Tag-Archive for ◊ essayist ◊

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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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Category: Book Reviews  | One Comment
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• Saturday, June 18th, 2011

Herta Müller was born in 1953 of farmer parents from the German speaking minority enclave village of Nitzkydorf (Nitchidorf) in the Banat in Romania. The majority of the German speaking peoples of this part of Romania originally came from Swabia (Schwaben) in Germany.

From 1973 to 1976, Müller left her village to study German and Romanian literature at the university of Timisoara. She then worked as a translator but was dismissed in 1979 because of her unwillingness to cooperate with Ceaucescu’s secret police. She became a kindergarten teacher while giving German language lessons in private. The success of Müller’s first novel, Nadirs, published in 1982, encouraged her to become a novelist, a poet and an essayist.

Müller has received various prestigious awards: in 1984 she received the Aspekte Literaturpreise for Niederungen (Nadirs), the Marie Luise Fleisser Prize, the Ricarda Huch Prize in 1989, the Kleist Prize in 1994 and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary award in 1998. She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009.

After a first emigration refusal by the authorities in 1985, she finally obtained permission to emigrate to West Germany in 1987 with her husband, the Romanian German novelist, Richard Wagner. She currently lives in Hamburg.

Müller was well known for her writing about the bleak, oppressive conditions that Romanian people had to endure under Ceausescu’s despotic, communist regime and consequently her books were censored. She was a member of Aktionsgruppe Banat, a group of German speaking writers who, frustrated by all the censorship, were calling for freedom of speech.

Herta Müller has been labelled one of the most talented and prolific German writers of the last twenty years. All her novels are set in Romania, but unfortunately not all her work has been translated from German.

Nadirs, originally written in German and published in Romania in 1982, then in Germany in 1984, was published in English in 1999. It’s Herta Müller’s first book, a semi-autobiographical novel with no traditional plot, in a form of a diary of fifteen short stories of various length. The narrator is a little girl who writes about her thoughts, her deeds, her fate and the destiny of the people surrounding her. It is also about how she perceives the bleak, repressive existence in the lowlands where she lives with her family, under the grim, authoritarian and corrupt communist regime of the unnamed Ceausescu.

The novel conveys the little girl’s unadorned, honest, acute description of everyday life, sketched in unrelated segments which have in common the importance that the girl bestows on them. She is often mixing reality with dreams which then become overwhelming fantasies that lead to delusions.

Herta Müller has an uncommon style of writing, disjointed and bare, misleadingly simple but deeply effective. Her usage of allegories, imageries, symbolism, contrasts and succinct language make this thin novel brim over with poignantly powerful, vivid pictures of rural life in the lowlands, presumably, in Nitchidorf in the Banat, Müller’s native region.

The author uses all these illustrations to disclose the little girl’s rough and innermost afflicted childhood and establish her psychologically disturbed character. She seems to be surviving rather than living the care free life of a child of her age.

The author’s choice of words and the somberly intense, devastating social atmosphere of destitution, sexual looseness, alcoholism, injustice, suffering and confinement, is almost Kafkaesque, without a glimpse of hope and is too dark and morose and nightmare-like.

For all these multiple reasons and hidden complexities, Nadirs is a novel that has to be read in little portions at a time with a fair amount of assiduity. “When laughter becomes guffawing, when they bend with laughter, is there any hope? And yet we are so young”. “Your eyes are empty. Your feeling is empty and stale. It’s a pity about you, girl, it’s a pity”. Black Park.