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.