22 Apr 2010
Just about everyone has had a copy of War and Peace on their bookshelf at some or other time but if many have read it cover to cover is another matter. During my senior school years it was required of us to have read forty literary works. A visiting inspector would pick students at random to assess their standard of literacy and pose questions to determine whether they had actually read the books. I am convinced that all that inspector stuff was a bluff because I was never singled out to give account of my “literary accomplishments” which boasted War and Peace at the top of my list. Come to think of it I was so petrified of the Inspector that I never questioned anyone who had gone through interrogation for fear of drawing attention to the fact that I had been overlooked.
I had read a number of books on my list but getting through forty was a tall order. As I compiled my list of books at the local library I stumbled upon War and Peace – more than a thousand pages in very small print and was convinced that no school inspector would have read all of that . A very safe choice, I thought !
After leaving school, I was confronted by War and Peace again. Tolstoy was a trend. To have his works on your bookshelf provided a subtle hint of probable superior intelligence. Today one would call it being cool. I bought a copy of War and Peace and placed it alongside the Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, however, I still had a lot of living to do at the same time. War and Peace was carted along on some excursions but mainly it gathered dust.
Now I have decided to attempt the marathon reading . I worked out that if I read just ten or so pages per day, I could finish the book in three or so months. The small print is not such a deterrent anymore as I have to wear reading glasses anyway.
A few chapters into the book I can now understand why I hardly understood a word of what Tolstoy was trying to say.At sixteen, I was just too young and inexperienced to appreciate his genius.
Coincidentally a good friend of mine told me about the The Last Station. In this movie, fact and fiction combine to portray the last years of Leo Tolstoy’s life, which were quite tumultuous to say the least. Christopher Plummer plays the role of Leo Tolstoy and Helen Mirren, his wife Sofya Andreyevna.
Serena Ingamells who has been an avid reader of Tolstoy has kindly contributed the following:
The Last Station
The film, “The Last Station”, gives a special insight into the complexities of Leo Tolstoy’s character and perhaps a better understanding of a man ahead of his time. It also makes one realise how much of his own personality can be found in his characters and just how relevant his stories are today.
After almost fifty years of marriage, the Countess Sofya, Tolstoy’s devoted wife, lover, muse and secretary (she deciphered his handwriting and edited his manuscripts and it’s rumoured that she copied out “War and Peace” six times by hand) suddenly finds her entire world turned upside down. Swayed by a newly formed religion, the great novelist has renounced his noble title, his property and even his family in favour of poverty, vegetarianism and celibacy and this after Sofya has borne him thirteen children. When Sofya discovers that Tolstoy’s trusted disciple, Chertkov may have secretly convinced her husband to sign a new will, leaving the rights to his iconic novels to the Russian people rather than his own family, she is outraged. Using every bit of cunning, every trick of seduction in her considerable arsenal, she fights fiercely for what she believes is rightfully hers.
The more extreme her behaviour becomes, however, the more easily Chertkov is able to persuade Tolstoy of the damage she will do to his glorious legacy. Into this charged world wanders Tolstoy’s new assistant, the young, gullible Valentin and life at Yasnaya Polyana starts to imitate the drama found in many of Tolstoy’s novels.
Believe me this was one cool family. Once you have conquered “War & Peace” the books, “Tolstoy” by Henri Troyat (Penguin Books) and “Sonya” by Anne Edwards (Hodder & Stoughton) will be easy and insightful reading.
(Although countess Tolstoy has been known as Sofia, Sofiya, Sofie, Sophie and Sonya, the present-day Tolstoy family prefer to use Sonya)