Tolstoy and Celebrity Culture

Plummer, Mirren in The Last Station

Plummer, Mirren in The Last Station

Film Friday

Before there was celebrity culture there was celebrity culture. That’s what we learn from The Last Station, the fascinating recent film about the last days of Leo Tolstoy.

The year is 1910.  Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) is seen as a national treasure and there is a struggle underway over who owns his work.  His wife believes the copyright revenues belong to his family and children while his followers believe they belong to the world. On top of that, photographers are camped outside of his house and everyone admitted into his presence carries a notebook so that they can record anything that he says. At one point his wife, magnificently played by Helen Mirren, grabs one of these notebooks and throws it out the window.

Because of the attention, there can be no privacy in the Tolstoy household so that domestic battles get reported in the national tabloids. The emotional core of the film is the tension between husband and wife—they love each other passionately and they drive each other mad. Towards the end of the movie, Tolstoy flees from the house, ending up in “the last station.” Will his wife be able to see him before he dies or will his followers hold her off?

We’re so used to seeing untalented people become celebrities that it’s fascinating to see one of the world’s great authors receive this treatment. Actually, Tolstoy wasn’t the first. Alexander Pope in the 18th century complained about all the people who journeyed out to Twickenham to get a glimpse of him and about the editors who sought to obtain and publish anything related to him. In the 19th century, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain attained the status of today’s rock stars, if not higher.

The movie suggests that what draws people to great writers is what draws them to celebrities in general. When an author opens up that porthole into divine creativity, people become intoxicated and want to bathe in it. They think that they can do so if they touch or hear or get other direct access to him. Even a tabloid account is something.

They desire an illusion. The uplift we feel from reading Anna Karenina (I’m especially enamored by Levin and his relationship with Kitty) is not to be confused with physically touching Tolstoy. But I’m sympathetic. It’s as though people receive such a spiritual jolt that they feel they need some objective confirmation of it.

Since I’m teaching Idylls of the King at the moment, I share with celebrity groupies the example of Sir Bedivere in The Passing of Arthur. Arthur, mortally wounded, orders his oldest friend to fling his sword Excalibur into the water, and twice Bedivere fails to do so. The first time it is because he is enamored of the sword’s beauty, but the second time the reason is more  interesting: he feels he needs a memento to confirm the glory days of Camelot.

But one shouldn’t need physical proof. Camelot, and Tolstoy, are in our hearts. We shouldn’t need tangible evidence of their reality.  Let go of the sword and treasure the reading memory.

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  • Barbara

    So what does that say about the stacks of books we readers have such a tendency to accumulate? Maybe that’s why I find it so hard to “catch and release” in the words of a website I found that allows you to “release” your books “into the wild” and track where they end up when (if) the “finders” log in and report. Food for thought. Thank you, Robin!

    P.S. Recently there was a review in the Washington Post of a biography of Tolstoy’d wife that gives a very different read to their relationship based on her diaries. Sadly, I can’t remember her name at the moment.


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