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The Last Station - Discussion

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I have just finished this novel.

The author has obviously been thorough in his research, digging through all the sources and letters. It must have been quite difficult to meld all this research into an interesting narrative, especially one where it's difficult to have any positive feelings for any of the main characters. By turns one gets aggravated by all the Tolstoyans, most of Tolstoy's family and even Tolstoy himself. Bulgakov is perhaps an exception.

And of course one knows the ending.

The strongest thread and one that kept me going was Sonya with all her unpredictability and 'bad' behaviour. But one could see how she'd be peeved by the constant presence of these acolytes and especially Chertkov. It was difficult, to say the least, in these last years of her married life to feel like a discard. Parini makes a good job of conveying all the tensions at Yasnaya Polyana.

As with all the famous Russian novels the names are sometimes a stumbling block and I had to remind myself time and again of who is who but there's not much the author can do about that.

A decent read on the whole but I can see that a good film version might heighten the atmosphere especially with outdoor scenes of 'Mother Russia'.

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The Last Station was first published in the UK in 2007 and Canongate are reprinting it to tie in with the release of the film version starring James McAvoy, Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer.

 

The story relates the last year of the famous Russian author Leo Tolstoy's life in 1910. By then, Tolstoy was loved in his home land - his written works had been greeted with enthusiasm and his devotion to improving the lot of the working class made him a national hero. Tolstoy had fathered thirteen children with his wife of 48 years by then, and at least one out of wedlock. Crowds of followers worshipped him - he was as close to a celebrity writer as any novelist since. The closing chapter of his life should have been a mellow time, surrounded by his acolytes and loving family, but as Parini's novel shows, it was fraught with tension, mostly because of his histrionic, grasping wife Sofya.

 

Jay Parini has researched his subject meticulously by reading not only biographies of Tolstoy but also the diaries kept by his wife, some of his sons and daughters, his assistant, his personal physician and various close friends. From these he has fashioned a historical novel that, although largely fictional, has its roots very much in fact. Just as Mantel created a fictional world based around the real characters in the court of Henry Vlll in Wolf Hall, Parini has imagined himself into the shoes of those closest to Tolstoy. He even states in the afterword that for the most part when Tolstoy speaks in the novel, Parini has quoted him directly or based his words on events related by Tolstoy's inner circle.

 

The novel is written from the point of view of various characters around Tolstoy, alternating in viewpoint from one to another in subsequent chapters. There is Sofya Andreyevna, 66 years old in 1910 and married to Tolstoy for 48 years. Although the love they felt for each other when they married has never disappeared, it has become distorted and soured by their differing goals. Sofya, the daughter of an eminent physician, is used to a luxurious existence. She is driven almost insane by the thought that her husband may have left his works to the public in his will, thus, as she sees it, robbing her and her children of the copyright money to which she feels entitled. Often melodramatic, her possessiveness, jealousy, greed and acquisitive nature spur her to almost daily outbursts and tantrums. Tolstoy, who turns 82 in 1910, was born into aristocracy but has since become disillusioned with capitalism, the rich-poor divide, the monarchy and the military. He is weary of his wife's eruptions and just wants a quiet life where he can write, talk to his close friends, give money to the poor and philosophize about the point of life. He is as generous and unmaterialistic as his wife is selfish and money-grabbing.

 

There are also chapters from the perpective of others: one of Tolstoy's daughters Sasha, who adores her father and acts as a secretary for him; Bulgakov, Tolstoy's newly hired private secretary who embarks on a love affair with a fellow Tolstoy follower; Chertkov, Tolstoy's closest friend who has a malign urge to know everything about him; and Makovitsky, Tolstoy's personal physician. There are also extracts from Tolstoy's letters to various luminaries including Gandhi and George Bernard Shaw.

 

Tolstoy comes across as a concerned, guilt-ridden man much like Britain's George Orwell circa Down and Out in Paris and London. Tolstoy berates himself for being cocooned in wealth, though unlike Orwell, his attempts to live a spartan life like the peasants for whom he feels so much sympathy are largely thwarted by his shrieking wife who rails at him whenever he gives money or possessions away or when he attempts to leave home. The closest he comes to slumming it until the very last few weeks of his life is taking third class train carriages amidst heaving crowds.

