BOOK REVIEW / Count, cult and counter-culture: 'The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy's Last Year' - Jay Parini: HarperCollins, 14.99

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHEN Count Leo Tolstoy was young and wild, he gambled away the central part of his enormous family home in a card game, and the winner actually carted off the middle of the structure, leaving two wings standing awkwardly apart. The reader can be forgiven for jumping up and down shouting 'Symbol] symbol]': early in Jay Parini's bio-fic of the last year of Tolstoy's life,

we are aware of an absence at the heart

of things.

By 1910, at the age of 82, Tolstoy had become one of the first media superstars, so powerful that even the irate tsar, who regularly exiled and imprisoned his followers for seditious thinking, would not dare touch him. His tenets of chastity and poverty were absurdly at odds with his luxurious life, his past womanising and his 13 children, but this didn't deter hundreds of thousands of disciples. Dozens of them lived at Yasnaya Polyana or nearby, while hundreds more thronged the gates. Visitors, reporters and photographers passed through daily; the house had become a guru-circus and a centre of bitter rivalry and intrigue.

The mother of battles raged between the Tolstoyans and Tolstoy's miserable wife Sofya. By now, her main concern was to prevent her husband giving his copyrights away 'to the people' (he was happy to impose virtuous poverty on his family after he died). She cracked under the strain; confused and sick, Tolstoy decided to leave home, and collapsed and died at a remote railway station on the way to nowhere.

Jay Parini builds these strange events to their pathetic climax by alternating the 'diary' accounts of secretaries, acolytes, Tolstoy's doctor, the countess and one of their daughters (who sided against her mother). Apart from the insertion of a couple of very bad poems by Parini himself, the diary form he uses is apt, since Tolstoy was, all his life, a master in the art of wielding a journal as a deadly weapon. But Parini doesn't allow us so much as a peep at these, and it is only from Sofya's account that we learn of a diary Tolstoy had hidden in the toe of a boot, or how, on their engagement, he handed his innocent fiancee detailed diaries of his whoring expeditions, his peasant mistress and resentful illegitimate son. His followers must have been fast learners: in Parini's account, one exiled deputy enlists a new secretary to send him, covertly, a weekly journal of events at Yasnaya Polyana; another sits at the family dinner table scribbling openly. 'For all I know,' Sofya notes bitterly, 'even the parlour maids are keeping diaries.'

But where, in this throng of vivid voices, is the Grand Old Monster himself? Parini gives us a few letters (real ones), but weaving actual quotations by Tolstoy into fictional dialogue creates only a wooden figure of gnomic utterances. This won't do: we expect Parini to come good on some pressing questions. Was Tolstoy too beatifically self-obsessed to notice all this intrigue, for instance? Was he saintly or self-interested, prophet or charlatan? In a novel that starts ploddingly but finally picks up speed, it is Sofya, not Leo, who comes to life.