Following the release of The Last Station, the new movie on the final days of Tolstoy starring Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, it seems appropriate to consider the novel of the same name on which it’s based. It’s not without interest that the advance proof copy for the book’s latest edition I read stated “Major new movie in production starring Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep,” but that just goes to show how movies sell books.
One of the characteristics of the 19th century was the way its major artists were treated as gurus, or leaders of new movements. Wagner had his tribe of Wagnerites, and societies were set up all over the UK to work out the philosophy concealed in the poems of Robert Browning. But this tendency was nowhere more pronounced that with Tolstoy, the supreme Russian novelist who, in later life, developed a philosophy of pacifism, vegetarianism, self-sufficiency and compassion of which there had been little foretaste in his most celebrated novels. Tolstoyan communities dedicated to these principles were set up all over the world, and a non-violent Tolstoyism became an international philosophy influencing men as diverse as Mahatma Gandhi and, arguably, Martin Luther King.
How to relate this late-life guru status with the novels written in middle age by an aristocrat who had spent a lot of time as an army officer has always been problematic. The most brilliant solution was offered by the historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin, who stumbled on an ancient Greek inscription “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” He quickly started dividing famous writers into foxes and hedgehogs, and came to the conclusion in Tolstoy’s case that he was by nature a fox, but one who thought he ought to be a hedgehog. Thus the man who in his greatest novels had displayed an understanding of a huge variety of human beings, without committing himself to overly praising or condemning any of them, turned into a visionary who thought all men should adhere to one overwhelming and redeeming philosophy.
Jay Parini has constructed an intriguing novel featuring the 82-year-old Tolstoy on his country estate of Yasnaya Polyana surrounded by scheming acolytes and even more problematic family members. The main contention is between his wife, Sofya Andreyevna, who wants to keep his legacy within the family, and outsiders, who essentially have the support of the great man himself, who want his manuscripts and works to be freely available to all mankind.
But Tolstoy himself is riven with doubts. Becoming more and more convinced that it was unjust for him to exist in comparative luxury while the peasants in the surrounding countryside wanted for basic necessities, the real-life Tolstoy one day walked out of his home and caught a train (traveling in the cheapest class), intent on embarking on a new life as a penniless mendicant. The fact that he was known and recognized by just about everyone in Russia didn’t deter him. Unfortunately, however, his health was very poor, and before long he died at Astapovo railway station, the “last station” of the book’s title.
Parini organizes his material into chapters and shorter sections, each narrated by a different character. Most sections are imagined, but there are also real letters and diary excerpts, including one important letter from Tolstoy to Gandhi. I was slightly perplexed, however, when coming across some poems attributed to “J.P.,” and couldn’t be sure which character this represented. Then I suddenly realized it was the author himself, Jay Parini, who’d visited the woods through which Tolstoy had often walked and recorded his impressions in verse.