The Last Station by Jay Parini

I was sent a wonderful signed edition of this remarkable book by a dear reader of this blog, who also happens to be a friend of Jay Parini. Having seen the film – which I thought was excellent – last year, I was eager to read the book, and understand more about the various warring parties that surrounded the saintly figure of Tolstoy in his final years. I was not to be disappointed! The Last Station sent me reeling into a whirlpool of secrets, deception, ambition, lies, hysterics and passion that I could hardly bear to leave behind at the closing of the pages. I had no idea that Tolstoy’s world was so tumultuous, and also that he was so phenomenally famous in his own life time. Reading this was a real education, as well as a beautiful window into a world and a country that has now changed beyond all recognition from those that Tolstoy knew.

The basic plot of the novel is a tussle between Tolstoy’s followers and his wife Sofya, who oppose each other completely and are fighting for the rights to Tolstoy’s publications after his death. Chertkov, Tolstoy’s greatest friend and leader of the Tolstoyan movement, wants Tolstoy to sign the copyright of his works to the nation, and Sofya wants to keep the copyright in her name, to make sure that she, her children, and grandchildren will not be destitute after Tolstoy’s death. The Tolstoy’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana, is constantly surrounded by the press, eagerly reporting the marital arguments they overhear on a daily basis, and filled with devoted followers of Tolstoy’s spiritual values, that Sofya has never shared and does not agree with. The Tolstoys’ almost half a century long marriage is at breaking point due to their ideological differences and Sofya’s constant paranoia that Tolstoy has given away the copyright to his works. This fraught atmosphere is capitalised upon by those surrounding the family, who are eager to see their own ends served through the great Russian hero’s schism with his wife.

Interestingly, the book is told in a series of short chapters, each written from the point of view of a different character. We hear from Tolstoy; from Sofya Andreyevna; Chertkov; Bulgakov, Tolstoy’s new young secretary, and a recent convert to the Tolstoyan movement; Makovitsky, Tolstoy’s loyal doctor, and finally Sasha, one of Tolstoy’s daughters, who acts as his secretary. Each of these characters has personal access to Tolstoy and his household, and takes a unique view on the events that unfold. They all have their own agendas and beliefs, and, though some do it selfishly, and others unselfishly, all seek Tolstoy’s favour in his dying days. It was a fascinating way to read a novel, coming at a central story from so many different angles. Sofya’s hysterical narrative, filled with passion and hatred and bewilderment, is turned on its head by the calmer, more clinical Chertkov and Sasha, who think her mad and selfish, and damaging to Tolstoy. Tolstoy himself; wise, benevolent, fearless, is torn between his love for and commitment to Sofya, and his own conscience, which desires a simple, spiritual life, worlds away from the one of material comfort and frivolous pleasures Sofya insists on living. Into the fray of this marital discord, competing affections, mistrust and hatred, comes the innocent Bulgakov, fresh out of university and buoyant with the ideals of the Tolstoyan movement, completely at a loss with who to believe and side with. He intensely dislikes Chertkov, who he deems a hypocrite, and he sympathises with Sofya, but he also has a great respect for Tolstoy. In the meantime, he is struggling with his own spiritual beliefs as he falls in love with another Tolstoyan, Masha, and realises that his ideals do not match up to the realities of life.

This novel is a mixture of fact and fiction, though it is based very much on true events, and Parini states in the afterword that wherever possible he has used direct or reported speech to authentically reproduce Tolstoy’s thoughts and feelings in this final year of his life. This all helps to bring the characters impressively to life, and I was so emotionally involved with the events, and torn between who to side with, that the reading experience became quite exhausting at points! I could sympathise with Sofya; married to Tolstoy for most of her life, bearing him thirteen children, and being his constant source of support and strength (in her eyes) and putting up with everything that comes with being married to a famous author, she thinks that she is owed a sense of financial security into her old age, and so are her children and grandchildren. Her life has been Tolstoy’s; she has been allowed no life of her own. However, this has made her small minded, possessive and paranoid; everything she is, is based on who Tolstoy is. Part of her fear of losing the power over the copyright to his works, was, to me, fear of losing the identity and status that came with being Tolstoy’s wife, and, as such, the purpose and meaning of her life.  This fear leads her to increasingly erratic and difficult behaviour, making life unbearable for Tolstoy, who just wants peace rather than constant histrionics and arguments over a matter which he deems to be completely unimportant.

