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Tolstoy's Final Days : THE LAST STATION By Jay Parini (Henry Holt: $21.95; 290 pp.)

September 09, 1990|Edward Condren | Condren is a professor of literature at UCLA. and

Tolstoy was one of the greatest novelists in any language. As a man whose ideals often contradicted his life, he has a less certain reputation.

Among his many idiosyncrasies, none seems more apparent, nor more responsible for tormenting his last months, than his habit of laying guilt upon others to atone for his own excesses; or, to turn the same coin on its opposite side, his fondness for half-baked ideals which actually arose from some personal inability. For example, though he was born to the wealthy, land-owning nobility, his opulence embarrassed him, since he believed--and continually lectured those around him--that to own property is to be a thief; yet the only possessions he ever tried to give away were the copyrights to his work, a gesture that could only have hurt others.

Similarly, his once-prodigious sexual appetite--indeed 13 legitimate children and at least one illegitimate one were born at his huge estate, Yasnaya Polyana--later influenced him to preach against all forms of sexual activity. Yet here, too, he did not so much surrender a comfort as find relief from a burden, for he was already an old man becoming increasingly estranged from Sofya Andreyevna, his wife.

Perhaps most ironic of all, this consummate creator of intensely emotional characters eventually believed the novel a frivolous form, later abandoning it for the craft of essayist and philosopher, though he had often called analysis inferior to love. Yet it cannot be a coincidence that by this time he feared his creative powers had waned.

In Tolstoy's last months, the most obvious manifestation of this attack of conscience, and coincidental evidence of his deteriorating marriage, was the battle between the author and his wife over the copyright to his works. Leo Nikolayevich wanted to atone for his own privileged birth by assigning the copyright to a publisher, Chertkov, a disciple who had promised to make the works available to the public in inexpensive editions. To Sofya Andreyevna, this was the worst kind of disloyalty--failure to provide for his family's future, while preferring a hanger-on who would only enrich himself. A mortal battle developed, not between Chertkov and Sofya over the soul of Tolstoy, for Sofya had already forbidden Chertkov to set foot on Yasnaya Polyana, but between Tolstoy and his wife over which way Tolstoy would bestow his affections.

"The Last Station" unfolds the fascinating story of these Dantean circles--made by both Tolstoy and others--that closed about Russia's then greatest writer and most outspoken critic during his last year. In his closest circle, a constant jockeying for the great man's quixotic affections alternated with sincere attempts to effect what these several people in their different ways deemed his best interest. Others were ruled by self-interest, as careers and incomes stood in jeopardy.

And at the widest circle was the ruthless world beyond, hovering like birds to screech the latest scandal in Tolstoy's marriage, as it had done a decade earlier; gossiping that the celibate wife-murderer in "The Kreutzer Sonata" was an image of Tolstoy himself; or flapping in delight when some Tolstoyan disciple had been imprisoned for slandering the czar's government. And all the while everyone ghoulishly awaited news of Tolstoy's health.

Jay Parini faithfully re-creates these events with the unusual technique of six narrators, all historical figures, who offer their perspectives of the day-to-day activities leading up to Tolstoy's death. As each chapter ends, a new narrator takes over. Chertkov has the fewest chapters, three; Tolstoy's doctor has four; his secretary-daughter five, and his wife eight.

The largest role--nine chapters--and most attractive personality belong to a young writer whom Chertkov had sent to Tolstoy to be a kind of research assistant/spy. His name was Valentin Bulgakov (not to be confused with the near-contemporary Mikhail Bulgakov, author of "The Master and Margarita").

Several of these narrators believe that the overly dramatic Sofya became so unstable, and so obsessed with what she thought was her husband's sordid attraction for Chertkov, that she drove Tolstoy to leave her secretly in the middle of the night of Oct. 28, 1910, on a desperate journey that caused his death nine days later. This belief, however, overlooks some obvious facts.

When he converted a domestic temper tantrum into a secret journey, Tolstoy was a man so advanced in years that his health was already precarious. Then, exploding the secrecy of his trip by sending letters and telegrams to everyone and by giving something of a public lecture on the train suggests that he was as much of a self-dramatizer as his wife. Moreover, this final journey, especially its first stop at a sparse monastery to visit his sister, a nun at the adjacent convent, may have appealed to Tolstoy as a symbolic rejection of the worldly possessions he had often philosophically disowned.

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