The Last Station is a fictionalised account of the last year in the life of Leo Tolstoy, and as can be seen from the cover, the books has recently been filmed with actors Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer. The book was first published in 1990 and I assume its been re-published to tie in with the film.
Having just read The Diaries of Sophia Tolstoy, I was interested to read this book. I have no doubt that the author, Jay Parini, did a huge amount of research and background reading in order to recreate these events in the form of a novel, and in many ways it is convincing but also contains some incongruities that rather spoilt the experience for me.
Each chapter in the book is written as if in the first person by six different voices, including Tolstoy himself, Sophia, Vladmir Chertkov (Tolstoy’s companion and promoter of his work) and Tolstoy’s secretary, Valentin Bulgakov (the latter show with Tolstoy in this rather good photograph).
The book has a good dramatic flow and kept my attention throughout. My quibbles are in the distortion that arises from focusing on one year only when so much has gone before which the reader needs to know in order to understand the context. Jay Parini’s focus on the present moment will not really give the reader a rounded view of these events, although they undoubtedly make a good story.
By 1910, the Tolstoy marriage was long past its “best before” date. Sophia Tolstoy was showing signs of hysteria and paranoia as she tried to protect her families inheritance from the group of Tolstoyans formed around Vladmir Chertkov, who felt that the great man’s legacy belonged to the world. For many years she had had to contend with hundreds of Tolstoy acolytes passing through the house to worship at the great man’s feet, while she had to cope with the demands of Leo’s large family and the practicalities of running a large estate. The Last Station focuses on Sophia’s dysfunctions and tends to present a rather one-sided picture of her.
Occasionally I found the language which Parini puts in the mouths of his characters rather incongruous in that he tends to use modern expressions which just don’t sound authentic. For example, Chapter 23 has Sophia Tolstoy saying things like:
“I don’t find it amusing. I find it sick”.
“The ungrateful bitch”
“In the past he affected great concern when what he really wanted was sex”.
Perhaps its just me, but I find these not quite right somehow, and there are plenty more in the same vein. For me, the best exponent of fictionalised history is Beryl Bainbridge, who manages to bring rather more credibility (and style and wit) to the proceedings than Jay Parini. Last years Booker prize contender, Adam Fould’s The Quickening Maze (about poet John Clare) also showed how better this type of exercise can be done.
I can’t help but feel that the author had a later film script in mind. He has Sophia speculating that the 78 year old Tolstoy was having homosexual romps with his assistant Chertkov. We read of a lengthy developing romance throughout the book between Bulgakov and another staff member. And the book is full of dramatic incidents such as Sophia throwing herself into a pond to try to drown herself. Its all so very visual you can see how easy it was to turn it into a film.
I think the book would be good book group material – and anyone who knows a little about Tolstoy’s life and works would have find plenty to say about it. My wife’s book group is currently struggling through Mill on the Floss, and perhaps The Last Station would be a good choice for the next book – it would be rather less dense and would provide much to discuss.
On the whole, I would think it would make a better film than a book and the early views on IMDB suggest that Helen Mirren could be set for another Oscar for her performance as Sophia