The death begins with flight: "In the middle of the night of October 28, 1910, Lev Tolstoy closed the door to the room where his wife of 48 years was sleeping, packed his things and left his home, never to return. At the age of 82, the most famous living Russian embarked on a final journey that would become one of the great legends of the twentieth century." How different from Chekhov's quiet death a few years earlier, and his return to Russia in a refrigerated car labelled "Oysters".
William Nickell reads the death of Tolstoy as a modern media event, showing along the way how the media are heirs to oral tradition. The tragedy of the disintegration of a marriage and the journey of an old man for unknown reasons to an unknown place combines with the grapho-maniacal comedy enacted by all the key players (Tolstoy, his wife Sonya, his many children, his doctor, his typist, his followers), all busily writing diaries - some secret - and letters.
To top it off, Sonya's arrival at Astapovo to join her dying husband and the refusal of the Tolstoyans in the little station to let her in are caught on film - the wrenching and angry tapping of a wife at a window.
Nickell's thesis is that despite the many narratives and the wealth of detail ("Please delete that Tolstoy ate two eggs, incorrect," one reporter telegraphs, "drank only milk-tea") the master narrative remains incomplete. Thousands of accounts interact to produce a "primitive worldwide web", show "a culture in evolution", and offer a compelling snapshot of a moment in history (something Tolstoy himself attempted to do in novels such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina).
Just as Tolstoy's great novels had many drafts, so did his letters and diaries. But, unlike the novels, no final text of the life or the death emerges.
Tolstoy's well-documented marriage has long been of interest, as demonstrated by books such as Lady Cynthia Asquith's Married to Tolstoy (1961), Louise Smoluchowski's Lev and Sonya: The Story of the Tolstoy Marriage (1987), William L. Shirer's Love and Hatred: The Stormy Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy (1994), and Jay Parini's The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy's Last Year (1990), which was recently made into a successful film.
Reporters interpreted Tolstoy's flight and death in myriad ways, most often as a drama on a large social canvas. One wrote: "It is not a literary trial but a life trial - not of the Tolstoy family, but of the authority of the family." Tolstoy described his departure as an attempt to save himself - "not Lev Nikolaevich, but that something of which there is sometimes a spark in me".
The process of his death, the funeral, the burial, the grave site, and the reading of the will all offered a field day for "live coverage".
Was, for example, the dying Tolstoy's hand-motion an attempt to write, or was the excommunicated writer making the sign of the cross? Tolstoy had foreseen the latter supposition; five days before leaving home he had written, "to return to the Church, to receive communion before dying I cannot do, just the same as I cannot before dying speak obscene words". Is it any surprise that both a witch and a religious pilgrim were sighted by reporters at Tolstoy's grave? Was this the resting place, some wondered, of a true Christian or an Antichrist?
Nickell's voluminous research shows how Tolstoy's departure and death "captured the imagination of the Russian public and...(became) a media event in a surprisingly modern sense". Flashlights, railroads, telegraphs, telephones, electric lights, film clips and phonograph recordings collide with the settled ways of life and the folkloric traditions of rural Russia. Pyotr Stolypin, Russia's prime minister, considered the Tolstoyans more dangerous than the revolutionaries. Lenin made political capital of Tolstoy's death within days. The man who left home "taking a page from a medieval saint's life" soon had his face adorning candy wrappers. The sublime wars with the trivial.
One reporter observed: "Tolstoy decided to run from the world. The world followed him, caught up with him, and again placed him in a glass jar." A jar on which his wife could only tap.
Despite this media circus, it is the jagged questions of the domestic drama, the furies and love engendered through a long marriage, and the struggle for identity in old age that fascinate most powerfully; these questions find no resolution.
The edifice Nickell has constructed from his many sources is admirable.
The Death of Tolstoy: Russia on the Eve, Astapovo Station, 1910
By William Nickell
Cornell University Press
Published 10 June 2010