On the road with my Bloodhound, it’s hard to think of anything else. Apart from trying to work out what my next book might be about.
Time then to revisit a conversation that’s from my ABC Radio National Book Show from 11th October 2007. What fun.
Ramona Koval: Jay Parini’s book The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Last Year was published to great acclaim in 1990. It concerned the final year in the life of the great Russian writer as he was surrounded by some of his family, some of his acolytes, his secretary and others. While his wife Sophia was concerned that he leave his estate to her and the kids, he is torn between her demands, his duty as a husband and father, his obligations to his followers and to his philosophical and religious beliefs.
The book is about to re-released to coincide with a film starring Anthony Hopkins as Tolstoy and Meryl Streep as Mrs Tolstoy. The filming will be taking place in Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate 100 miles south of Moscow. The author was born there in 1828, and after his marriage to Sophia Behrs in 1862 he returned and lived there for another 48 years.
Jay Parini is a poet, a professor of English at Middlebury College in Vermont, and a critic as well as a novelist. His non-fiction works include biographies of John Steinbeck, Robert Frost and William Faulkner. He was the editor of the Oxford Encyclopaedia of American Literature in 2004. And Jay Parini joins us from his home in Vermont in the USA. Welcome to The Book Show Jay.
Jay Parini: Thank you, Ramona, it’s fun to be on the radio here in Australia.
Ramona Koval: It’s quite a year, that last one, for the 82-year-old Tolstoy. It’s 1910, and it’s not giving away too much to say that this old man ran away from home.
Jay Parini: Everything seemed to be converging on him in one fell swoop. Here’s a man who had devoted himself to writing and then suddenly he becomes a religious convert and he believes that one should be chaste. He preached absolute chastity and he preached poverty. He thought that one should essentially give all ones earthly possessions to God, and there he is living in this great estate, he’s a Lord, he’s got 1,000 serfs, he’s got 13 children, he’s got a rather aggressive and difficult and wonderful wife, and he can’t control his sexual impulses, he’s got lots of mistresses, he’s got 30 servants waiting on him and in many ways he feels that his life is something of a contradiction.
Ramona Koval: He’s conflicted, as they would say.
Jay Parini: He’s conflicted. It’s a problem I wouldn’t mind having, but still…
Ramona Koval: And it’s all very well for him to preach chastity but he’s kind of had a completely unchaste life up until then.
Jay Parini: He hasn’t been very chaste, no. If you read his diaries, he would put stars in his diaries for when he, shall we say, failed to live up to the level of chastity that he preached.
Ramona Koval: So it was star-covered, was it?
Jay Parini: It was star-covered, and he would sometimes write ‘failed once again’, he would fail. And of course he’s 82 by now, you’d think he could control himself, but it’s not easy.
Ramona Koval: Try again, fail again, fail better. Would it be true to say that almost no other great 20th century writer had a life that was so extensively documented as Tolstoy’s was?
Jay Parini: He never woke up in the morning that there wasn’t a gang of reporters sitting outside waiting for him. They were photographing him. Even his death…the dramatic last scene in my novel, which I won’t give away, was photographed by one of the first Pathe news camera teams, and in fact there were 200 reporters there on his death bed. So every moment of Tolstoy’s life was dramatically chronicled by Tolstoy. I really actually wrote this novel because I realised…I started reading a lot of Tolstoy’s last year and I realised everybody in the Tolstoy household-his 26-year-old apprentice secretary, his best friend and publisher, his wife, his daughter Sophia who was a lesbian, his doctor Dushan Makovitsky-they were all keeping diaries. So I just became curious and I got hold of all these diaries, and I read them in tandem and I thought, oh my word, it’s like a [unclear] novel, you know, different points of view.
Ramona Koval: How did you begin to use the texts that were available to you? How did you imagine the great Tolstoy’s language and speech and whether his words to himself in his diary would have been similar to how he spoke to his family?
