written diaries or produced memoirs after the fact and so he found himself with a fractured picture of what went on; everyone has their own perspective and only by presenting several do we get a rounded picture of the events covered in the book. Why write a novel and not a biography?
Straight biography is fairly rigid in its conventions, and the straight biographer never enters into the subjective consciousness of a subject in the way novelists always do. – Paul Holler, An interview with Jay Parini, Bookslut, April 2006
The marriage of Leo and Sofya was marked from the outset by a mix of sexual passion and emotional insensitivity when Tolstoy, on the eve of their marriage, handed her his diaries detailing his extensive sexual past and the fact that one of the serfs on his estate had borne him a son. From the outset the newlyweds have a tempestuous relationship, full of loving – and angry – passion. Even so, their early married life was ostensibly happy and allowed Tolstoy the freedom he needed to produce his masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Sofya acted as his secretary, proofreader and financial manager. It’s a matter of record that she copied War and Peace, by hand, no fewer than seven times, from beginning to end. However, in later life their relationship deteriorated as his beliefs became increasingly radical and he sought to reject his inherited and earned wealth, including the renunciation of the copyrights on his earlier works.
When the book opens Tolstoy is eighty-two and his wife about to turn sixty-six. It’s clear from the off that their relationship is a complex one. Everyone bar family refers to Tolstoy as Leo Nikolayevich, however his wife calls him by the affectionate name Lyovochka. In the first chapter Sofya Andreyevna is doing the talking. Her husband is asleep:
Lyovochka slept on, snoring, as I smoothed his hair. The white hair tumbles on his starchy pillow. The white beard like spindrift, a soft spray of hair, not coarse like my father’s. I spoke to him as he slept, called him ‘my little darling.’ He is like a child in his old age, all mine to coddle, to care for, to protect from the insane people who descend upon us daily, his so-called disciples – all led on, inspired, by Chertkov, who is positively satanic. They think he is Christ. Lyovochka thinks he is Christ.
So Sofya sees herself as the faithful and loving wife-cum-protector of her aged, slightly dotty husband.
In the second chapter we find Chertkov advising Bulgakov who is just about to take on his role as Tolstoy’s secretary what his duties will be, his official duties (mostly filing and answering letters) and his unofficial one (maintaining a private diary for Chertkov). Despite having a property close to Tolstoy’s Chertkov is actually living in exile. In their conversation he says:
I don’t want to prejudice you against Sofya Andreyevna, but it would be impolite of me not to mention her disagreements with Leo Nikolayevich. It has been an unfortunate marriage – for him. Frankly she is not one of us. I would go so far as to say that she despises us and would do anything in her power to see that her husband’s work does not go forward.
So, as you can see there’s no love lost between the two. And it only gets worse as the book progresses.
By the time he is well into his fifties, Tolstoy was constantly in touch with learned men and philosophers (there are letters to George Bernard Shaw and Ghandi included in the book) and his celebrity status and public opposition to the status quo in Russia attracted a constant stream of admirers. One of these was Chertkov, a man twenty-five years his junior who encouraged him to concentrate on his moral teachings; distributed his writings; and organised his devotees into communities that abstained from tobacco and alcohol, pooled property and goods, practised chastity and vegetarianism, and lived by the principles of love, truth and peace. It is Chertkov who formed the Tolstoyans. To some degree Chertkov becomes the high priest of Tolstoy’s own tenets, moulding his thoughts as he sees fit and chastising him for conflicting behaviour. He reads a bit like “Colonel” Tom Parker to Tolstoy’s Elvis.
What can we say about Sofya other than this is not what she signed up for. She married a count; she is now a countess and expects to live and be treated like one. It is a mark of Tolstoy’s love and regard for her that he allows her to continue in the manner to which she has become accustomed. He continues to live in the lap of luxury although this is against all his principles and clearly pains him.
Many have wondered why he did not turn his back on the family and his rich estate, as he clearly desired to do, and go off to live in a hut as an impoverished religious hermit. This would have squared him with his conscience which on this score never gave him any peace of mind. But more than once he explained, and there is no good reason to doubt his sincerity, that this way out was a temptation which he must resist, for he was convinced that he had to work out his salvation in the milieu where God had placed him. - Ernest Joseph Simmons, Tolstoy, p.130
The main subject of conflict in the book concerns Tolstoy’s will. Sofya writes:
There is something going on behind my back, something to do with the will. Yesterday, I asked Lyovochka directly, ‘Has anyone approached you about your will? Has anything changed? You would tell me, wouldn’t you, if anything happened?’
