Visiting Tolstoy’s estate, Edward Docx met writers who live gloriously and furiously—and took a beating on behalf of the former head of MI5
The Russian soul: Detail from Scene by Wassily Kandinsky (1907)
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 favourite English critic, James Wood, and say that perhaps Tolstoy’s characters feel so real to us precisely because they feel so real to themselves.
And, boy oh boy, this goes down well. For, if there’s one thing that novelists love to talk about, it’s how to make things real when, obviously, they are not. This in turn leads naturally into something novelists like to talk about even more: the terrible struggle of writing itself. (My favourite line about writers: “Writers are people who find writing more difficult than other people.”) Now we’re really getting going. Metaphors rise from the table like disturbed lepidoptera. Writing a novel is like attempting to solve an extremely complicated maths equation, which seeks to represent reality, and through which you are trying to lead the public without them ever getting wind that said equation is, in fact, impossible to solve or that, actually, it might not represent reality at all. We are getting carried away. Deciding to write a novel is like visiting an obscure, half-forgotten and slowly-evaporating planet entirely comprised of swimming pools and deciding that what is needed is… yes, another swimming pool! But, for obscure reasons, a swimming pool that must be built single-handedly from scratch and then filled using only a syringe.
Later, somewhat nervously, I give my address to an audience that I have now come to realise is comprised partly of Tolstoy’s fiercely loyal kin, partly of the world’s most judgemental literary critics and partly of Russia’s most intelligent novelists.
My subject is Tolstoy’s 1861 visit to Britain—mercifully, a mere 16 days in total about which very few people know anything at all. (Interestingly, one thing we do know is that during his stay in London, the as yet unknown 32-year-old Tolstoy went to hear the 49-year-old Dickens read. All his life, the Russian kept the Englishman’s portrait in his Yasnaya Polyana study.) Tolstoy’s official business in Britain was to look at schools—he wanted to start his own on the estate—and he liked to sit down with the boys he met on his trip and set them “composition”; we know that he kept some of these (oddly touching) accounts of the lives of London schoolboys.
And so I conclude my talk with the thought that the magical transcendence of Tolstoy’s work—his compelling and mysterious directness—may derive something of its power from what might best be characterised as a childlike quality in his imagination. It’s an odd thought to end upon (especially when talking about a writer so sophisticated that in speaking of his grasp of psychology, the word psychology starts to seem feeble). All the same, it is taken up on the walk back to barracks with much enthusiasm—so much so, that I am again forced (as the rain strengthens) to make private comparison to similar situations in Britain. Sure, this is a literary festival, but I’ve been and talked and stayed at literary festivals around Britain and the conversation is more usually of breakfast: merits, failings, disgruntlements.
There is at least one simple reason for this, I reflect. We are democratically privileged in Britain and this means that our writers tend to “matter” less because—to oversimplify—there is fundamentally less to fight for politically. Most of our writers do not give voice to the disenfranchised because, compared to Russia, most people in Britain are, well, enfranchised. Conversely, the best of the Russian novelists are not primarily entertainers (although they are this too), but also political parsers, revolutionaries, elucidators, protestors, “soldiers” as Igor puts it. They take up their work more seriously because there are more serious issues to be taken up. And because the novel—not the newspaper, nor the theatre, nor film, nor television—has always been the best place to say the unsayable in Russia. As we get back, I am told that if Putin plans to be president for another 12 years, then nobody can stop him.
In the evening we all gather for dinner beneath a long marquee arranged in a horseshoe overlooking a lawn and the slight rise of the wooded hills beyond. The rain gives place to a cool that will soon require blankets. The tables are set with as much food as it is possible to imagine—cold meats, cheeses, salads, pickles, fruits. There is also vodka.
I am beginning to be able to put more faces to the names. I see Valentin Kurbatov, high priest of the Russian critics, famous for his eloquence as a speaker, I’m told, and always dressed in the same black Nehru suit. I recognise Oleg Pavlov, an owl, a bear, a man whose novels are at the forefront of what some people are calling the Russian renaissance. I accept a cigarette from Polina Klyukina, a recent winner of the Russian Debut prize, whose brilliant short stories—intelligent, ironical, startlingly original—I later read in translation. I shake hands with Leo Tolstoy’s great-great-grandson, Vladimir, the director of the Yasnaya Polyana state memorial and museum. I sit opposite his nephew, Ilya, a clever young journalist and photographer who, with his old-fashioned courtesy and his shy quick wits, puts me in mind of Tolstoy himself.
The vodka punctuates the conversation. Every 20 minutes, there is another toast. I am forced to deploy the kind of ruses I last used at university; but even with these, I calculate I am still consuming a shot an hour—this in parallel to the copious wine. And yet I love these people. I love their commitment to experience. They want to live gloriously and furiously, to inhabit themselves to the full: to drink, to cry, to fall in love, to sing, to lose themselves in one another conversationally, spiritually, emotionally and, if possible, physically. I started my second novel (partly set in Russia) with the line: “He was relieved to be among the Russians,” and, as I sit and watch and listen to the men and women around me, I experience the odd sensation of feeling that only now, six years later, do I really understand what my younger self meant.
