THE LAST STATION by Jay Parini

Book Quote:

“It is agonizing. Life here at Yasnaya Polyana is completely poisoned.  Wherever I turn, it is shame and suffering…”
Diary entry, 3 July 1880, Leo Tolstoy

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (APR 25, 2010)

Leo Tolstoy famously opened Anna Karenina with the observation that, “All happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” He was 45 when he wrote that. Thirty-seven years later, at age 82, he would die at the remote Astapovo train station, not far from his home, after fleeing, in the middle of the night, his estranged wife of 48 years, abandoning his family, his wealth, and setting out to live the life of a wandering ascetic. Ironically, he fulfilled the observation that his family was, indeed, singularly unhappy. A.N. Wilson described marriage between Leo and Sofya as the most unhappy in all literary history. The Last Station is the fascinating fictional construction of what transpired in the life and household of Tolstoy’s last year.

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was born into a family of landed aristocracy. He inherited the family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, along with 700 serfs, after serving in the Crimean War in the 1850s. Prior to that, to settling down and writing two of the greatest works of world literature, War and Peace and Anne Karenina, he lead a life of, as he later reflected, “vulgar licentiousness”–or whoring around, to use his wife’s phrase. He fathered thirteen children by Sofya and was grandfather to at least twenty-five. He cared for his serfs and established a school for their education. He attempted to bring about emancipation for all serfs, thus labeling him a threat to the state, albeit a world-famous one. In the 1870s he underwent a spiritual crisis. He renounced his former beliefs and literary works. He embraced and expanded upon a primitive Christianity, developing a simple theology based on love and asceticism. He took vows of chastity–ironically–and vegetarianism. His influence was so far-reaching that Gandhi cited Tolstoy, or more properly Tolstoyism, as his major influence in the development of non-violent social reform.

Against this background, The Last Station, picks up in 1910, Tolstoy’s last year. The Tolstoy household is a buzzing hornet’s nest of intrigue, pent-up anger, fear and distrust. Sycophants and toadies fill the hallways, along with family members, disciples and admirers. To some the great man is a Christ-like figure, to others, particularly his wife and the very few of her supporters, he is deemed a selfish eccentric. Tolstoy had been developing his Christianity against a backdrop of luxury and affluence. He had a family to support and a wife who accustomed to her lifestyle. He was a torn man. He was viewed by the world as a mystic and original Christian thinker, yet he saw himself as a hypocrite. The reader can’t help but tune into his personal tension. But the experience does not stop with Tolstoy. One also feels for Sofya. She bore him all those children, transcribed War and Peace by hand, three times–she put up with him. “Only I could read Lyovochka’s [Tolstoy} handwriting,” she writes in her diary. “His crablike hieroglyphs filled the margins of his proof sheets, driving the printers wild…Even he could not make out what he had written much of the time. But I could.” And she withstood his eccentricities until she could no longer.

The author, Jay Parini writes in an afterward to his book, “The Last Station is fiction, though it bears some of the trappings and affects of literary scholarship.” He continues to describe how fifty years ago in a used book store he stumbled upon the diary a Tolstoy house member, Valentin Bulgakov. Bulgakov was there for the last year, observing and taking notes. From there Parini collected and read other diaries and memoirs of family members, visitors and students. “Reading them in succession was like looking at a constant image through a kaleidoscope. I soon fell in love with the continually changing symmetrical forms of life that came into view.” He tells us that the quotes attributed to Tolstoy in the book are, indeed, his; too, that he drew from major and minor sources, biographies and letters, in fleshing out the chronology of the book.

There is an approach to the popular “historical novel” that is often foot-loose and fancy-free. My sense here is that of an extremely well-employed and detailed accuracy. (I have read the major works, but am no Tolstoy authority.) Reading The Last Station was akin to reading the best biography. Only better. There is the opportunity to get lost in a period, a life and follow it through the ups and downs, the history and intrigue.

Parini employs multiple voices in the telling of this tale, bringing into focus multiple perspectives and view points. There is, of course, Tolstoy, as revealed by his voice, his writings and his diary entries. And his wife, Sofya Andreyevna, is a major presence, as one would expect. But too, we hear the voice of the doctors, adult children and onlookers. (Daughter Sasha: “Mama does not understand my father’s goals. He is a spiritual creature, while her chief concerns are material.”) Each voice speaks in first person, their chapters weaving one through another, to form the kaleidoscope Parini refers to. One voice, in particular, that of the young new hire, Valentin Bulgakov, acts as a touch stone of reason and balanced observation throughout.

Bulgakov has been hired by Vladimir Grigorevich Chertkov, Tolstoy confidante and threat to the status quo, to act as literary secretary and quotation-gatherer for Tolstoy. Bulgakov gets thrown into the household when all contrasting forces are at fever pitch. Sofya is afraid that Leo is re-writing his will and leaving his copy-writes to Chertkov for distribution to the public domain. She fears that Chertkov is plotting to undermine her and further the rift between she and her husband. (“Since Chertkov came to live here again, the situation has grown even less tolerable,” she writes in her diary.) Her fears are well founded. But she takes them to hysterical pitch and drives the great man mad, sending him fleeing into the winter Russian night. The children take sides, fearing on one hand destitution once their father dies and, on the other, immense pride at being a child of such an individual. Coming and going throughout is a mix of personalities whose allegiance and trust is never fully established.

The Last Station reads much like life: there is no omniscient narrator, only participants functioning from their individual perspective. It is a wonderful and immensely interesting method. The knowledge that it was created with a scholarly approach to accuracy only makes the reading experience so much the richer. Tolstoy had a profound influence on the creative literary tradition. That he renounced all of that and set out to follow an idiosyncratic voice pulling him in an opposite direction is fascinating. Parini renders the experience in a remarkably entertaining fashion. This is a wonderful book.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 15 readers
PUBLISHER: Anchor; Mti edition (January 12, 2010)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Jay Parini
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another novel on Leo Tolstoy’s last day:

The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus

Selected Bibliography:

Nonfiction:

Movies from books:


April 25, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Russia, World Lit

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