The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Last Year by Jay Parini is today’s travel book, though I will be quoting Roland Blythe again. This novel was made into a movie which I would like to see.
Last night I read up to page 230 of Volume V or Chapter XIII of Part Twelve of War and Peace. These pages covered the story of how Sonya came to write a letter to Nikolai that released him from his promise to her, and then went back to what’s happening to Pierre. He is moved from confinement to confinement and finally brought before a “judge.” Then he is forced to watch the execution of five men who were arrested with him. What struck me here was Tolstoy’s withering criticism of any legal system (which I remember also from his novel, Resurrection), his horror and loathing of executions, and also Pierre’s desolation transformed into hope via a peasant’s wisdom and humor and natural affection. Which goes to show you that Tolstoy didn’t really change much because that was what he was promoting at the end of his life too.
Here is a passage about the legal system: “Moreover, Pierre experienced what is always experienced by men on trial: a sense of perplexity, or wonder why all these questions are asked. He had a feeling that it was only out of condescension, or possibly courtesy, that the expedient of the question-gutter was made use of. He knew that he was in the power of these men, that it was merely brute force that had brought him where he was, that only might gave them the right to demand of him answers to their questions, that the sole aim of this court was to prove him guilty.”
Here is a scene from the execution: “Two others were led out. In the same way, with the same yes, these two also gazed at them all, vainly, with their eyes alone–for their lips were silent–begging for help, and evidently not comprehending and not realizing what was going to to be. They could not believe, because they alone knew what their life was for them, and therefore they understood not and believed not that it could be taken from them.”
Here is Pierre’s despair: “From the moment that Pierre had looked on that horrid massacre perpetrated by men who did not wish to do it, the mainspring by which everything had been coordinated and kept alive in his mind seemed to have been torn away, and everything had crumbled into a heap of incoherent dust. Although he made no attempt to explain how it happened, his faith in the beneficent ordering of the universe, in the human soul, and in his own and in God, was destroyed.”
This paragraph reminded me of the scene in Elie Wiesel’s Night when the boy is executed and the narrator says something like, we have just seen God killed. I recently bought a copy of Night because of all the anti-Semitism we’re seeing these days (also bought The Origins of Totalitarianism).
And then Pierre is put in a cell next to a little peasant man who somehow manages to keep his spirits up by taking care of a puppy and unwrapping his leggings in a very thorough conscientious way. Pierre grows interested in how the man is unwrapping. “For Pierre there was something agreeable, soothing, and satisfying in these well-regulated motions. . . . ”
He talks to the man, whose name is Platon Karatayef, and Platon is full of proverbs and stories.He telle Pierre the story of how he stole some wood from another man’s land and was punished by having to go in the army. But this was good because if he hadn’t gone his brother, father of five children, would have had to go, but Platon had no children. When he came home from the army for leave his father said, “‘All my children’s alike to me; no matter which finger you pinch, it hurts just the same.'” He makes Platon and his whole family bow down before the sacred images and give thanks. And to Pierre, Platon says, “And that’s the way it is my dear friend. ‘No escaping Fate.’ And we are always declaring, ‘This is not good, or this is all wrong.’ But our happiness is like water in a net; put it in, and it’s full; take it out, and it’s empty! That’s the way it is.'” Then he says his prayers which include prayers for cattle and horses. Then he falls asleep with the puppy at his feet.
“Outside in the distance were heard the sounds of wailing and yells, and through the cracks in the hut the glare of the fire could be seen, but within it was dark and still. It was long before Pierre could go to sleep; and he lay in his place in the darkness with wide-open eyes, listening to Platon’s measured snoring, as he lay near him, and feeling that that formerly ruined world was now arising again in his soul, in new beauty and with new and steadfast foundations.”
I love this last paragraph and agree that it is plausible but have to admit that it strikes for me a slight off-note as does the end of Master and Man. It’s good and true as far as it goes, but it strains just a bit. Or perhaps I’m jaded and cynical.
Here are a few quotes from Blythe: “Neither the dying man [Ivan Illyich] nor those attending him have any time for death, and they are vexed when they are forced to give it their full attention.”
“Religious people will talk glibly of their belief in the resurrection to excuse this disregard [of mourning customs], but as Paul Tournier, a real Christian, observes: ‘Resurrection does not do away with death. It follows it. I cannot minimize death because I believe in resurrection.'”
“He [Ivan Illyich] knows . . . that he is no longer the head of the house but an obstacle to his family, ‘and that his wife had adopted a certain attitude toward his illness and clung to it regardless of what he said or did.'”