Earlier, I had been introduced as someone who was long-listed for the Man Booker prize and so now, with that peculiarly Russian blend of politeness and mockery, the talk turns to literary prizes. There is also a Russian Booker, so they are keen to hear about how the original is going this year back in London. I explain that there’s significant umbrage being taken at the perceived decline in the standard of the actual writing in the books chosen. (So much so, that a couple of weeks after I got home a serious alternative to the Man Booker was announced.) I cite to my companions the comment of one of this year’s Man Booker judges, Chris Mullin, that the novels for this year have been chosen on “readability” and the need “to zip along.”
Someone asks me: who is this Chris Mullin? An ex-MP, I answer. There is some laughter. And what the fuck would he know about it? That’s democracy, I say, facetiously. And then, by way of creating an immediate diversion, fearing that I have overstepped a line, I make a fatal mistake: I begin to explain that the chair of the judges is Dame Stella Rimington and that she is an ex-head of the security services in Britain. And—bam!—that’s it: now everyone is laughing. Oh, the west, they guffaw. Oh, England, they chortle. Oh, hypocrisy. Oh, MI5. Oh, MI6. Even the FSB would not dare! You mean, they splutter, that the winner of your most famous literary prize is judged by the security services? It seems I could not have told them a more perfect Anglo-Russian joke if I tried.
I try to explain that they are mistaken, that Dame Rimington is retired and is a now an author herself. Yes, someone cackles, like Putin is retired from the KGB!
Fuck it, someone else suggests, we should set up an international prize for the security services. We should judge the FSB versus the CIA versus MI5 versus FBI and Mossad. We should proudly declare we know nothing whatsoever about security but say that we intend to make the award based on who we feel has the most zippy-looking offices as seen from street level. Had I ever been in the boy scouts? Yes, for a day. Well, then, certainly I was qualified. Let’s set it up tonight. A famous meta-realist falls off his chair.
I am taking quite a beating on behalf of Dame Rimington and Britain in general so I segue—clumsily—back to the Yasnaya Polyana prize and hope to refocus the conversation there.
Youlya Vronskaya, who helps run the awards, tells me how they work. There are two prizes every year, she explains. The first is for a novel written in the 20th century; with this prize— $30,000—we “bring back to the readers’ memory, the name of an author who is still alive and whose recent work has perhaps been overlooked.” The second prize is for “the most significant book written after 2000.” This is $25,000, and can be awarded to any novel written in Russian in the last 11 years.
I make the obvious point—that these two prizes are therefore not tied to the year when they are awarded—and therefore neither the publishing cycle nor the reviews.
“Yes,” she nods, “there are lots of book prizes that do that. But sometimes literature takes time to settle and be understood. History is full of badly-received novels that then become classics. And the Yasnaya Polyana prize seeks to encourage this. Plus it’s extremely hard to judge what is genuinely good when you have all the hype of publication going on.” She smiles, then adds: “A great novel has to do everything—it has to be finely written and compelling to read and profound about the way that human beings live.”
So who are your judges, I ask, mindful of the good-natured ridicule I have suffered. She goes through the list. Pavel Basinsky, a famous literary critic. Alexei Varlamov, a researcher of Russian literature of the 20th century and author of biographies on Mikhail Bulgakov, Alexander Grin, Alexei Tolstoy and Andrei Platonov. Vladislav Otroshenko [above], essayist and prose writer. Valentin Kurbatov, writer, poet and literary critic. Lev Anninsky, Soviet and Russian literary critic, literature researcher, writer. And Igor Zolotussky, Soviet and Russian literary critic, also a writer and literary journalist.
They are impressive, serious figures, and, clearly, she says (without saying it), people who know what they are talking about. If the aim is to be the foremost literary prize in the country, then this is the kind of line-up you need. Other prizes do other things, she says again, and it is all good in the cause of books. Here though, on Tolstoy’s estate, the people who decide are the people who know. You wouldn’t have a bunch of fighter pilots judging a heart surgery competition. Nor vice versa.
Later, someone suggests I should propose the same idea back in London: two annual literary prizes for excellence in all aspects of the novel—one for a 20th-century and one for a 21st-century novel. The English language is still our greatest gift to the world, and the finest of our writers (as with our songwriters and poets and directors) are still the very best: serious artists, insightful thinkers, precise describers and chroniclers of the human condition. The world is so very full of crap, mediocrity and distraction. But English literature is often still engaging and excellent; and excellence needs champions, not apologists. I promise to propose the prize when I get back. Then I surrender to the vodka.
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