Leo Tolstoy has always fascinated me, largely, I suspect, because his entire life was riddled with contradictions. At the peak of his success as a novelist – War and Peace was one of the greatest novels of its time, perhaps of any time – he had to hide any rope that might be in his house for fear he might hang himself from despair. He was a count and wealthy landowner who believed simplicity was the secret to a happy life. He lived a dissolute life until he was 40, married, had 13 children and then tried to live as an ascetic: after having sex with his wife, he would pace around the bed tearing at his beard – not a recipe for a happy marriage. He was a consummate artist who eventually came to the conclusion, expounded in What is Art, that art should be simple and understandable by all; thus he had no use for any of Bach’s music other than the famous Air from the Orchestral Suites – he also had little use for his own earlier novels.
He and his wife, Sonya, were both avid diarists; he was always brutally honest in his diary – a tendency that led to more strife since both he and Sonya would surreptitiously read each other’s diaries.
At the end of his life he had collected a group of followers who came to be known as Tolstoyans. They attempted to live according to Jesus’ teachings, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, were pacifists and drove Sonya up the wall. Tolstoy’s version of Christianity was practical, demystified and stripped of the transcendent. For the most part it didn’t work. Vladmir Chertkov was one of Tolstoy’s closest confidants but unfortunately he was rather dour and sanctimonious with little of Tolstoy’s insight – imagine Gordon Brown as a monk. Another prominent Tolstoyan was Valentin Bulgakov, an innocent youth hired to be Tolstoy’s secretary. The Doukhobors were very much influenced by Tolstoy; they ended up in Canada, but the Tolstoyans were all swallowed up in the violence of the revolution.
In the end Tolstoy fled from his wife and his Tolstoyans and their squabbles to die on a bench in a railway station; perhaps a fitting end, since he finally managed to discard the trappings of his wealth and position.
In my youth I devoured all his novels, essays and then biographies; the last one I remember reading was a biography of his wife, Sonya by Anne Edwards.
Now there is a film about Tolstoy’s last days: The Last Station. Helen Mirren plays Sonya; she says of the film that it is, “A serious comedy about love and relationships”. Not very promising, but I shall probably go and see it anyway:
HELEN Mirren says playing Tolstoy’s wife in a new film was like a home-coming. She spoke to James Rampton about love, literature and getting in touch with her Russian roots.
A run-down railway station in an unremarkable east German town is an unlikely place to meet Dame Helen Mirren.
The fact we’re surrounded by ragged hay bales, an abandoned hand-cart and a pile of battered suitcases makes the encounter with one of Britain’s most elegant actresses all the more surreal, but Helen seems thoroughly at home.
We’re on the set of her latest movie, The Last Station, a moving story about the turbulent relationship between the great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy (played by Christopher Plummer), and his spirited wife, Sofya (Helen).
The actress didn’t hesitate to take the part when she was sent the script, describing it as “one of the great women’s roles in film”. But another big draw was her Russian lineage.
As Tolstoy neared the end of his life, his wife fought tirelessly to hang on to his legacy for the sake of their children (some believed it should be bequeathed to the people of Russia) and as the film shows, it was a marriage born of passion, not placidity.
“She is a wonderfully tempestuous person and also very funny,” smiles Helen.
“She had given her life to Tolstoy’s work – she copied War and Peace out six times – think of the work! Sofya was simply fighting for what she is owed. It’s a fabulous role.”
And Helen isn’t the only one to think so. The Last Station has already won her the Best Actress Award at the Rome Film Festival and she recently received an Oscar nomination for the film.