 

A vivid picture emerges of Russia in the years leading to the Revolution - the chasm between haves and have-nots, the discontent, the imperious lack of concern of most wealthy land-owners, including some of Tolstoy's own children such as Andrey and Ilya.

 

Parini manages to make the novel convincing but also entertaining. The light touches and humour are omnipresent, whether it is Bulgakov grimly noticing that Chertkov 'always seemed to be suppressing a burp' or noting of him that 'although I very much admired him, liking him would require an act of will,'; Bulgakov likening the deflated Dr Makovitsky to 'a muffin that, having been mixed with too much yeast,expands beyond its natural limits before collapsing into itself'; or Sasha cattily assessing her goody-two-shoes sister Tanya as 'my saintly sister...She is like a bucket in search of a fire.' Sasha is refreshingly frank about several people - she describes her mother as being 'impossible, positively bleeding with jealousy and bourgeois rancor. Weeping, preening in the mirror, prowling about the house all night like a crazed animal!' When the exhausted Sofya collapses after getting incensed about Chertkov and is carried to her room by two servants, Sasha sketches the satisfyingly undignified picture of her 'swinging between them like a large hammock.' Even Sofya herself is capable of wickedly bitchy comments, noting that Sasha's friend Varvara 'has the sensitivity of a granite monument' and 'shed a few lightly manufactured tears.' Perhaps the ubiquity of this wit is spread too far by Parini - it's hard to believe the insight-free, egocentric, rather stupid wife is capable of such caustic and sharp observations.

 

Sofya is the most glorious creation, part screeching monster, part object of contemptuous pity. Her views on the working-class are the polar opposite of her husband's: while he sees them as noble people broughto to heel by cicumstance, she either glosses over their suffering, viewing them as 'long symmetrical bands of muzhiks, bending over their work in happy unison,' or viciously judges them: 'typical hypocrisy of the Russian lower classes', 'stinking, uncouth disciples: insane noblemen, beggars who are proud of their fallen state, toothless nuns, idealistic students, revolutionaries, criminals, vegetarians, foreigners.' Her crazed hysterical fits are simultaneously chilling and hilarious - although it's disturbing to envisage a middle-aged mother hurling herself into the pond to try and drown, the thought of her hiding in a ditch with binoculars to try and spy on her weary husband raises a delicious snicker.

 

Underneath the sharp characterisation is a prescient view of the circumstances that would lead to political upheaval in a few years' time. Although Tolstoy himself believed that violent revolution could only lead to chaos and even worse conditions for the poor, it is only one small step from the dire, crowded, dirty conditions in which the poor lived to the seething, hissing discontent that would bring down the Tsar.

 

The Last Station is an entertaining and informative novel about the closing year in the life of a highly esteemed Russian writer and thinker, knitting his respectable public and tumultous personal lives. It is also an insightful glance into the climate that led to Revolution, the overthrow of the Tsar and the advent of communism.

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Wow. You didn't think much of Sofya did you leyla?

 

Hee hee! I think it takes talent to produce a plausible villain. She wasn't 'evil' in the way James Bond villains are, in their cardboard 2D way - I could understand the motives behind her histrionics and even have some sympathy with them. After all, if you've been cossetted in luxury all your life, the prospect of not having vast amounts of money is probably very frightening. I bet Helen Mirren plays her beautifully in the film version.

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See I really sympathised with Sofya. I totally understood her motivation and her need to provide for her family.

 

For me she wasn't the villain. I'm struggling to remember, was it Chertkov or his publisher?

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Yes, Chertkov was sly and menacing in his urge to have Bulgakov spy on Tolstoy. It was unclear to me exactly why he wanted Bulgakov to keep those secret diaries about Tolstoy, but I was very glad Bulgakov didn't comply. I wonder if that was a fictional element or if there was something in the diaries that Parini read which suggested that Chertkov had asked Bulgakov to spy on Tolstoy for him.

Tolstoy's love for Chertkov was a bit mystifying - he seemed to hold him so much dearer than anyone else.

