So having taken the blog-scissors to Alan Yentob's coat it didn't feature in programme two of The Trouble With Tolstoy, though Anthony 's bookshelves were still on the higgledepiggledy professorial side, ( and I was right about the Faber Finds editions of the diaries) but no matter because my eventual verdict is that these two programmes have been worth the license fee alone this year. In fact I'd like to think we've probably covered some of the train fare or perhaps the cost of the consultation after he'd gamely downed a bowl of koumiss, the fermented mare's milk, whilst reclining in the middle of the steppe and barely containing that look of green-ness around the gills... mm delicious he intoned, yeh right I thought. And now you're all going to tell me it is delicious and I can buy it in Morrison's aren't you...
But here we were back with our hero, the provocative thorn in the side of the the establishment (Leo not Alan) established as Russia's greatest writer by the 1870s and ill at ease with the wealth he was amassing and the fundamental inequalities that surrounded him. Taking himself across the Volga river and traversing the steppes, Tolstoy settled on Samara as the location for a farmstead where he could live a simpler life. That retreat long gone but the site of a memorial and here it was our Alan supped the elixir.
Nineteenth century Samara in the grip of a drought and subsequent famine which Tolstoy brought to the attention of the world, but also the location at which he wrote Anna Karenina and where our Alan read several extracts from a nicely dog-eared copy, emphasising that this was was the book about who Tolstoy had become. Its tone darker and in essence autobiographical, portraying the character of Levin as himself and Dolly as Sonya, a woman who is finally given a voice as she talks about giving birth and the strains of motherhood.
Alan now seemingly non the worse for the koumiss encounter follows part of the trail along the Road of Tears, the old route taken by those exiled to Siberia and though I haven't read the book (but will do very soon) it is clear that Anna Karenina is a must once I have finished War and Peace, the extract from the final moments as moving as I'd expect given what happens. Anna Karenina (please shorten the 'a' roll the 'r' and emphasise the middle 'en' if you want to sound right) the novel that Tolstoy, disillusioned with the art of fiction, struggled to complete. Continually depressed and searching for answers he subsequently set out on a pilgrimage to the monastery of Optina Pustyn (sorry the site is in Russian, but don't you think that adds something glorious to the mystique for those of us who haven't a clue)
This part was fascinating, one of the monks designated to talk to our Alan about the still highly sensitive subject of Tolstoy, and how on his visit he had been a soul in pain, seen by the monks as sick and nursing a 'scorched heart with clotted blood on his lips.' But it had been the start of a profound religious journey for Tolstoy and one that would consume him for the rest of his life.
Interestingly, given that we might have been wondering about the absence of UK female input in comments after the first programme, Rosalind Bartlett did indeed play a greater part in this episode, and against a beautifully atmospheric backdrop of muted flowers and low light, whilst in Russia the commentators were almost all women with the exception of Tolstoy's great great grandson.
Professor Olga Slivitskaya elaborated on how much Tolstoy changed, walked away from the demands of his family as an obstacle to his ideal along with his attempts to abandon his literary persona and deny knowledge about his books, whilst the dire and barely imaginable state of the Tolstoy marriage was borne out by Rosalind Bartlett's summation of Sonia as flawed and humourless too... though I would have thought some of the responsibility for this must have lain at Tolstoy's feet. Tolstoy seemingly maintaining a collison course with everyone, proceeded to write his own highly edited version of the Gospels, jettisoning what he didn't like, so confrontation with the Russian Orthodox church was inevitable and eventual excommunication almost a given.
Tolstoy's strangely disempowering friendship with the controlling and dominant Vladimir Chertkov was the focus of much attention in the programme, with the rift between Sonia and her husband widening into an impossible chasm once Chertkov arrived on the scene. Described as an evil genius with the gift of antagonising just about anyone Chertkov, not surprisingly hated by Sonia for his monopoly and seeming control of her husband.
Professor Elvira Osipova along with our own Anthony Briggs both recommended a revival of Tolstoy's most submerged novel Ressurrection for the relevance it offers to contemporary readers, many of the issues as pertinent now as they were when the book was written, but this novel the final nail in the proverbial and the eventual cause of Metropolitan Anthony's announcement of Tolstoy's excommunication. A move which only served to galvanise public support for a man now seen as a national hero.
The Death of course dominated the final part of the programme. Tolstoy's sudden decision to leave the family home described by Professor Olga as his King Lear moment, whilst Galina Alexeeva, the warden at Yasnaya Polyana fleshed out the background details in her beautiful English with a Russian accent. Tolstoy had been looking for an excuse to leave for many years, denouncing his lifestyle in the dramatic fashion long expected of him by his followers and he yearned for solitude ...it didn't take much... Sonia rummaging through his papers, her nervous breakdown in the face of so much sadness and at the age of 82 (better late than etc) he was off.
The unplanned flight by train with little idea of where he was going, the illness, the medical decision made that he was unfit to travel any further and must leave the train at the next station wherever it may be, and as we know it was in the station master's house at Astapavo that Tolstoy was to succumb to that bout of fulminating pneumonia, denying Sonia access to see him in his final few days there.
The film footage of the funeral was extraordinary, thousands turned out undaunted by the oppression, there is that whiff of revolution in the air and I have found an extract from the old Kenneth Clark Civilisation series which was also used in this programme, from the days when a BBC coat and a cut glass accent was a force to be reckoned with.
However I've forgiven Alan the coat and I've reined in my envy at him landing the plum job now, because, having anchored this admirably, his summing up was very simple, to the point and sincerely done, and in the end I got the impression this programme had been as moving for him to make as it had been for me to watch. At the time of his death Tolstoy unacceptable to both the establishment and the opposition and even now still difficult and problematic, an advocate for the unavoidable truths of life.
Team Tolstoy convenes here as usual on the 9th of the month, this Saturday to discuss War and Peace Vol III Part 1 (Chs 1-23)