Thursday, March 29, 2018

Mythic Expectations

The Last Station:
A Novel of Tolstoy's Last Year 

“It is not an easy thing to alter the trajectory of your life. People have expectations on your behalf. You come to believe them yourself.”   ― Jay Parini, The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy's Last Year

This is a wonderful evocation of Tolstoy's last days, the people surrounding him and the aura created by the event. He was considered not only Russia's greatest living writer, but a powerful religious figure---more revered and beloved than the Tsar. Disciples sought him out on almost a daily basis, yet Tolstoy himself was torn between his aspirations to religious asceticism and his enormous wealth.

Parini captures all the excitement and intrigue of the last days for this literary icon wealthy man who, ironically, had no interest in the very wealth that he had amassed. The story tells of a battle for control of his soul, heart, and money. A battle between his wife and chief adviser, Chertkov. Each chapter in the book is written as if in the first person by six different voices, including Tolstoy himself, Sophia, Vladmir Chertkov (Tolstoy’s companion and promoter of his work) and Tolstoy’s secretary, Valentin Bulgakov. His wife, Sophia, is portrayed showing signs of hysteria and paranoia as she tried to protect her families inheritance from the group of Tolstoyans formed around Vladmir Chertkov, who felt that the great man’s legacy belonged to the world.

The story is based on the real diary of Tolstoy's secretary, Bulgakov, and it reads like a thriller with a denouement when Tolstoy flees toward the Caucasus to, hopefully, die alone. He only gets as far as a stationmaster's house in the small town of Astapovo. There the public gawkers and the press wait for him to die. While it helps to have some familiarity with Tolstoy's earlier years this is still a great read for those who do not. Just as Tolstoy was larger than life as a writer, he becomes, in death, a mythic figure.

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