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• Saturday, January 26th, 2013

Jay Parini was born in Pittston, Pennsylvania in 1948. He attended West Scranton High School and graduated from Lafayette College in 1970. After graduating in 1975 with a doctorate at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, he taught at Dartmouth College from 1975 to 1982 and has continued teaching since then at Middlebury College in Vermont as an Axinn professor of English and Creative Writing.

Jay Parini has written several novels and poems as well as being a regular contributor of essays and reviews to various newspapers and journals. He is a scholar and a writer of poetry, fiction, non fiction, biographies, criticism and he has also edited many books. He has received awards as well as fellowships and his books have been translated into many languages.

He is married to psychologist, essayist and story writer, Devon Jersild, they have three sons and live in Weybridge, Vermont.

The Last Station, published in 1990, became a best seller and was adapted into a film released in 2009 which received two Oscar nominations.

The last Station is an interesting and ingenious mixture of fiction and biography. It’s based on real events and recounts the last year in the life of the most revered Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, as imagined by Jay Parini who “still thinks of himself as essentially a Tolstoyan in his spiritual and political life”.

In an interview, Jay Parini remarked that he makes little difference between biographies and novels. He goes on to say that: “they both are works of fiction” and that fiction allows the writer “more freedom”, since the writer can imagine the motives by digging into the head and unconscious mind of a character.

The story of The Last Station is narrated alternately by the different main characters, each one giving his or her own perspective on the multiple facets of the eighty-two-year-old, Leo Tolstoy: his thoughts, his political convictions, his love of nature, his compassion for the poor, his religious beliefs, his meditations and his extreme moralistic and ascetic views. The reader follows him in this last agitated year of his life through his illness to his death in the small Astapovo railway station, while trying to escape his wife’s daily, unbearable harassment in the hope of spending his last days in peace. He is the main focus of the novel, is much admired, praised worldwide and has many disciples.

Each chapter in the novel represents a voice of a narrator which the author has interspersed with his own poems. There is Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya Andreyevna followed by Bulgakov, Tolstoy’s new and last secretary, then Tolstoy himself, his doctor, Makovitsky, his youngest daughter Sasha, who was also his secretary and Tolstoy’s biggest admirer, friend, disciple and promoter of his work, Chertkov. There are also extracts from Tolstoy’s letters and various diary entries.

Tolstoy’s married life seems to be an important and crucial issue in the novel. The wedlock which was once a passionate, sexual and intense love affair, ends in a stormily complex, disturbed and insufferable relationship. The sort of harmony which existed in the past between the couple is now broken for ever and beyond retrieve.

Sofya is an intelligent, cultured woman, a great lover of operas and a talented piano player. She is a loyal wife, a good mother and bears Tolstoy thirteen children. She provides valuable support for her husband throughout her married life. She looks after the finances of the household, works as his secretary correcting his novels and hand copied War and Peace several times. Now that she is nearly sixty-six-year-old, she feels threatened in her old age.

The indomitable Sofya has put up with her husband’s eccentricities all these years but can no longer accept his reasoning when it concerns her future security and protection. She feels angry and bitter towards her husband who seems to be plotting in secret with Chertkov to change his will. Sofya senses what’s happening behind her back. She knows that Tolstoy wants to deprive her and their children from the royalties on his works by donating them to the nation, something which she regards as his family’s and his heirs’ entitlement after his death.

Everybody around Sofya thinks that she is selfish, possessive, paranoid, hysterical and even mad, instead of understanding how lonely, vulnerable and insecure she has become.

As he grows older and more unyielding in his beliefs, a life of self-indulgence revolts him. Count Tolstoy is unhappy to continue living in luxury just to please his wife, countess Sofya, who is accustomed to such a life, while a great part of the Russian population hardly has the means to survive. After leading a hedonistic existence in his youth, he is now, surprisingly, encouraging chastity, vegetarianism and frugal life. Therefore he wants to relinquish his heirs’ rights to his early books.

The Last Station is a moving novel, depicting a husband torn between loyalty to his beloved wife and allegiance to his people and country and especially to what he perceives as being the right thing to do on the one side, and his wife, who also has every right to her inheritance, on the other.

Tolstoy and Sofya lived together for nearly fifty years and yet were unable to come to a compromise or even to try to understand one another. A very sad story and a regrettable ending to such a long married life of two exceptional people.

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Author:
• Saturday, October 29th, 2011

Alaa El Aswany was born in Egypt in 1957, the only child of an ex aristocratic mother and a well known father from Aswan, in Upper Egypt. His father, Abbas, who received the Egyptian state award for literature in 1972, was a lawyer before becoming a novelist.

