The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

The Tolstoy estate is the setting for this novel.  It is where the revered Russian writer is buried, in a glade in his lands west of Moscow and where he lived most of his later years.

Estate can also mean legacy and this book surely is a valued indication of that.

Steven Conte’s book is rich in breath-taking and unforgettable ways.  There are the characters, the cruel Russian winter, the ghost of Tolstoy’s spirit and ideas touching life, death, friendship, art especially writing, war and politics.

Paul Bauer, a German surgeon, is desperately working at a field hospital to save wounded German soldiers fighting the advancing Russians defending their city of Tula and ultimately Moscow.  He is there for merely six weeks, but just manages to cope with the increasing demands on his skill.  After one offensive, he operates at a frantic speed for forty hours with only snatches of sleep and a few short breaks.

He is a hero worthy of the title – intelligent, empathetic, gentle and kind – a man of integrity.  He falls in love with the curator of the Estate, Katerina.  She is a fiery Russian, uncompromising, fearless and bitterly witty in her exchanges with the German command, and initially, Paul Bauer.  Activism flows in her veins.  She was a courageous revolutionary and witnessed suffering in the turbulent years of her idealistic youth.

The evolution of their feeling for each other is done with a beautiful and moving delicacy.  Underlying threats to their liaison echo the tension of the war thundering ever near.  Distant gunfire rarely ceases.

These two characters are superb creations.  However, there are several others who enhance the narrative.  The darkness of these terrible times is lightened briefly by humour – particularly by Molineux who is unfailingly a bon vivant and charming rogue.  His conversation is unfailingly amusing.  In their straitened circumstances, he manages to construct a still which produces a drink to warm the men and add a little cheer to the long freezing nights.

Dramas occur which highlight the cruel effect war has on men.  There are episodes, like the death of Hirsch the anaesthetist/dentist, which demonstrate that for many men the conditions of war are unbearable.

I really loved the way the characters’ ideas and philosophes are depicted in the book.  Paul re-reads an old German translation of War and Peace with Tolstoy’s annotations in its margins.  This leads to a new insight into the characters and events in the book but is also a daunting reminder of Napoleon’s great army’s failure.  A similar fate looms for the beleaguered Germans who, after six weeks, are forced to retreat.

Powerful forces operate in The Tolstoy Estate.  The savage winter when sentries freeze to death and frostbite is common; the bonds between Paul and the men around him is another strength together with the courage and determination of the doctors and staff to relieve suffering as best they could under the nightmarish conditions.

The most powerful is the feeling Paul and Katerina have for each other.  It transcends political boundaries, age, culture and time.  The sequence of their love story is cleverly structured.  They meet in that six weeks, reconnect with long letters decades later, then fail to meet due to the Cold War restrictions.  Still they plan …

Not only is The Tolstoy Estate an unforgettable story of people in the harrowing theatre of war, but there are thought-provoking discussions on the novel, great literature and its future.  Katerina rejects her own early efforts to become a serious writer as paltry.  She continues by questioning if, in today’s world, Tolstoy would have written his great novel.  Rather, he may have been wooed by the visual media, as fewer people now are prepared to invest the time it takes to read a monumental work such as his.

Lovers of our literary heritage staunchly maintain that it would be tragic if fine writing, of the calibre of the nineteenth-century novel, was no longer produced.

Thankfully, Steven Conte ensures that we who appreciate literature can enjoy an excellent example in The Tolstoy Estate.  Suggestions that the plot lends itself to making a highly successful movie are valid.  However, not to experience the beauty and the excellence of the writing would mean people are deprived of an opportunity to celebrate the range and depth of what it is to be essentially human; near impossible to convey to this degree on film.

The Tolstoy Estate

[2020]

by Steven Conte

Harper Collins

ISBN 978 1 4607 5882 3

$32.99; 403pp

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