Books

Steven Conte
The Tolstoy Estate

Steven Conte won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Literary Award for his first novel, The Zookeeper’s War, so it’s not hard to imagine that this new book, The Tolstoy Estate, has been much awaited in the 12 years since. The proof copy came with an absurd cover-sized puff about this being “a novel for people who still believe in the saving grace of literature in dark times”, which is enough to put anyone off. But The Tolstoy Estate is in fact a fine novel – grave, moving and engaging – and it will absorb every kind of reader with its weirdly humane war story in which the military characters are German medics. The span of the action – which encompasses a strange dislocated love story yet is also a meditation on literature and Tolstoy in particular – is beautifully handled, with an absolute sureness of step even though its structure seems fractured and not intrinsically probable or, on the face of it, viably shapely.

But this book is in Steven Conte’s hands. It is a novel about men at war whose primary activity is to save lives, and it is also dominated by the image of a formidable and glamorous woman. Conte has all the gifts of a natural-born popular novelist – an effortless power to compel visualisation at the snap of a finger and the ability to conjure distinctive characters, whether sympathetic or not. He can handle micro action as well as the overall arc of the story and, while he might seem to be a middlebrow writer with a knack for representing the saga of hard treks and heartbreak, he is in fact a lot more. The Tolstoy Estate is full of the flash and fire of dramatic incident, but it is also full of real feeling, humour and poignancy, and equipped with plenty of panache.

It’s 1941 and Hitler has taken the fatal step, the one that undid a far greater strategist, Napoleon – he has decided to go into Russia, never mind the morass and mud and ice and inexorable cold. The Tolstoy Estate centres on a group of soldiers who are in fact surgeons and their assistants and are, under the aegis of the Red Cross, ministering to the wounded and dying. The twist here – and it’s a beauty – is that they find themselves quartered at Yasnaya Polyana, the ancestral estate of Tolstoy, who not only has high claims to being the greatest novelist who ever lived but who also wrote explicitly in War and Peace about how Russia resisted Napoleon.

The hero of The Tolstoy Estate is a 40-year-old surgeon mutely out of sympathy with the Nazi regime; his wife died a few years earlier and he speaks a bit of Russian. He encounters the custodian of the estate, a count’s daughter who speaks all but accentless German, not to mention the other major European languages, and she scornfully tells these Germans she is a committed Communist and that War and Peace is their guidebook to how they will be defeated ignominiously.

She finds herself pitted against the commander of the troop, the arrogant lieutenant-colonel who is a sincere believer in the Führer’s ideology but is also a naturally superstitious fellow. He is being fed dodgy drugs by one of his underlings and becomes fixated on the apparition (in which he wants to believe) of Tolstoy’s ghost. Meanwhile, the sympathetic Russian-speaking surgeon and the sparky Russian aristocratic Communist partisan develop a relationship of irresistible attraction.

And the daily life of these doctors in uniform goes on. There’s the card who’ll never knock back a drink or a joke or a game and who is depicted with a wonderfully understated sense of the comic absurdity of life in extremis. There’s a white-haired old-timer who is obsessed by his gramophone, a nervy dentist who’s dangerously bad at administering an anaesthetic, and a Ukrainian of fervent Fascist convictions – he’s witnessed Stalin’s deliberate starvation of the Ukraine – who accuses the dentist of making a pass at him. The various other offsiders are unlovely or attractive or neither, but each of them has the potential to flare into life.

The Tolstoy Estate is one of those episodic books with a hell of a DJ at the controls. At various points it allows for sudden deaths of several characters: there’s a breakdown on the part of one character and the suicide of another. There’s also a very vivid portrait of a “good” German, a Prussian aristocrat – the type who might have gone on to be involved in the plot against Hitler – who is sketched with a towering rapid glamour and is then cut off. The book also risks dissipating everything by leaping forward into the far-off postwar future, and it has a whole inner movement where it becomes a sort of epistolary novel. There is no guarantee that any of this should work but somehow it does.

Steven Conte has written a novel of war, and of a peace that is intimately related to the recollection of war, its scars and its bonds. He has done so with great power and grace and with considerable credibility. The Tolstoy Estate is about chance and disaster and the bond of love, whatever the odds, whatever the darkness. It deserves the widest possible readership and it cries out to be made into some sort of film. It’s strange that this novel, with its many random elements as well as the sheer obviousness of the Tolstoyan theme, should work as effectively as it does. But Conte is alive to the way the foibles of his characters can be integrated into an apparently loose but in fact exceptionally confident design.

Peter Craven

Fourth Estate, 416pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 5, 2020 as "Steven Conte, The Tolstoy Estate".

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Reviewer: Peter Craven