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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
Author:
• Sunday, June 17th, 2012

Lloyd Jones was born in Lower Hutt in the Wellington region of New Zealand in 1955. He studied at Hutt Valley High School and Victoria University in Wellington. In 2009 he received an honorary doctorate from Victoria University and has worked as a journalist and a consultant as well as a writer.

In 1989 he received the Meridian Energy Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship, one of New Zealand’s long-standing and prestigious literary awards.

Lloyd Jones has written several novels, short stories, children’s books and non fiction. Mister Pip, which is part of post-colonial literature, was published in 2006. It is Lloyd Jones’ best-selling novel and the one that made him internationally known. It won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Overall Winner, Best Book and was short-listed in 2007 for the Man Booker Prize for fiction. It also won the Kiriyama Prize and the Montana Medal for fiction the same year. It has been adapted into a feature film which will be released later in 2012. Lloyd Jones now lives in Wellington, New Zealand.

The story of Mister Pip has an historical background as it relates the 1990’s Bougainville blockade by Papua New Guinea, Bougainville being rich in copper. This was an event which led to a civil war covered by Lloyd Jones who was then a journalist.

The novel starts in the early 1990’s. The narrator is the thirteen-year-old black girl, Matilda Laimo, the main character in the novel, who lives with her devout mother Dolores in a shack in Bougainville, a small tropical island in the South Pacific and a province of Papua New Guinea. The island is torn by civil war between the befuddled rebel forces called the Rambos and the atrociously inhuman government soldiers, called the Redskins. Matilda’s father, who was out of a job due to the closing down of the copper mines, left the island a few years before the blockade like several natives. He was hired to work for a mining company in Townsville, Australia and his wife Dolores and daughter Matilda were hoping to join him later but were held back by the imposed blockade.

Matilda is a child lacking paternal presence and support in her teenage life. She has a difficult relationship with her mother whom she loves and feels loyal to despite being ashamed of her reasoning, behaviour and difficulty understanding simple things.

In order to escape the atrocious reality and the horror of war surrounding them, Matilda and the other children allow themselves to be transported by the novel, Great Expectations, into an imaginary Dickensian world of 19th century Victorian England. Thanks to Mr Watts’ astuteness in transmitting his great admiration for Charles Dickens to his pupils, he takes pleasure in reading them a chapter from this well known novel every day.

Matilda says: “He kept reading and we kept listening” and when “the flow of words had ended, slowly we stirred back into our bodies and our lives”. Mr Watts sums it all up in these few words: “A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames. For me, Matilda, Great Expectations is such a book”.

The children were mostly fascinated by the main character, the orphan teenager, Pip, whom they could relate to. Matilda was especially under Pip’s spell. She was writing his name in the sand and with shells on the beach. Little did she know at the time that her deed would provoke the savage butchering of Mr Watts, followed by her mother’s by the Redskins who thought that Pip was one of the rebels concealed by the natives. A gruesome tragedy to intensify the abhorrent deeds carried out during these civil wars. As Lloyd Jones says about the Bougainville blockade: “the most unspeakable things happened without once raising the ire of the outside world”. Starting from 1989 and for ten years, the island was completely cut off from the world.

The skinny, solitary, Mr Watts or Pop-Eye, as everybody calls him in the village because of his protruding eyes, “eyes that wanted to leave his face”, is the baffling, self proclaimed teacher. After all the teachers leave the island, he is the only white person who remains despite the civil war, because of his native black wife, Grace, whom he met in New Zealand while she was studying dentistry and followed her home. They both live in the old mission house. Mr Watts is from New Zealand and is a bizarre, elusive, mysterious person. Matilda says: “Mr Dickens was easier to understand than Mr Watts” who “was whatever he needed to be”, a teacher, a magician, a clown with a red nose and ends-up being a saviour for the community when the Redskins needed a scapegoat to slaughter and set as an example.

Later in the novel, Matilda reads Great Expectations and discovers that Mr Watts had read his own version of the novel, rather than reading the original text to the children. “His Pacific version of Great Expectations” as she calls it, or “Pip in the Pacific” as he had named it a few years earlier, proving his gift as a story teller. He shows this talent when he gathers the whole community to recount his own story and keep them all mesmerized by his recounting: “On hearing Mr Watts’ voice the creatures shut up as well. Even the trees listened. And the old women too and with the respect they once reserved for prayer… And the Rambos were as enthralled as the rest of us”.

The author treats several powerful themes in his novel and enhances his story with his description of the natives’ naive characters, their desperation mixed with a feeling of helplessness, their uncomplicated basic existence, living of picked fruit and fishing, their gullibility, their pidgin Bible, their superstitions and their simplistic life and beliefs and their power of endurance. Nature is portrayed in a bright, colourful, enchanting way which contrasts with the sombre subject of loss and atrocious bloodshed. The once peaceful, beautiful, tropical island becomes a nightmare place.

A fascinating, original, thought provoking, poignant and captivating novel inside another novel, demonstrating the power of imagination and the effect of literature on people’s lives and how it can be an essential tool providing escapism and survival, whereby fiction and reality intertwine.

Category: Book Reviews  | One Comment