Wednesday, October 31, 2007
As Winter Draws In...
...I find myself returning to the Russians.
There's a brilliant book Canongate have just rescued from out of printness.
The Last Station by Jay Parini imagines the last year of Tolstoy's life. The count (though by now he has renounced his title) is living his last days surrounded by his family and a circle of adoring acolytes. The great works War and Peace and Anna Karenina have made Tolstoy the most famous author alive in Russia and everywhere he goes he is mobbed by people of all classes. But writing novels now seems secondary to Tolstoy's great project of examining Life and trying to live it in the best possible way.
He says people should abstain from sexual relations and devote themselves to higher things and yet, as his wife Sofya is quick to point out, spent much of his youth whoring and fifty years of marriage failing to abstain himself.
He says all people are equal and that the huge divide between rich and poor in Russian society should be abhorred - but he lives surrounded by luxury in a house in the country.
The picture Parini creates of a great author losing the ability to tell the difference between the real importance of his work and the importance other people attach to it is spot on. Tolstoy was a great writer. But he was also as deluded about himself as anybody and prone to paying too much attention to flattering voices. At the same time his struggle to think clearly and with depth about Life and how it is to be lived is beautifully conveyed. Tolstoy is torn by so many conflicting urges and loyalties that the great man becomes the proof of his own teachings, showing himself to be as ordinary/complex as any human being.
I have read Anna Karenina and The Devil but never managed War and Peace. (Twice I made a brave attempt but was defeated by the multiple names of the multiple characters.) This book convinced me that it's War and Peace for Christmas this year...
Posted by CPMatthew