He thinks he can give away everything we own: the house, the land, the copyright to all his works. Has he no sense of responsibility?
‘You mustn’t worry, Sofya,’ he said. ‘Nothing has happened.’ But I’m worried.
Of course she has every right to be worried. But Sofya being who she is isn’t content to be worried. She spies on her husband, is often at loggerheads with him in public, runs around with a loaded gun and even attempts suicide in a bid to gain the upper hand. Tolstoy bends over backwards to keep the peace. Her most vicious attacks are understandably against his relationship with Chertkov:
It’s unnatural for a man of my husband’s age to cluck and coo over a beastly younger disciple.
She demands to read her husband’s diaries for evidence of impropriety:
‘I want to read all your diaries from the last ten years.’
‘I’m afraid that’s impossible.’ He looked away from me as I spoke.
‘Where are they Lyovochka? Where have you hidden them?
‘I have not hidden them.’
‘Are they here?’
‘Does Chertkov have them?’
‘Please, Sofya. I . . . I –‘
‘I knew it! He is greedily reading everything you have said about me. This is despicable. Have I not been an honest, loving wife for all these years? Answer me, Lyovochka!’
Although it has been some years since they opened their diaries to each other Tolstoy acquiesces. Bulgakov’s picture of him as “a henpecked, gentle, silent, austere father figure who fends off the world like [his own] grandfather did, somewhat ineptly” is quite accurate. She gets the diaries back from Chertkov and soon enough finds what she expected. Shortly after dining one evening she comes onto the terrace where Bulgakov, Dr Makovitsky and her husband are sitting and reads a number of extracts she has made including this one:
‘“Beauty has always been a huge factor in my attraction to people. . . . There is Dyakov, for instance. How could I ever forget the night we left Pirogovo together, when, wrapped in my blanket, I felt as though I could devour him with kisses and weep for joy. Lust was not absent, yet it is impossible to say exactly what part it played in my feelings, for my mind never tempted me with depraved images.”’
Leo Nikolayevich, looking disgusted, stood and excused himself. I was relieved.
‘See what you’ve done, Sofya Andreyevna? He has been driven from his own terrace,’ said Dr Makovitsky.
‘He is aware that I have hit upon the truth. Why else would he chase about like a schoolboy after Vladimir Grigorevich? He lusts after the man. He wants to roll about in bed with him, to smother him with kisses, to weep on his breast. Why doesn’t he admit it? Why doesn’t he just do it?
Parini doesn’t explore or explain these entries in Tolstoy’s diaries any more that he pursues the lesbian inclinations of Tolstoy’s daughter Sasha. Tolstoy asks his daughter pointedly at one point if she loves Varvara and is happy to hear that she does. Whether they have consummated that love is never pursued. The feeling I got from the book is that both loves, Sasha’s for Varvara and Tolstoy’s for Chertkov, are fairly innocent. Sasha writes:
He’s always buoyant when he has seen or is about to see Chertkov. He loves Vladimir Grigorevich as I love Varvara Mikhailovna. I would never begrudge him this.
Anything else really has to be conjecture. But this is also where Parini’s approach works well because here we have Chertkov’s point of view:
People are mistaken when they say I love the man. What I love is the Tolstoyan firmness, the call to truth and justice. The lineaments of his prose entangle, embody, render visible the elusive matters of these virtues.
Descriptions of the physical attraction between men appear in The Cossacks and Anna Karenina and other works. Tolstoy also describes homosexual attractions in his autobiographical Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth. By the time Tolstoy wrote his last novel, Resurrection, he had turned against all sexuality, and he considered homosexuality as simply one more symptom of the moral decay of society. He even had doubts about the role of sex within marriage. Certainly he and Sofya had not been intimate in some time.