As far as Sofya goes, I might have sympathised with her uncertainty about her financial future if she had gone about things in a calm, honest way but she seemed manipulative with her beseeching and imploring, her constant pawing at her husband: if she had really loved him she would have accepted his views and at least sought to compromise on the copyright. And she threw money away on needless luxuries - if she had just wanted enough to live on it would have been different, but while millions of people were starving she would do frivolous things like hire an entire train. And her hissy fits and amateur dramatics when she didn't get her own way were just deplorable - it was obvious she was harming her husband's health by causing him stress but she was too selfish/egocentric to moderate her behaviour.

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An interesting read, though not one I would ever go back to. I found it extremely bitty with all the different perspectives on the saintly Tolstoy. And of course one spends half one's time working out who's who, whether Masha is the servant or a deceased sister of Sashas, whether Sonya and Sofya are the same person, and what the initials mean. The narrative style didn't seem to alter either when we move from one perspective to another. The onlookers all speak so perfectly in standard prose.

 

As for sympathy, well, Sonya-Sofya is a harridan, but she makes a good contrast with so many of the other Tolstoy worshippers. Tolstoy himself, though old and ailing, rather annoyed me. As a good man in a materialistic world his tolerance and sympathy for others who are using him for their own purposes seemed too Christlike for me.

 

On the whole I feel all the meticulous research somehow militated against rewarding fiction. I could never settle and really get inside any one character before having to move on with scraps of letters or diaries. The Bulkakov love story was just a movie tid-bit, if you know what I mean.

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nonsuch, I agree that it would have been a good contrast to have the narrative style differ from one character to the next. They all seemed graced with the same eloquence and wit. And you're right, having two Mashas, one deceased and one alive, took a bit of working out as did the various names, especially not knowing whether given names were forenames or surnames and hence working out why Bulgakov was never addressed as such, with the same convention holding for all the other characters.

 

I think that although it wasn't a particularly light or buoyant read, the facts I learned about Tolstoy will remain with me for a long time. I knew little about him other than his authorship of his most famous novels before I read this book.

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An interesting read, though not one I would ever go back to. I found it extremely bitty with all the different perspectives on the saintly Tolstoy. And of course one spends half one's time working out who's who, whether Masha is the servant or a deceased sister of Sashas, whether Sonya and Sofya are the same person, and what the initials mean. The narrative style didn't seem to alter either when we move from one perspective to another. The onlookers all speak so perfectly in standard prose.

 

As for sympathy, well, Sonya-Sofya is a harridan, but she makes a good contrast with so many of the other Tolstoy worshippers. Tolstoy himself, though old and ailing, rather annoyed me. As a good man in a materialistic world his tolerance and sympathy for others who are using him for their own purposes seemed too Christlike for me.

 

On the whole I feel all the meticulous research somehow militated against rewarding fiction. I could never settle and really get inside any one character before having to move on with scraps of letters or diaries. The Bulkakov love story was just a movie tid-bit, if you know what I mean.

I have yet to finish this book but I'd agree with every word of that, Nonsuch. Just to add that I am convinced that Sonya-Sofya is mentally ill with no recourse to treatment and that explains much of her behaviour.

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I really must read this again because I don't agree with any of your views about Sofya. For me she is the most sympathetic character in the book. I either have an even poorer memory than I thought or I am totally wrong... again. :)

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I really just read this again because I don't agree with any of your views of Sofya. For me she is the most sympathetic character in the book. I either have an even poorer memory than I thought or I am totally wrong... again. :)

 

That shows the subjectivity of 'truth', doesn't it, tagesmann, just as Coetzee's Summertime did. One person's interpretation of facts and events can be so different from another person's. We all experience life as it relates to us, and I can see how frustrating Tolstoy's determination to give money to the poor must have been for a woman used to the finer things in life and with (unsurprisingly for the times) no means of earning money herself.

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... and I can see how frustrating Tolstoy's determination to give money to the poor must have been for a woman used to the finer things in life and with (unsurprisingly for the times) no means of earning money herself.
I don't think that it was just that, although Sofya/Sonya was entitled to a little luxury imho, but they also had thirteen children and she seemed to be the only one who was concerned for their future - they weren't all earning and, as you point out about women earning, Leyla, they weren't all boys.

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I don't think that it was just that, although Sofya/Sonya was entitled to a little luxury imho, but they also had thirteen children and she seemed to be the only one who was concerned for their future - they weren't all earning and, as you point out about women earning, Leyla, they weren't all boys.

