The Last Station by Jay Parini

Who:

-people who love the romanticized pre-revolution Russia

-those who enjoy a good realistic romance (not just women!)

-people interested in Tolstoy

The Book:

I found this book on the new Hamilton Public Library’s Bibliocommons. For those Hamiltonians who don’t know about Bibliocommons, it is a catalogue that is much more user-friendly than the old one. It looks and feels like Amazon. Some friendly neighbour had The Last Station by Jay Parini on their list of interesting books. I was also pleased to find out it was made into a movie with James McAvoy (swoon, swoon).

James McAvoy in The Last Station Movie
James McAvoy playing Bulgakov

The Last Station is about the last year of Leo Tolstoy’s life. Tolstoy, often considered the best novelist in the history of human kind, was also an incredibly interesting man. The events of the book are based on facts taken from Tolstoy’s letters and diaries, and also the letters and diaries of those who were closest to him before he died. Despite a happy marriage, the last years of Tolstoy’s marriage to his wife Sofiya were characterized by strife and disunity. As Tolstoy became more and more anarchistic in his final years, he felt very troubled by his life of luxury and entitlement. He had been born into an aristocratic family, but his deepest desire was to denounce all wealth and rights to his books, this unfortunately (for his wife and children) was to be extended to his will and would mean a diminished inheritance.

Sofiya does not share her husband’s lofty ideals. Her fear of losing money and entitlements drives her to insanity. She is deeply depressed and torn between the hatred of having to accept whatever fate her ideological husband decides, and the deep love for the man she has devoted her life to. I actually hated her dramatic character, paranoia, and her inability to appreciate her husband’s lifestyle, although I truly felt sympathy for her situation.  It would’ve sucked to be a woman in that time, because whatever your husband wanted, you just had to go along with it.

There is another plot in the story involving Tolstoy’s idealistic secretary Bulgakov, who has come to serve Tolstoy in his final days. At Telyatinki, the Tolstoyian commune set up near his estate there is a lovely and emancipated woman named Masha whom he falls for deeply. Bulgakov, like Tolstoy is forced to choose between his vow of abstinence, and pursuit of higher things; there is no room for romantic love and lust. While Bulgakov is uniting his soul with Masha, Tolstoy is gaining the courage to leave his wife and to sign the will which gives all the publishing rights of his novels to the public.

Masha is relocated by higher powers in Telyatinki to serve a different commune in Moscow; she was too much of a distraction for Bulgakov. Tolstoy leaves his lovely wife of 48 years and on his way to Caucasus in a train, he falls gravely ill. He dies in a stationmaster’s cottage with the entire country watching. The book ends pleasantly though, with Bulgakov and Masha returning to Moscow together.

The Point:

In Parini’s book, both pairs of lovers are separated. Tolstoy and his wife love each other very much, but neither could concede to give in to each other. It was heart breaking. Often our image of people married for a long time, is one of concession and quiet love, not of heart-break and betrayal. Masha and Bulgakov are separated by the idealistic world around them, but they are able to see that life is much more complex than a set of ideas. It is good to hold conviction, but not at the expense of things we hold dear. There are things in life we can love intrinsically and not because they are bringing about the betterment of society. It almost reminds me of Luke 14:26 (“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”) I am not trying to be controversial, but it’s hard to feel like Jesus means to put loftiness over love, disunity over unity.

In Bulgakov, we see the balance of love. Not in an “all-consuming love-must-be-our-guiding-principle” way, but a love set deep in perspective. He was living a convicted and intentional life, full of love.

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4 thoughts on “The Last Station by Jay Parini”

  1. ahhh… im excited all the more to read it!!! i am most interested in reading a bit about tolstoys end of life experiences with his wife. the man said things about love that have really stuck with me, both between a couple and for the general people. should be a good read!! thanks for the review

  2. Elish,

    I have been meaning to comment on this post for about a week.

    You got me thinking when you said:

    “It is good to hold conviction, but not at the expense of things we hold dear. There are things in life we can love intrinsically and not because they are bringing about the betterment of society. ”

    It seems to not be uncommon for a influential person to have their convictions at the expense of their families. Take Salman Rushdie for an example, did he know that ‘The Satanic Verses’ would cause a fatwa requiring his death to be sentenced and that writing his next book would be the means to speaking to his son?

    or

    I was speaking to Rachel the other night about WEC and she was telling me of a book she was reading about missionaries around the word who are dying for their faith. One man in particular was given the choice to deny his faith or watch his son get beaten to death.

    I don’t know how you hold something dear when they or it will be at risk because of what you believe.

    In the story of Tolstoy it was almost as if he needed to choose his ideas over love to justify the hurt that he inflicted on his heart and his family. Or that he was too afraid to confess the possibility that his ideals could not keep the promises that they made to society:

    Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.

    1. thanks for your comment. it’s so true. I don’t know how to think this without feeling sacrilegious. I thought of a time involving a conversation with my Alan’s grandparents. One grandparent would never lie, even if it meant the death of someone he loves. The other grandparent said that they would always lie in that circumstance. That God would forgive because it was done in true love. But I think of the midwives hiding Moses and lying to pharaoh. Or of Rahab. And then I think of Peter, and his broken heart. and I don’t know what to say.

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