Jay Parini: Because all of these…I had really a dozen diaries of people recording what went on every day and recording his conversations. Frequently these conversations overlapped and so I got a real sense of how Tolstoy actually talked, to his servants, to his best friends and to his wife and children. Of course it’s a novel so it’s a work of imagination, and I felt I was able to work my way imaginatively into Tolstoy. I tell the book from multiple points of view, I think there are six or seven viewpoints. Anytime Tolstoy speaks, though, like every once in a while there’s a passage of Tolstoy’s and it’s actually from his own writings, I didn’t make that up, I never tried to write from Tolstoy’s point of view, he’s the only character…he’s kind of like the centre of the novel who has never spoken, everybody else is talking and quoting Tolstoy but I didn’t dare write in the voice of Leo Tolstoy.
Ramona Koval: And you used some of his letters too though, don’t you.
Jay Parini: Yes, lots of his letters and they’re real letters. So the novel is, I think, factually accurate in every imaginable way. The book has been around for 17 years now and scholars have written to me and people have talked to me and it’s been translated now into I think nearly 30 languages. So let’s say it’s stood at least the test of the short time, and people have thought that it does a pretty good job of creating the Tolstoyan scene.
Ramona Koval: Let’s talk about the test of time because the focus is on the marriage that Tolstoy makes with Sophia who is much younger than him who admires him at first and helps him in the early years, but they become…
Jay Parini: She was helping him rewrite War and Peace for goodness sake, she was at his side at every moment, his secretary and best friend and critic and reader and lover and mother of his children and manager of his finances and so forth.
Ramona Koval: So how do you see the development of their relationship to that last year where she is just off her head, she’s furious with him, she’s attempting suicide all the time, they have a very sort of angry relationship with each other and he seems like an old man who’s being hounded by this woman.
Jay Parini: He had changed so dramatically. He was always a bit of a fanatic and a religious fanatic. I’m sympathetic to that. I think he had a deep spiritual sense, and I think he felt the contradictions in his life early on and he realised that in fact the material things in life are ephemeral, they pass away and one should live ultimately for spiritual values. It was hard, and as he grew older he became more conscious of this contradiction and he became less tolerant of his wife. I think by the time he’s 82 years old he can’t stand it any longer, and he just wants to break free, he wants to go out on the road like a wandering Buddhist monk and beg for alms and give up all worldly goods, and his wife is having none of this, she wants to change the curtains and put in some new rugs and have better food and wine…
Ramona Koval: And she’s really canny about his copyright, isn’t she, and she doesn’t want him to change his will. She only really has access to his copyright up to a certain time.
Jay Parini: Sure, she thought she should have all the copyright. I mean, she’s the wife and he’s going to die soon and this is where the money was. The money was in War and Peace and Anna Karenina and all the great works. It’s hard to imagine how famous Tolstoy was in his day. Only Tolstoy and the Tsar has this much power in Russia of the moment, and Tolstoy was immensely popular worldwide, and so there was money to be had. The expenses were mounting and to keep up a big estate was running the whole family deeply into the red, and so Sophia was panicking, with all these children and servants and so forth.
Ramona Koval: Let’s talk about her for a moment because I just saw a new book that’s been published or it was reviewed in the literary review coming out of London, Song Without Words: The Photographs and Diaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy by Leah Bendavid-Val, published by the National Geographic Society, and apparently Leah Bendavid-Val found all these black and white photographs in the archives of the State Museum of LN Tolstoy in 2000. So Sophia was actually taking a lot of photographs, and the implication of the review (I haven’t read the book) is that she saw her own artistic development in photography. What do you say about that?
Jay Parini: I knew that she was interested in photography and it was of course a young form of art in those days, and a lot of people were constantly around Tolstoy snapping pictures. There are volumes and volumes of pictures of Tolstoy and his friends and his family, and what it was like to go on a picnic with Tolstoy and his grandchildren and Sophia cooking the meal…I mean, this life was documented every second of the day. So it doesn’t surprise me that Sophia was involved in this and taking pictures. I didn’t know about this until recently, and I’ll be very keen to see these pictures in the book, it sounds wonderful.
Ramona Koval: And it will be very interesting to see whether she saw herself as an artist.
Jay Parini: Yes, I’m surprised by that. But if you read her letters and diaries she was a profoundly intelligent and sophisticated woman. Of course she knew all the intellectuals of the day, Chekhov and so forth, they were always hanging around the house.
