A Novel of Tolstoy's Last Year

By Jay Parini

Henry Holt. 290 pp. $22.95

DESPITE its popularity with readers, historical fiction has always been a hybrid that neither historians nor novelists are anxious to claim. In The Last Station, poet and novelist Jay Parini has come up with a clever variation on the genre, which, while it may still leave some historians edgy, is utterly satisfying as fiction.

The biggest part of Parini's success is his choice of topic, the last year of Leo Tolstoy's life. Though it was Tolstoy himself who observed that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, even he could never have foreseen just how ingenious in their misery his own family would have become by 1910. What makes Parini's book so engrossing is the strange modernity of the Tolstoys' dilemma. Tolstoy was the first media star, whose least gesture or utterance was news, to be photographed and reported around the world. He had long since ceased to be a novelist; by 1910 he was a philosophy, even a religion. He gathered disciples as honey does flies.

Not content with tormenting one another directly, this nest of family and hangers-on also all kept diaries, so obsessively that one of them even scribbled at the dinner table. It is on these diaries that Parini builds his book, extrapolating inner monologues by several of the main antagonists, including Tolstoy's wife, to build up a recounting, in several voices, of domestic hell at Yasnaya Polyana, the Tolstoy estate.

What results is a contradictory, agonizing recreation of the events that culminated in Tolstoy's decision, at age 82, with winter approaching, to abandon the estate where he had been born and lived his entire life. As might have been expected, the novelist died a few days later, in the stationmaster's house at a whistlestop on the railroad to the south. To his leading disciple, Vladimir Chertkov, who wished to make Tolstoy into Christ so that he could be the four Evangelists, this was logical and necessary to remove the contradictions between teachings and life, the last station of the via dolorosa that Tolstoy was following. To Tolstoy's wife, though, this was merely the last stop, an act of fatal lunacy, but also an act for which, in Parini's rendering at least, she had a loving understanding, as only a wife of five decades might.

What particularly helps Parini avoid the usual criticism, that historical fiction is bad fiction, is that he omits one voice, that of Tolstoy himself. The Last Station satisfies as fiction precisely because Parini is too scrupulous, has too much respect for his subject, to invent dialogue or, what would have been the graver sin, thoughts for his Tolstoy. Instead Tolstoy enters Parini's novel in his own words, with selected passages from published letters and stories. Although reading Tolstoy's prose in Parini's novel sometimes recalls Jorge Luis Borges's story about "Pierre Menard, author of Don Quixote," the strategy keeps the major mystery of Tolstoy's genius intact, for we come no closer to understanding Tolstoy than do his daughter, his doctor or his disciples.

Whether The Last Station is good history is less certain. Parini has a tendency to accept sexual explanations for behavior, of Tolstoy and of his family, in a way that seems anachronistic. Sexually ambiguous passages abound in Tolstoy, and Parini has good reason to impute, as he does, a foolish senile attachment to Chertkov, just as he does to imply an Electra complex in Tolstoy's daughter. However, Tolstoy's behavior was conditioned too by Russian politics and history, by the dictates of his class and ancestry, and by the very Russian thirst for prophets, which the Russian people have a way of making prisoners of their own preaching.

It is this Tolstoy however, that makes The Last Station so appealing to read. Parini captures marvellously the paradoxical nature of this genius whose mind and body seemed ever to be at war. Vigorous and lusty even to the end, graced with talent, position, and, on occasion, wealth, Tolstoy spent his life flagellating himself after every pleasure, ultimately inventing philosophies against which to punish himself. It is this Tolstoy who peeks, grinning and perplexed, through Mrs. Tolstoy's diaries, penned by the woman who had loved him, and been loved (and hated too) for half a century. This is the Tolstoy whom The Last Station makes most real, in what seems to be the real purpose of Parini's novel, to celebrate the enduring mystery of great art.

Tolstoy may have rejected his own fiction, preferring to stake his claim upon history with his ethics or his political thought, but it is because of the novels that we remember him. Even if adulation of the writer does lead Parini to make the one dubious choice of his book, which is to include his own poetry about a trip to Yasnaya Polyana, it may be forgiven, for The Last Station is a loving and thoughtful rendering of the complex character of Leo Tolstoy.

Anthony Olcott is the author of the novel May Day in Magadan," and a professor of Russian at Colgate University.