Visiting Tolstoy’s estate, Edward Docx met writers who live gloriously and furiously—and took a beating on behalf of the former head of MI5by Edward Docx / October 19, 2011 / Leave a comment
We are walking through birch trees that quaver and drip with a steady but refreshing rain. We are on our way to Yasnaya Polyana, the country house of Leo Tolstoy. I am with two fellow writers: Evgeny Vodolazkin and Igor Malyshev. The path is muddy here and there and sometimes we go in single file.
“Perhaps it’s because Tolstoy doesn’t have a sense of humour—or not a very good one,” says Evgeny from the back.
“Or maybe it’s because with Dostoyevsky something is always moving,” says Igor, up front.
“Yes, it’s more dynamic,” I venture, “but maybe that’s because there’s more at stake. Unlike Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky has a preoccupation with how to eat as well as how to live.”
“Yes, Dostoyevsky was… what is the English?” Igor asks.
“Skint,” I say.
This is a more than usually germane point since the Tolstoy estate (which remains in that family) stretches away in all directions around us: heavily wooded and undulating with scattered, scruffy villages and sudden long-grassed fields that put me in mind of those scenes in Anna Karenina when Levin goes out scything with his serfs and resolves to eschew all human falsity in favour of a sweat-drenched agrarian redemption.
Yasnaya Polyana is roughly 200km south of Moscow, and we have come for the annual gathering of European writers, an event that is held in conjunction with the Yasnaya Polyana literary prizes—of which more below. There are dozens of eminent Russians staying; the leading novelists and critics of their generations. Dominique Fabre is here on behalf of the French. I seem to be (under)representing Britain.
Aside from being a quarter Russian, one of the reasons I love the country and its people is the general contempt for small talk. And so, having known my two fellows less than the three minutes it takes to gather outside our barracks, we get straight down to it: Tolstoy versus Dostoyevsky—an analysis of the relative strengths and weaknesses of our two beloved giants with particular reference to a suspected solipsism on the part of Tolstoy’s characters.
To my ongoing amazement, over lunch, as new faces take seats around me, I find this strain of conversation simply continues. (I later discover that Igor and Evgeny had not, in fact, met prior to our walk. Have any of these people ever seen a television, I wonder, let alone a tweet?) Over potato cakes, I paraphrase my…