Ramona Koval: Although the other people hanging around, the acolytes around Tolstoy implied that she was just not fit to be the wife of a genius.
Jay Parini: But they worshiped Tolstoy, they thought he was practically God, and he thought he was God, that’s the other thing, so this is a tremendous egotist, possibly a bit of a sublime egotist, as Wordsworth would have said.
Ramona Koval: Jay, Sophia accuses him…he called her Sonya sometimes, doesn’t he…
Jay Parini: Yes, but ‘Sophia’ is probably correct. He switched back and forth between Sonya and Sophia.
Ramona Koval: Right, so that’s why I’m a bit confused. She accuses him of betraying her with his friend who she implies is his homosexual lover. What was the truth of that?
Jay Parini: I think Tolstoy, like a lot of great artists, was somewhat sexually omnivorous, and I think it’s almost certain that he occasionally had had…there’s no doubt about it, he talks about it in his diaries, he slept with men occasionally throughout his life, so it’s not a surprise that she picked up on some of this. And I certainly think by the age of 82 he was no longer…I don’t think, frankly, he was ever involved sexually with his main disciple Chertkov but she was jealous of Chertkov, and then began to imagine that her 82-year-old husband…remember, this was in 1910 and if you’re 82 in Russia in 1910 it’s like being 110 nowadays, and the idea that he’d be having sex with Chertkov is ridiculous. Early in his life he’d had some sexual flings with men but that’s a very small part of his life, tiny, and Sophia was just being crazy.
Ramona Koval: Chertkov doesn’t sound like my idea of a nice bloke either.
Jay Parini: Chertkov was an absolute puritan. In America he would have been a kind of fierce puritan preacher somewhere, wearing a black suit and very dark, giving sermons about doom and gloom and judgement. He was a very fierce, unrelenting, unhappy man who fixed on Tolstoy as the saviour and thought that Tolstoyanism…and Tolstoyanim became a kind of religion. Tolstoy was surrounded by disciples, there was a whole…
Ramona Koval: And what were the features of being a Tolstoyan?
Jay Parini: To be a Tolstoyan you first of all read the works of the master and try to attune yourself to his texts and his sayings, but mainly you believe in vegetarianism, you simply would never eat a living thing. You have sex with preferably no one but certainly not outside of marriage, but for the most part Tolstoyans were chaste.
Ramona Koval: How did they expect to procreate?
Jay Parini: It’s sort of like the Shakers in New England; eventually they dwindled to the happy few and then the unhappy fewer and finally there’s no Shakers left.
Ramona Koval: So they leave a lot of chairs around.
Jay Parini: They left a lot of nice furniture. And so this was a sexless puritanical group, but they were a little ‘happy clappy’ as they say in England and they sat around singing a few odd songs and they read the Bible and they commented on it and they ate their vegetables and grew their own vegetables and they didn’t believe in the material world, they were very anti-materialist, very spiritual. So there were many wonderful sides to them.
Ramona Koval: Jay Parini, tell me about Tolstoy’s relationship with other greats of the age, because you have in your book letters that he wrote to Ghandi and to George Bernard Shaw…
Jay Parini: All real letters. He was in correspondence with the great George Bernard Shaw who looked at Tolstoy as one of his intellectual fathers and heroes. Ghandi from India, he was in South Africa then, he writes to see in Tolstoy’s writings the way toward non-violent resistance. In many ways Tolstoy came up with all these ideas. Tolstoy was a profound thinker. If you read his essays, they’re spiritually very powerful. There’s an essay, for example, called ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’, which I think is as profound as anything I’ve ever read. He certainly was a social visionary and preached a kind of socialism and believed in the broad social good. He was a very, very advanced thinker for his time. Non-violence was one of his main ideas.
Ramona Koval: He had a critique of Shakespeare though.
Jay Parini: He really hated Shakespeare, he wrote an essay against Shakespeare because he thought that Shakespeare was utterly frivolous and that there was nothing in Shakespeare that was ever going to change society for the better.
Ramona Koval: How did he get this idea?