Tolstoy, an aristocrat, born into wealth and never having experienced poverty, has idealised the spiritual simplicity of a peasant’s life to the point where he wants to renounce all of his wealth, and so living in the luxury Sofya enjoys has become unbearable for him. He and Sofya have grown apart to the point where they can agree on nothing, believe completely different things, and want a totally opposed style of living. Sofya considers him a hypocrite; he is wealthy, an aristocrat, and can never understand the life of a poor man, and so shouldn’t try; Tolstoy sees Sofya as a hopeless case, a pampered, unenlightened woman, who, though he has great affection for her, makes his life a misery. Chertkov capitalises on this difference, pushing Tolstoy away from Sofya, and earning her hatred as a result. It’s never quite clear what Chertkov’s motives are, but in alienating Tolstoy from his wife, he causes Sofya much misery, and poisons her reputation among Tolstoy’s followers. By those who love Tolstoy and his spiritual ideals, Sofya’s desire to secure her families’ financial security is deemed selfish and greedy, but for a woman who has no means of providing her own income, and who has been used to all the comforts of an artistocratic upbringing from birth, who can really blame her for being terrified of being cast aside and destitute after the death of the man she has faithfully loved for fifty years?

There is so much in this that I could draw out, but what struck me most was how Sofya and Tolstoy both grieve for the marriage and the partner they have lost. No longer united by passion, or by shared beliefs and goals as they have aged, their needs, desires, beliefs and dreams have changed so much that a breach has grown between them that can never be repaired. After fifty years together, it is desperately sad that their marriage ends in such a miserable way. Unable to understand one another, or compromise their own wishes to appease the other, they are like two train tracks at a junction, going off in different directions, never again to meet. It would be easy to blame Sofya; many times I wanted to slap her for being so irritatingly antagonistic. However, it would also be easy to blame Tolstoy, whose passivity in the face of Sofya’s distress, insistence on being surrounded by cronies that Sofya hates, idealistic beliefs of a life he has no understanding of, and refusal to give Sofya the financial security she deserves after fifty years of marriage, is really quite despicable, despite his claims of spiritual superiority. I ended up pitying them both, really, and all of the characters, too, by the end. Their lives were all based on the beliefs of a man who was just as flawed as they, and could offer no greater insight into the best way to live than they could, judging by the chaos and unhappiness he left behind at his death.

I now want to read more about Tolstoy, and Sofya, and come to a greater understanding of their relationship. However, even if you have no interest in Tolstoy, this is still a fascinating book that explores the contradictions and inconsistencies of the human heart, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It will fascinate, infuriate, and move you by turns, and as each character presents the story from their own viewpoint, you will be more and more unsure as to who to believe, trust and sympathise with. A wonderfully interactive reading experience, it is a book that will stay with me for a long time.

30 comments

  1. This sounds wonderful and beautifully complex–I am a sucker for multiple points of view. I had not planned on reading this, because I have not gotten on with Tolstoy’s books in the past, but I can see from your review that this book is rewarding whether you’re a Tolstoy fan or not. Plus when I am finished I can rent the film, because I love everyone in it with a deep and abiding love. :p

    1. It is fantastic, and you need no knowledge or appreciation of Tolstoy to enjoy it and become involved with the characters – it’s not as if it’s a straight telling of the facts of his last year or anything.

      Oh the film is gorgeous – James McAvoy features heavily and he is my celebrity crush of the moment!🙂

  2. I have read a Tolstoy but nothing of Sofya. You have intrigued me now about both authors. I had put Tolstoy to the back of my mind and now I think I should start reading again.

    1. Sofya didn’t write any books but she kept lots of diaries, which are available to buy in a paperback I think. This is a great book to spur an interest in Tolstoy and his life so if you want to start exploring this is a good place to start!

