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...


  1. You will never regret having War and Peace as your Christmas read. I read the new Penguin translation Christmas 2005 and it lasted until February 2006, I didn't want it to end.

    Of course last Christmas for me was dominated by the Glastonbury Romance thanks to you.

    Tolstoy and JCP are going to be hard to beat this year but I thought I might try the 'Brothers Karamazov'. Either that or JCP's 'Weymouth Sands'

  2. Hi Paul - excellent news - can't wait to get stuck in now...

    The Brothers is another I'm saving. I loved Notes From Underground and Crime and Punishment - read both years ago.

    Then I moved onto the Devils and then The Idiot - read both about two years ago.

    The Brothers is supposed to contain the coming together of many of Fyodor's ideas. I love knowing there are these great books out there waiting to be read "don't know where don't know when" but I'll get round to them all (!) one day...

  3. It's funny you said 'As winter draws in...I find myself returning to the Russians'. I feel the same! There is a certain appeal about Russian writing in winter (no prizes for guessing why)...I feel the similarly drawn to Sherlock Holmes too at this time of the year.

    Maybe that's what got me started on Andrey Kurkov and his two books on Misha the Penquin- they are brilliant by the way. And also why I bought N. Gogol's book from you yesterday...

    It's only 3pm but do I feel the sun beginning its descent....brrr...