Jay Parini: First of all he just read Shakespeare’s plays and thought it’s all very frivolous, these people are making witty remarks, there’s nothing here that’s going to increase the social good or welfare. Shakespeare never has a lesson that he’s preaching. Tolstoy was an ultimate believer in…he saw that art for art’s sake was ridiculous. He thought that art should be put to the use of the social good, which is why Tolstoy beautifully prefigures the kind of Marxist idea that all art should be put in the service of the state. Tolstoy would largely have agreed if he believed in the state. A little depressing about him in some ways.
Ramona Koval: Yes, when he was dying he seemed to be surrounded by people wanting him to give quotes about God and taxes and the Henry George League.
Jay Parini: Yes, that’s right, the single tax idea. Even as he’s dying he’s making these great pronouncements. The English poet WH Auden used to play a wonderful game called ‘purgatory mates’ and he used to imagine who would be the worst people to be linked in arms marching through purgatory for eternity, and I think he would have put Tolstoy with someone like Oscar Wilde. It would have been a very unpleasant walk.
Ramona Koval: Because they would have driven each other mad?
Jay Parini: The would have driven each other crazy, absolutely.
Ramona Koval: Because Tolstoy was such a puritan and Oscar Wilde wasn’t taking life seriously enough, or something, and being full of bon mots or something?
Jay Parini: That’s right, making bon mots, witty remarks, not thinking about the poor. Tolstoy, you have to give him credit, he really did think about the poor, really worried about the situation in Russia and the world, and especially violence. He’s been through the Crimean War…early on, I forget where, there was a great war he was in, and he writes about all these wars and he knew battle, he knew the brutality of battle, and he was a pacifist. That was one of the things about him that I most admire myself. He understood that whenever you go to war a lot of people get killed and it’s very painful for most people and it almost never comes out for the good.
Ramona Koval: As he’s dying, people are reading him things. Who are the authors that he’s hearing?
Jay Parini: On his death bed, you know, it’s interesting, the main writer he was reading on his death bed was Rousseau, and Tolstoy was very interested in educational theories. A bit like Wittgenstein who went off to become an elementary school teacher, Tolstoy started a school for young children and he wrote textbooks for young children. He was very interested in educational theory and thought a lot about how one should be teaching people things. So he was reading Rousseau on education as he was dying. Tolstoy also read everything. What’s really fun is that he actually, in middle age, learned Koine Greek so that he could personally read the New Testament. Then he decided that the New Testament was all wrong, it was obviously written by many, many different people, there was no Mathew, Mark, Luke or John but there were all these different authors and different textual traditions blending together, sometimes rather haphazardly. So Tolstoy wrote this wonderful book called The Four Gospels Harmonised and Restored (Thoms Jefferson did much the same), but he went through it and he took out all the supernatural bits. He said, come on, Jesus never would have turned water into wine or walked on the water or made blind people see. So he went through and turned Jesus into a kind of humanistic philosopher, and this was the Jesus of his preaching.
Ramona Koval: Isn’t that interesting.
Jay Parini: Yes, isn’t that fun. He was a hardworking guy. I mean, imagine learning Koine Greek just so you could redo the gospels.
Ramona Koval: Isn’t it interesting that a novelist like him would have taken out the imaginative bits, even if he thought they were not real, the story bits of Jesus that people most like.
Jay Parini: It’s the bits I like, I like the miracles.
Ramona Koval: That’s right. Let’s talk about biography versus novels because…
Jay Parini: I’ve done both, I’ve written biographies…first I did John Steinbeck, then I did mainly Robert Frost and more recently William Faulkner, but I’ve written these two biographical novels of my seven novels, and one is about Tolstoy, another one is about the life Walter Benjamin, the great German Jewish intellectual who was chased by the Nazis over the Pyrenees and committed suicide when he was caught.
Ramona Koval: So another flight novel.