  3. How wonderfully well written.

    Your review alone has given me more insight into Tolstoy than I previously had. Some books of late, such as this and Chocolate Cake With Hitler, have done so much good for historical fiction, which can be “iffy” at time – and in awakening interests in famous people and their eras. I will put The Last Station on my TBR pile, which fell, rather rudely, as I groped for the alarm that was disturbing a rather nice dream this morning.

    Oh well.

    1. Thank you Penny! I appreciate that!

      If you don’t know a lot about a person or an era, historical fiction, grounded in fact, can be a brilliant way to start. Having read this I feel much more informed about Tolstoy and his way of life and it has intrguied me to the point where I would like to read a more full blown biography, so it’s done its job there as well as being an incredibly entertaining and well written novel in its own right. Definitely one to add to the collapsing TBR pile (I know that experience!) and I hope when you get around to it that you enjoy it as much as I did!

  4. My Gran was telling me all about this book the other day and I wasnt too sure, but now it sounds like a winner and I do believe its in the house… somewhere, have been sorting and everythings been put hither and thither but will go hunting after the weekend and see if can find it. Mind you mayeb I should actually read some Tolstoy first!!!???

  5. I loved this book when I read it a couple of years ago. I’m desperate to read the recently published diaries of Sofya now. And the DVD of the film arrived this week which I’m longing to watch.

    1. I wish I had read it before I saw the film, I must say. I’m glad you loved it too! I would love to read Sofya’s diary, and also a biography of her…I sense a mini reading project! I hope you enjoy the film – I certainly did.

  6. Every time I see a copy of War and Peace in a bookshop I think of this movie and the tumultuous relationship between Tolstoy and Sofya. It never fails to amaze me how two people can make each other so miserable yet continue to run a home and family together…but oh those moments of passion. I prefer my household slightly quieter.

    Fabulous review and how lovely that you were given a signed copy! I listened to the author being interviewed about this book on a podcast and he was really interesting to listen to!

    1. Darlene, it’s the passion that holds them together, clearly! Though the film is a lot more explicit in that department than the book, I have to say!

      Thanks, I know! I think you would really enjoy this.

  7. Another great review! My TBR pile is enormous at the moment, so I think I’ll watch the film – Tolstoy and James McAvoy, WOW! I’ve always had a soft spot for Tolstoy (and J McA!!! :)) and adored Anna Karenina. War and Peace… Well, I’ve started it several times…

    1. Thanks Penny! I know the feeling – the film is excellent and a fairl faithful adaptation, though of course, it’s no substitute for the book! James McAvoy is very good in the film…he’s a soft spot for me too!😉

  8. I think it would be all right for you to brag a bit and tell your readers that the book is not only signed, it is inscribed to you personally!

  9. Sounds so excellent and inspiring – I made a mental note to myself that I had to read a Tolstoy novel before I could see the film….must read Anna Karenina soon, I’ve decided that that’s going to be the first!

    1. It is really an excellent novel and so fascinating too. I much preferred Anna Karenina to War and Peace but I read them both when I was very young so I am in dire need of a re-read! Good luck with tackling Tolstoy!

  10. Interesting. I majored in Russian Studies for my bachelor’s degree, and thus read a fair bit of Tolstoy. My favorite novel of his is beyond a doubt Resurrection. I found the religious ideas of the book terribly interesting, though I am myself a devotee of established religion. (I’m a Christian who worships in a Baptist church.) To appreciate the book best you will want to know a bit about Russian Orthodoxy under the tsars….but regardless, it’s a wonderful read.

    I always find myself becoming rather irritated with Tolstoy and his overly romanticized view of the Russian peasantry. One semester in school found me simultaneously reading about Russian peasant culture (as it really was!) and reading Anna Karenina. What a difference! He was a gifted writer, but not a realist, by any means.

    1. Hi Val. Oh I am jealous. I wanted to do Russian for my degree, but my parents wouldn’t let me! Too obscure!
      I have a copy of Resurrection but haven’t read it yet – I have heard it’s a very interesting novel, and I do have a lot of knowledge about Tsarist Russia – it’s a small obsession of mine! – so I think I would really enjoy it.