Alaa Al Aswany studied in a French private school in Cairo, Le Lycée Français du Caire, which was followed by a Cairo University dentistry degree in 1980 and a Masters degree in 1985 from the University of Illinois in Chicago, where he spent 17 years before returning to live in Egypt. Today he still lives in Cairo with his second wife and three children.

Alaa El Aswany is one of the founding members of the political democratic opposition movement, Kefaya (Enough), meaning enough of president Mubarak’s undemocratic, oppressive regime and its corruption. The movement was founded in 2004.

In 2010 El Aswany was named one of the 500 most influential Muslims for arts and culture. He was also nominated for the prestigious 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel Chicago, published in 2007.

Born Muslim, El Aswany is a secular and free thinker. He has written many articles for Egyptian newspapers on political issues, social matters and literature.

Alaa El Aswany had his dental clinic in the Yacoubian building, in the centre of Cairo, but departed 15 years before writing his fictitious novel about the building. He still practises dentistry twice a week in his clinic in the Garden City district of Cairo, in order to stay in touch with people and have discussions with them, which, he says, is very important to him and helps in his writing since he treats patients as a professional dentist but writes about them as a novelist.

The Yacoubian building was first published by a small, private publisher in Cairo in 2002, after being rejected three times by the Egyptian Book Organisation, the omnipotent state-run publishers controlled by president Mubarak’s regime, because of its perceived controversial content.

The novel was translated into 27 languages and became a best seller in the Arab world. In 2006 it was made into a film with the biggest budget ever for an Egyptian film and in 2007 was made into a television series.

The Yacoubian building, constructed in 1934 in downtown Cairo by the Armenian millionaire Hagop Yacoubian, was an architectural paragon of its time. Unfortunately, after years of neglect and lack of renovation, the condition of the building declined.

It is early 1990 when the story begins. The author describes the everyday life of the people who live in the building. Whether these tenants are wealthy, nouveau-riche or poor, they all share the same struggle to survive and the suffering and hardship they are enduring at the hands of the current Egyptian regime.

Most of them have in common the same obsession for sex and decadence, just like the deteriorating building they live or work in, the corrupted leader they have and the iniquitous government that governs them. The run-down building is a metaphor for the state of the country.

There is the well-to-do, 65-year old, retired Francophile engineer, Zaki Bey Dessouki, the self confessed, “scientist of women” who belongs to the aristocracy of a bygone era, the good old days which his sister Dawlat feels very dissatisfied and angry to have lost and consequently gone with it her two children who emigrated. She becomes bitter and takes it all out on her only brother.

Then there is the rich, middle aged, homosexual, successful newspaper editor, Hatim Rasheed, who couldn’t control his sexual urges for the young, illiterate, Abd Rabo, an upper Egyptian peasant, and police recruit, who will prove to be fatal for him.

And there’s another character, the ambitious nouveau-riche countryman, the old Hagg Mohamed Azzam, who wants to be part of the Egyptian parliament in order to gain power and prestige, even if he has to pay a huge bribe. He discovers that he has uncontrollable sexual needs that his old wife could no longer satisfy and has to marry a second wife, the young Soad who becomes his victim.

Also not forgetting the dirty old, chain of boutiques owner, the rich, Talal Chanane and his young lady workers and sex sufferers, Fifi and Boussaïna, nor the corrupted Malak, who earns his living not only as a shirtmaker but also in the commerce of currencies, alcohol, contraband and anything that brings in money, including blackmail.

There is also the young, Taha El Shazli, the son of the building’s caretaker. He is a bright student who’s dream is to join the police academy and marry his childhood girlfriend and neighbour, Boussaïna. His dream is shattered when he is refused entrance to the police academy because of his father’s profession. Saddened and dismayed after realising that money and contacts in the right place count for more than good grades and perseverance, he becomes bitter and cynical and consequently loses Boussaïna for good. He enrolls at Cairo university and, through one of the students, joins a militant Islamic group and dies a martyr in an organised assault on a senior prison officer who was behind his torture and humiliation while he was jailed. With nothing to live for, and therefore nothing to lose, he died more out of revenge, deceit and loss of hope in the whole Egyptian system than for his Islamic belief.

A contrasting array of characters from dissimilar backgrounds, each one with a different life-style and morals, but all of them seeking a better life. They all inhabit the same building without ever encountering one another, each living in his own world, preoccupied with his own problems.

The characters and the seedy building, which is undoubtedly the main focus of the story, as the main title implies and which still exists in the centre of Cairo, are well developed and quite realistic.

The novel conveys a bleak picture of a contemporary Egypt that lost its bearings, but the ending gives a shy ray of hope for the future. A very interesting, good novel if it was not for the several explicit sex passages which belittle the novel’s many serious themes.

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