Books and reading,  History

How the heart survives: ‘The Tolstoy Estate’ by Steven Conte

The Tolstoy Estate is described as ‘a novel for people who still believe in the saving grace of literature in dark times’ and literature – particularly the work of Leo Tolstoy – is at its heart.

During the ill-fated German assault on Russia in the winter of 1941, military doctor Paul Bauer is assigned to a field hospital established at ‘Yasnaya Polyana’, the ancestral home of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. We quickly realise that Bauer’s heart is not invested in the ideologies of the Nazi Reich, though he does feel loyalty to his comrades and to his mission as a doctor.

On arrival at the estate he meets Katerina, the guardian of the property which has great cultural importance for Russians. In Katerina’s youth, she was a passionate supporter of the Revolution; this conviction has faded over the years, replaced by what could best be described as a critique of its methods and results, mixed with a deep love for her country in the face of the invader’s army. She is – understandably – hostile towards the Germans, but Paul recognises her fierce intelligence and a shared love of literature, and a friendship develops between them, despite the difficult circumstances.

Paul’s job is to treat and repair the damage done to German soldiers on the front. He and his colleagues work under appalling conditions, made particularly hard by the brutal winter cold – with temperatures as low as minus 41 Celsius – inconceivable to someone like me, who lives on one of the warmer continents on Earth.

The author is unflinching in describing the kinds of operations Paul and his colleagues perform, with enough authentic detail to make the scenes in the makeshift surgical theatre feel visceral. The waves of injured, sick and frostbitten soldiers keep on coming throughout the novel; the horror of the conflict always there. Even eyelids could be lost to frostbite, apparently: a prospect too awful to contemplate. The German troops were ill equipped to wage war in a Russian winter, with winter clothes late arriving, so that the soldiers were wearing summer uniforms well after the onset of cold weather.

The theme of literature’s role in society is explored throughout, contrasting with the butchery taking place on the battlefields. Paul’s commanding officer Metz (who is experimenting with new drugs to ‘sharpen his soldierly performance’ – with awful results) boasts to Katerina that:

‘Deeds, not words, gnadige Frau, are the currency of greatness…with his rifle our humblest Landser shapes the world more profoundly than your Tolstoy ever did.

To which Katerina replies:

‘How odd. You sound rather like him in War and Peace -the dull bits: the little man as mover of Great Events. But you’re mistaken. Lev Tolstoy’s books certainly did shape history. He’s still at it, in fact, tipping the war in our favour.’

The Tolstoy Estate p28

And of course, the events of War and Peace are foregrounded, as the fate of the German army replicates that of Napoleon’s, on his unsuccessful invasion of Russia a century earlier.

This novel is a celebration of the human heart and the beauty of words and ideas, even when surrounded by the very worst of human behaviour. Paul is certain of this when he says to Katerina:

Yes, what do is important. For the individual it’s vital. But the body is transient, we all know that. It’s stuff. You writers, you forge culture, and culture is eternal. Or as good as…I believe {literature} is beneficial…And enduring. Even the worst of it survives its author, and the best outlives the language it’s composed in. I can’t imagine what it must be like to … know that in fifty, one hundred, two hundred years there will be someone, somewhere reading your books.

The Tolstoy Estate p175

The Tolstoy Estate is published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishing, in September 2020.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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