      Yes, me too. I felt like that while reading this. I felt like screaming at him ‘you have no IDEA what it’s like to be poor, man!’. As Sofya kept saying, he had been pampered all his life – it’s all too easy to romanticise the ‘pleasures’ of poverty when you’ve never had to experience them.

  11. great review, booksnob. I appreciate your feminist stance towards Sofya. one crucial item I would add to your analysis — this was something which jumped out at me as I was watching the film, one of those “aha!” moments —

    Tolstoy’s wife read his manuscripts as he was writing his great books, War & Peace and Anna Karenina. she discussed his manuscripts with him, edited his manuscripts to make them better, to make them conform to real life, to make the characters, especially the female characters, say and do what they likely would say and do in real life. she did this as the work was being produced. she was his editor. and according to the biography of Sofya Tolstoy recently published from her own journals, she was also his publisher.

    I read the big Tolstoy books decades ago. they are actually an easy read once you get the names of the characters straight. I also read a lot of the other great Russian writers, they are all great reads once you get the names straight — having some kind of homemade chart at hand to get you into the book is a good idea :>)

    These days I read modern novels, I think I read most of the old ones! and modern American writers can hold their own. but getting back to the epiphany I experienced when I heard Helen Mirren talking for Sofya, telling how she read the manuscript for War & Peace six times, how she and Lev would discuss his work as he was producing it, how she suggested changes, said things like “oh, so-and-so would never have said that, she would have said it like this.. ” — I started thinking about how modern writers in the acknowledgements/introduction written before the book proper begins, they would list a number of people without whom the book would never have been published. editors, various experts interviewed, patient friends and family who read the rough manuscripts and suggested changes etc, etc, etc. And it came to me — wow! War & Peace was as much Sofya’s product as it was Lev’s. it was something they did it together — now there’s a revolutionary thought for you!

    so yeah. Sofya objected to the copyright of War & Peace being signed over to the outside entity who saw her as a rival, who would take her work and use it for his own purposes. this was the same guy who stood between her and her husband emotionally, who actively plotted against her, who tried to separate her from her husband. classic triangle, but without the sex.

    1. Hi Brenda, thank you very much for your wonderful and interesting comment! I did omit to mention that part – yes, Sofya saw herself as very much a co-writer and I would be interested to know just how much influence she did have in the writing of his earlier novels. Clearly there was a point where they saw eye to eye…I wonder where it all started to go wrong?

  12. Clearly there was a point where they saw eye to eye…I wonder where it all started to go wrong?

    …I think there is a big huge panoramic traditional Russian novel just waiting to be written around this very point. I wish I was up to it. but wait. I’m not Russian! oh well..

    Parini has not written that novel, but he did a fabulous job at laying the groundwork. he did an interview for the London Times online where he talked about how ‘The Last Station’ came to be written — that is a fascinating story in itself. he must have been one of the few people walking the face of the earth who could have appreciated running across Valentin Bulgakov’s journal languishing in the remainders bin of a second-hand bookstore in Milan.

    where did it all start to go wrong? somewhere in the intersection of a marriage with history I should think. that little utopian movement to which Tolstoy gave his name, the leaders of that movement turned out to be as ruthless in their own small way as were the Bolsheviks — they were willing to sacrifice a woman who stood in their way, they were willing to sacrifice a marriage that stood in their way. they were even willing to sacrifice Tolstoy.

    the marriage was sustaining to Tolstoy, and he was an old man who needed sustaining, but I don’t think they really cared about Tolstoy. what they cared about was an idea. ‘non-violent revolution’. they needed a certain small amount of money to achieve a certain small end, and they trampled everyone and everything that stood in their way.

    there was something a bit King Learish about Tolstoy at the end, didn’t you think? a holy fool maybe, meeting his end the way he did… this story could be written as a tragedy

    1. Such fascinating comments, Brenda! I totally agree with you on the leaders of the ‘utopian’ movement – they were in it for themselves all along.

      Oh yes, definitely – deluded and flattered by those around him and completely unable to see that Sofya was right and that he had no idea what it was like to really be a peasant. That was what I got from Jay Parini’s depiction anyway.

      A big tragic novel indeed! Maybe one day I’ll take it on…when I have a few spare years!!

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