Jay Parini: Another flight novel. Some of my friends deride me and say I’m very attracted to old men dying and so forth, I like to write about them at the end of their lives. But I’m interested in lives and I’m interested in fiction. I’m very close friends with the English writer Peter Ackroyd, we’ve been friends for years, and I once said to Peter, ‘Peter, you’ve written a dozen novels and you’ve written a dozen biographies (Dickens, TS Eliot, William Blake). What’s the difference, would you say, between your novels and your biographies?’ And Peter said to me, ‘Oh well, you see, in the novels I have to really tell the truth but in the biographies I just make it up.’
Ramona Koval: What does that mean really though?
Jay Parini: What it really means is that Peter is acknowledging the core fact there, that there is a thing called narrative and you’re creating essentially a narrative and you’re telling a story, and whether you’re calling it a biography or calling it a novel, you’re shaping, you’re essentially involved in fiction. The word ‘fiction’ comes from a Latin word fictia which means to shape, shaping, and that means you’re putting in some things and leaving out other things. You’re creating something by being very selective. You do this whether you’re writing a biography or whether you’re writing a novel.
Ramona Koval: Sure, but you have to make the choice about which path you want to go down. And what informs that choice? Is it a matter of what’s available to you, or what tickles your imagination?
Jay Parini: You can get at a version of truth more easily in a novel. For example, in The Last Station I have a scene towards the end where Sophia Tolstoy is contemplating suicide. We know that on August 10th 1910 Sophia Tolstoy, for one reason or another, went out and sat for three hours by the pond in back of her house and then threw herself into the pond to try to drown herself. She was seen by one of the servants and then she was rescued. If you’re writing a biography you can say no more than that because the conventions of biography and scholarship or such…that that’s about all you can say is that she sat by the pond and then she tossed herself into the water.
If you’re writing a novel, such as I was doing, I imagined what it was like, what she was thinking about, what was going on in her life, and I imagine it. Obviously it’s not what really happened but it’s what I imagine might have happened, and certainly we know she was worried about her husband and the fights she was having and the money problem and her fears about Chertkov, his closest friend, her fantasies about her husband’s homosexuality. If you know enough about her life you can kind of imagine what was going on.
Ramona Koval: Sure. In our last minute, Jay, was it a surprise for you to find out that the film was going to made?
Jay Parini: Yes, I’m surprised that there’s going to be a film. Well, I am and I’m not surprised. When the novel came I had many, many film offers and I sold it to Anthony Quinn because I loved him and he and I worked together for years on the film script, and he was about to make the movie when he died. And then it languished for several years and I worked with a producer and we finally got Anthony Hopkins involved. So I’m not surprised, in a sense, because I’ve been working for [unclear] years on the damn thing. So yes, I would say ‘surprise’ is probably not the right word.
Ramona Koval: But you’ve had a big hand in the script though.
Jay Parini: I’m just as delighted that at long last this film is going to make it onto the screen.
Ramona Koval: Maybe you’re surprised that at long last it’s going to make it.
Jay Parini: I think that’s it because I thought really it would come out long after I was dead.
Ramona Koval: And are you happy with how it’s going?
Jay Parini: Yes. Michael Hoffman is the director and he and I have become close friends. We’ve worked together very closely going back and forth on the script, we’ve talked endlessly about the various actors. Paul Giamatti is going to play Chertkov the disciple, James McAvoy is going to play the young student who comes to Tolstoy. I think we’ve got a very good cast lined up, and my fingers are crossed. It’s always a mugs game, you never know, things can always disappear at the last second, but if the gods are smiling on me this will be a marvellous film.
Ramona Koval: Maybe Tolstoy is smiling on you too.
Jay Parini: I hope he is.
Ramona Koval: Jay Parini, thank you so much, it’s been fantastic speaking with you.
Jay Parini: Ramona, thank you for being in touch.
Ramona Koval: Jay Parini’s book is The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Last Year, and I think the film is going to be out next year.
- Jay Parini
- A regular contributor to various journals and newspapers, Jay Parini was a co-founder of the New England Review. He is the author of a number of books on writing and writers, and novels, including Bay of Arrows, Benjamin’s Crossing and The Patch Boys. He is the D. E. Axinn Professor of English & Creative Writing at Vermont’s Middlebury College in the USA.
- The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Final Year
- Jay Parini
- Text Publishing
- ISBN: 9781921351037