Tolstoy is a figure I have always kept at arm’s length; beyond reading Anna Karenina (easily the greatest novel ever written; really no other deserves to be put in the same paragraph with it; I hated it) and the most famous short stories, I have mostly avoided him. That he was full of hatred and channeled the hatred into artistic and religious superiority is obvious to anyone with any insight; and those who know me will know why I have found such an example very dangerous.
But he has always fascinated me as well, as all the things we take care to avoid. He wrote sentences that I speak to myself from time to time just to experience their concentrated lifehating horror: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” (Of marriage): “Our relations reached the stage where it was not disagreement that caused hostility but hostility that caused disagreement.” Many of his details I think of again and again – such as the creaking pouffe at Ivan Ilych’s wake – as perfect emblems of the absolute horror of us “eternal” creatures the prey of such unending and insuppressible superficiality.
There comes a time in life, of course, to turn around and take a look at the things you have been running from. So I have been recently taking a further look at Tolstoy, beginning with the light, pleasant movie that has just been made of his death, called The Last Station. A friend, on hearing I had seen the movie, said, “When I saw the trailer, it reminded me of you, so I’m glad you decided to see it.”
The movie is a kind of version of the Daumier drawing of “The Battle of the Schools,” with Count and Countess Tolstoy representing Idealism and Realism. Idealism, being naturally a close ally of hypocrisy, as always suffers in representation. Tolstoy has been attempting to lead an anti-private-property movement from his 4,000-acre estate Yasnaya Polyana; his practice of Gospel Poverty is wearing vintage clothes and spending a lot of time in the basement. This must to some extent be unfair; Tolstoy could not have been that hypocritical. Some of his deeds like setting up schools on his estate, personally teaching his former serfs, and establishing a kind of kibbutz for freethinkers are presented in the movie as not much more than your average 1960s fruitiness. The undercurrent of Russian unrest and millenarianism – indicated by the fact that only seven years later the country would experience the most complete revolution in human history – is not visible in the movie at all.
More of a focus of the movie is the Tolstoyan principle of celibacy. I say Tolstoyan because the movie attempts to put some daylight between Tolstoy himself and the idea; and certainly Tolstoy hit on the celibacy model very late in life (after sleeping with hundreds of women, most of them serfs and prostitutes, and fathering thirteen children). Tolstoy’s actual, overpowering hatred of human sexuality, which he saw as utterly beastly and horrid, is not touched (for that read The Kreutzer Sonata, which caused a sensation during Tolstoy’s life and really should be read by every human being; I think it is wrongminded like Tolstoy’s entire life’s work, but it would be most interesting in conversation to figure out why). The movie’s conclusion, helped along by a sexy subplot which is almost the main plot, is that at the very least you should try to get your wisdom about sex the way Tolstoy did, by trying it (the movie is given the epigraph from Tolstoy, “Everything that I understand I understand only because I love.”). This is not a surprise for a Hollywood movie, but not entirely horrid either.
The movie emphasizes this with its lushness; the saturation level is pumped up for all the greens, which give the movie a hypnotic, not-quite-Avatar-but-certainly-more-than-earthly beauty. That this is an artistic choice is made more obvious by the fact that Tolstoy actually died in November (and according to the legend I am familiar with, walked off in the midst of a snowstorm to his death), not in the middle of a June without rain.
The main conflict in the movie is between Tolstoy, who wishes to relinquish copyright to his works upon his death, and his wife, who wishes to keep the copyright for herself and her children. The principles involved are not much discussed. The focus is on the personal relation between husband and wife, or indeed one might say on providing a stage for two superior veterans of the screen, Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren. Their performance is so consistently interesting that it makes up for all the philosophical deficiencies of the film. Plummer looks like Tolstoy brought back to life, without the ugliness and hatred; and there is always appeal in seeing a man resurrected out of history. What is more, Plummer’s voice is unendingly beautiful, and he is effortlessly expressive.
The agelessly beautiful Mirren is superior as Countess Tolstoy. Some have accused her of overacting – she uses every mode of manipulation, from yelling to begging to seducing to suicide – but in fact she gives the Countess perhaps even more dignity than the real-life woman had. What little I had heard of her made her something of a buffoon and Xanthippe, an implacable spirit of puelline hostility and pettiness lodged in the philosopher’s own home like the thorn in Paul’s flesh. When Mirren is on her knees, crying that her husband must respect her dignity – “I bore you thirteen children” – you feel the wife’s claim on her husband as not trivial at all, indeed something so powerful no principle could ever trump it. Tolstoy, however, does a pretty good job resisting her entreaties when he needs to: “You don’t need a husband. You need a GREEK CHORUS.”
The writing is good, the acting is excellent, the cinematography is lush and the peasants always look clean: everything you require in a period piece. Could the writers have taken the opportunity afforded by Plummer and Mirren to make a great movie, a historical biopic with biographical and philosophic depth like Lawrence of Arabia? Of course. (I had a moment where I thought that was going to happen: after a sex-scene in the subplot the man returns to find the woman cold; I thought they might take the opportunity to explore Tolstoy’s belief that “love” is nothing more than “animal sensuality,” which dominates the thoughts at periodic intervals and leaves coldness and hostility in between. Nothing of the sort happened: love triumphed after all). But The Last Station is good enough for a few hours’ beguilement, and perhaps it may inspire some deeper pursuit of the strange Tolstoy. How can you not be interested in the man whose life inspired this quotation (from his biographer A.N. Wilson):
It is possible to read his last thirty years as an extraordinary demonstration of the fact that the Sermon on the Mount is an unlivable ethic, a counsel of craziness which, if followed to its relentless conclusion as Tolstoy tried to follow it, will lead to the reverse of peace and harmony and spiritual calm which are normally thought of as the concomitants of the religious quest. Tolstoy’s religion is ultimately the most searching criticism of Christianity which there is. He shows that it does not work.
Wouldn’t it be good for us all to know if this is because Tolstoy did not understand the Sermon on the Mount – or if it really is no guide for life?