The Tolstoyans’ view was not, however, that all sex was wrong but sex outside marriage was certainly frowned upon. Despite that, it doesn’t take Masha long to seduce Bulgakov. According to Parini, Masha is the film’s sole fictitious character. He said he created the character for the novel because he felt Valentin needed a love interest; I personally found it somewhat implausible and really unnecessary but it doesn’t hurt anything.
The situation between Tolstoy and his wife proves untenable. Short breaks don’t work, writing her letters doesn’t work, and pleading with her face-to-face doesn’t work. Finally, on discovering that she’d been searching through his office looking for a new will, he decides to flee and in the early hours one morning leaves with a small band. Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Sasha and the good doctor head off with the bare essentials:
‘I can take nothing that isn’t absolutely necessary.’ These included a flashlight, a fur coat, and the apparatus for taking an enema.
He doesn’t get far. Ill health forces him to alight at the station of Astapovo, the last station of the title, a mere eighty miles from his home. This is on page 324 of a 370-page novel. This surprised me a little considering the fact that others have devoted whole works to this single incident. I had expected more time to be spent on it. This doesn’t mean it’s skimmed over. Understanding the build-up to the night flight is important. It’s only fair to make it clear how much of the book is devoted to the station. In that respect The Last Station might not have been the best choice for the book’s title but that’s a minor gripe.
The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy have recently been published by Alma Books and I was offered a copy for review but it never arrived in the post. Having read this book I’m rather glad; I can see that her diaries would present a very one-sided view of the goings on at Yasnaya Polyana, the 4,000-acre estate where she lived for more than half a century. Also apparently the events of the last ten days of her husband’s life are barely touched on by her in her diaries; no doubt she was too distraught to write. That her diaries of Sophia Tolstoy were not published in Russia in the 1970s is clearly indicative of their content. They do not present the great man in a good light.
I’ve seen The Last Station criticised because it focuses on Sofya. I really can’t see how it could do otherwise. She’s by far the most interesting character. It’s she that turns this from an engrossing piece of academia into a real page-turner. I’ve not seen Helen Mirren’s performance other than a few clips but from what I’ve read her Oscar nomination was no surprise. That said The Telegraph calls the film “a stuffy non-starter of a prestige picture with more putative class than intelligence.” So who knows? It’s certainly has the potential of being the role of a lifetime because Sofya’s mood swings are extreme, the whole gamut from empress to madwoman. A number of other reviewers have noted that The Last Station is a film script masquerading as a novel and I can’t disagree.
My main problem with it, as you’ll see from this review, is that you really need to know quite a bit to put the storyline in its proper context. Parini does as good a job as any in balancing back-story and action but there were things I would have preferred to know more about, for example, I would have liked to learned how the “Nihilist [a man] completely without faith” (which is how he describes himself in What I Believe) became the Christ-like figure we read about in this book; everyone, even illiterate peasants, revered him. And also how did this most revered of men manage to get himself excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church? That said, as an overview to a serious study of Tolstoy I think it does a good job.
Some may object to the way he has “Englished” (his word) quotations by Tolstoy. His reasoning was to make sure the Tolstoy of history and “the Tolstoy of his invention” sounded like the same man. I didn’t find it a problem. I didn’t even notice it. What he does do on occasion is modernise the dialogue. Purists will most certainly grue when Sofya says things like “I don’t find it amusing. I find it sick,” but it didn’t upset me. Then I don’t know any better.
Unlike many historical novels Parini has had the benefit of a great deal of data recorded at the time and shortly thereafter by people directly involved in his story. How accurately he has interpreted that data is anyone’s guess. Historical accuracy aside what I can say is that this is a well-written, very readable novel – in his afterword he is keen to emphasise that it “is fiction, though it bears some of the trappings and effects of literary scholarship” – and, bearing in mind we all know how the book is going to end (and if we didn’t the blurb on the back of the book tells us), he also manages to build up a reasonable amount of tension and anticipation in the final few pages.
Jay Parini, an American poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. His novels include The Apprentice Lover, Benjamin's Crossing, and The Last Station. His fifth volume of poetry was The Art of Subtraction: New and Selected Poems. He has written biographies of John Steinbeck, Robert Frost, and William Faulkner, in addition to The Art of Teaching and Why Poetry Matters. His reviews and essays appear frequently in major periodicals, including The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Guardian.