Thursday, December 16, 2010

Book of the Month

This Month,


by Jay Parini

This 1990 novel about the last year of Leo Tolstoy's life was recently made into a very well received film. I have not seen the film, but the book is definitely worth your time. I had very little knowledge about Tolstoy before reading the book, and while it is a novel, it draws heavily on true accounts and journals from the main characters. The characters and their personal stories are what drives the narrative. Parini deftly switches the storyteller in each chapter, so that the reader is aware of the feelings, thoughts and agenda of the major players in Tolstoy's life. Sofya (the Countess Tolstoy), Bulgakov (Tolstoy's idealistic secretary), Chertkov (the devoted leader of the Tolstoyian movement), along with Tolstoy's doctor and daughter make up the book's narrators. Every one of these characters yearns for the great man's attention and confidence throughout the book, and some do better than others.

The real conflict is between Sofya and Chertkov, who are at odds over what will become of Tolstoy's works once he is dead. Chertkov and his many followers hope to elbow Sofya out and convince Leo Nikolayavich to sign over the rights to his writings to the public domain, so that the people can enjoy them, and so that profit cannot be made from them. It is a core tenet of the Tolstoyian movement to reject personal property. Sofya, on the other hand, wishes to keep his writings private so that her family can survive on the money they generate. Caught in the middle of the conflict is the Count's new secretary, Blugakov, a young Tolstoyian who is recruited by both Chertkov and Countess Tolstoy to spy on the other. He ends up finding that his loyalty is to Tolstoy himself, and not to the factions on either side.

This book is at once a study of political dealing, a snapshot of pre-revolutionary Russia, a love story and a portrait of a great author. If you allow yourself to get lost in the world that Jay Parini creates, you will find an engrossing story that takes you right up to the end as Tolstoy arrives at the last station.

P.S. My girl Helen Mirren is in the movie.

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