The Last Station

Written by Jay Parini
Review by Lucinda Byatt


This ambitious book sets out to give an account of Tolstoy’s final year (1910) that blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction. Parini was inspired to write it after finding a diary by Valentin Bulgakov, who acted as Tolstoy’s secretary during the last months of his life, and wherever possible Parini quotes directly from the writings and reported conversations of Tolstoy, his wife and children, as well as from descriptions left by Tolstoy’s circle of friends and attendants. In doing so, Parini has to achieve that tricky balance between authenticity (especially when dealing with literary figures of Leo Tolstoy’s calibre) and the need to sustain the narrative. That he succeeds is indicative of Parini’s skill as a writer. Interestingly, Parini once claimed that he makes “few distinction between straight biographies and novels. They both are works of fiction. Fiction means ‘shaping’ in Latin. I shape reality in both genres.”

The novel explores the growing conflict between Tolstoy’s worldly success – notably the luxury he and his wife and sons have grown accustomed to – and his spiritual convictions. Inevitably, his wealth also gives rise to the question of who will inherit the right to publish his works – his wife or the Russian people. The final circumstances of Tolstoy’s death are quite extraordinary, and the portrait of this great author so revealing that, like me, you’ll be compelled to re-read some of his earlier works.