Monday, September 15, 2014

European RC #2

I read this for the European Reading Challenge 2014.

The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Final Year – Jay Parini,

I feel uneasy with historical novels whose main characters are historical figures, since I assume writers just make stuff up without reading any background (e.g. T.C. Boyle). It reassures me that Parini is an academic. As a scholar should, he has read all the memoirs and diaries of the principle characters. As a serious novelist, his sense of timing is impeccable – the drama just unfolds and the situation grows desperate when the reader thinks it can’t get more desperate. As a poet, he writes striking prose.

Set in Russia in 1910, this novel covers the last year in the life of novelist and philosopher, Leo Tolstoy. He has stopped writing fiction in favor of articles about Christianity, non-violence and George’s theory of taxation. His fame and philosophy have attracted dreamers, money-grubbers, fame junkies, and frauds to his estate. He basks in their adulation. However, he feels that as long as he lives in luxury, paid for by royalties, he is not living a true complete Christian life.

The portrait of Tolstoy’s wife, Countess Sofia, is a sympathetic one, which is a change considering how often writer’s wives get kicked around. Sofia suspects that Leo is going to change his will. Doing so, the royalties would be channeled away from her children and grandchildren, a situation she cannot contemplate without rage. 

Different chapters are narrated by different followers. His supporters also feel disquiet. They vie for Tolstoy’s approval. They make sure that other people know how close they are to the great man. They undercut each other, as disciples often do. Tolstoy’s followers have all kinds of love and altruism in their hearts, but sharp elbows and unworthy motives when dealing with each other. Their hypocrisy is a hoot.

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