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This fictional re-creation of Tolstoy's last year, and of his death in the stationmaster's house at Astapovo--one of the first media events of the age--by Parini (The Love Run, 1980; The Patch Boys, 1986) impressively combines narrative tension with perceptive insights to make an old story almost as good as new. Using diaries--and most of those involved kept them--as well as Tolstoy's other writings, Parini lets his characters--Tolstoy, his wife Sonya and daughter Sasha, as well as the Tolstoyans Bulgalov, Chertkov, and the doctor, Makovitsky--comment as they chronicle the events that led to the horrible scene at the station. There, Tolstoyans and Sonya continued their battle for possession of the dying writer, and journalists and photographers from around the world gathered to take pictures and get stories. That final year of Tolstoy's life was as a much a battle for his soul as for his health. Tolstoy's followers, led by the cold and fanatical Chertkov, wanted Tolstoy to leave Sonya and live his last years according to his own teachings. They also wanted sole rights to all his writings. Sonya, his wife of nearly 50 years, jealous and suspicious of Chertkov and his followers, feared that they would not only prevail on Tolstoy to change his will in their favor (a step that would harm their children) but also take Tolstoy away from their home forever. What ensues is a terrible struggle full of passion, pettiness, ambition and love, with Tolstoy, acutely aware of his past sins, trying to satisfy both groups. Our sympathies are engaged, and the end, though known, is nonetheless moving--and appalling. There is something very contemporary about Tolstoy's death, with the ideologues asserting their rights at the expense of the more human ones. Parini's novel is as much a cautionary tale as a work of lively history about a great man. A notable accomplishment.

Pub Date: July 23rd, 1990
Publisher: Henry Holt