 

Hmm, but they were almost all adult. This opens up the interesting topic of whether children should expect financial help from their parents. I tend to think Tolstoy's money was earned by him and that although he had a duty to make sure his wife was reasonably provided for, his children were no longer his responsibility.

But then, others may differ in whether or not children can expect money from their parents after adulthood. In my experience, people who have been bought luxuries by their parents throughout their childhoods and into adulthood turn out to be spoilt and have an entitled attitude. I think you can never give children too much love but you *can* give them too many material goods. Most people who I love are people who have worked their own way in the world, earned their own money from a youngish age and never expected their parents to support them as adults. And I know people who are wonderful individuals but who have given their kids everything they ever desired from a material point of vie, and the kids have turned out to be tantrum-throwing brats.

 

NB I think it wouldn't have been reasonable to expect Sofya, a mother of thirteen, to go out and start earning her own keep - especially in those times - but the adult male offspring could work and the adult female offspring would marry men who worked. Especially given that Tolstoy was a national hero and his children would therefore be seen as real 'catches'.

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Hmm, but they were almost all adult. This opens up the interesting topic of whether children should expect financial help from their parents. I tend to think Tolstoy's money was earned by him and that although he had a duty to make sure his wife was reasonably provided for, his children were no longer his responsibility.

But then, others may differ in whether or not children can expect money from their parents after adulthood. In my experience, people who have been bought luxuries by their parents throughout their childhoods and into adulthood turn out to be spoilt and have an entitled attitude. I think you can never give children too much love but you *can* give them too many material goods. Most people who I love are people who have worked their own way in the world, earned their own money from a youngish age and never expected their parents to support them as adults. And I know people who are wonderful individuals but who have given their kids everything they ever desired from a material point of vie, and the kids have turned out to be tantrum-throwing brats.

Valid points, but I think that it's another thread.

 

NB I think it wouldn't have been reasonable to expect Sofya, a mother of thirteen, to go out and start earning her own keep - especially in those times - but the adult male offspring could work and the adult female offspring would marry men who worked. Especially given that Tolstoy was a national hero and his children would therefore be seen as real 'catches'.
In the context of the epoch of the book, yes, the adult males would go out to work and the adult females would be married off as inkeeping with the times they were living in. However, I still don't think it's unreasonable for Sofya to be concerned with her childrens future. And what's unreasonable, given the time period, about expecting to inherit? Adult or not they are still her children and it's clear from the book, imho, that she's becoming increasingly unhinged. Anyway, not all thirteen children were mentioned so we don't know what happened to all of them. Perhaps Leo was more worried about how to distribute his fortune fairly amongst such a large brood and decided that it was just more easier to give it all away.

 

Further more, the adult female children would be seen as real catches because of their father's fortune, not who he was.

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Yes, it's a complicated area, Luna. I agree that the family may have felt a real sense of betrayal at Tolstoy's actions. Even if they didn't actually need the money, they would be fearful about the threat of being poor in the future, however unlikely that was.

It sounds like he was a very absolute man who was determined to follow his ethics. Perhaps he was made more resolute by the fact that he felt guilty about contuning to life with Sofya in their beautiful, luxurious home (until the weeks immediately before his death, when he left.)

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Yes, it's a complicated area, Luna. I agree that the family may have felt a real sense of betrayal at Tolstoy's actions. Even if they didn't actually need the money, they would be fearful about the threat of being poor in the future, however unlikely that was.

It sounds like he was a very absolute man who was determined to follow his ethics. Perhaps he was made more resolute by the fact that he felt guilty about contuning to life with Sofya in their beautiful, luxurious home (until the weeks immediately before his death, when he left.)

Sorry Leyla, I've only just seen this!

 

I got the impression from the book that Sofya was the only one that was interested in Tolstoy's will and that was from the point of view of securing her children's future and his legacy. She made it very clear that she didn't trust anybody with Tolstoy's work and wanted to deal with it herself. She also made it clear that she had no objection to the lesser works being made available to the public for free but that the major works - War and Peace, Anna Karenina etc - should be copyrighted to her and her children, so a suitable compromise from her it seems.

 

This book has stayed with me and I'm glad that I read it.

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