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Posted on 3 Sep 2020 in Fiction |

STEVEN CONTE The Tolstoy Estate. Reviewed by Paul Anderson

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You don’t need to have read War and Peace to enjoy Steven Conte’s second novel. 

Steven Conte returns to World War II as the mise en scène for his accomplished second novel, The Tolstoy Estate. His first, The Zookeeper’s War, won the 2008 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction. Both feature dangerous liaisons in key moments in history.

Yasnaya Polyana is the setting for The Tolstoy Estate. It is the Tolstoy estate, the former family home of the Russian writer Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, where he wrote War and Peace. It’s October–November 1941 and (no spoiler) very cold: minus 41 degrees Celsius at one point. Nazi Germany is at war with the Soviet Union and the Wehrmacht is pushing towards Moscow. The estate is situated 15 kilometres south of Tula and the frontline, the capital 300 kilometres to the north. The first company, medical battalion of the Germans’ Third Panzer division commandeers the estate and converts it to an army field hospital. Most of the novel takes place here, over six weeks, until the Germans are forced to retreat. This is the same length of time that Napoleon and the French held Moscow in 1812. More on that later.

The company has two surgeons, Paul Bauer and his commanding officer, Lieutenant-colonel Metz. The story is told in third person largely from Bauer’s point of view. Dialogue is spoken in German (which we read in English) with the odd word of Russian used for emphasis or insult. It is quite a feat to get this register of voices sounding right, as Conte does. The estate was not sacked when the Red Army left to defend Tula and its incumbent Russian staff continue to tend the estate for the Germans. Katerina Dmitrievna Trubetzkaya is the head custodian. She uses her significant wits and mordant gibes to defend the estate’s legacy and her people.

Bauer is dedicated as a surgeon and virtuous as a man. Katerina is coolly intelligent and a formidable interlocutor. Bauer is drawn to her and their East meets West relationship is the main arc, ‘their sweet collusion’ an unlikely bond in the beginning, then emotionally moving and so ultimately believable. Aged 40 and 39 in 1941, their backstories and world views have complementarities: Bauer has never been a National Socialist; Katerina’s communism has been purged by Stalinism. Tolstoy’s War and Peace connects them in the present. Both have read the great book – Katerina claims four times! – and Bauer is shown rereading it (in German translation) in the course of The Tolstoy Estate. Katerina is also a writer, with two novels – Three Women and Europa, 1975 – published in her twenties, post-Russian Revolution, when she was a more ardent Party member. He admires the Russian canon and dwells on literature. Their nationalities may be at war but these common sensibilities lead to a romantic friendship in defiance of the Reich’s race laws and the later strictures of the Cold War. Both are decidedly well drawn.

Some of the other characterisation may be too close to central casting. The commander, Metz, typecasts himself as a delusional German for the cause: zealotry for the Fatherland, no defeatism tolerated within the ranks. He is fortified but also unhinged by the experimental drug use encouraged by the sinister pharmacist Drexel. His obsession with Tolstoy’s ghost is credible only up to a point, lapsing into the realm of the occult. The estate’s housekeeper Daria Grigorievna becomes a drunk Russian caricature who literally gets her knickers in a twist. And although the anaesthetist Molineux’s lewd one-liners are funny, it’s hard not to hear Hawkeye Pierce, the role played by Alan Alda in the TV series M*A*S*H, in them.

The writing is often audacious and Conte is an excellent compositor of period detail. The medical writing will stay with you. In one chapter Bauer works for almost 40 hours straight after heavy casualties. He is in the zone, driven and compassionate, and the reading experience is concordant – you are there with him, through pages and pages of patients’ notes, brilliantly imagined: a grim procession of amputations and other procedures, the smells of vomit and faeces blanked out.

The panzerman would have to lose his leg above the knee, and so Bauer began by making two vertical incisions in the lower thigh, creating a pair of cuffs which he then folded upwards. The muscle of the thigh he severed with a scalpel, clamping and ligaturing arteries as he went. The femur he sawed. More muscle, a final strip of skin, then the knee and lower leg came away.

The Tolstoy Estate is a work of historical fiction and the author clearly knows the World War II period. The PM’s Literary Awards Judges’ comments in 2008 ring just as true for this book: ‘While Conte’s research is formidable, it is the breadth of his historical imagination that enriches this novel.’ His research is immaculate not showy, deployed to authenticate and enrich the story. He drops facts correctly and co-opts from the era – the Mother’s Cross medal for German women, the Hilfswilliger (East European) volunteers who enlisted with the German army, and so on. These do not obscure the action and explications are to the point. So Katerina speaks of Lev Nikolaevich, not Leo Tolstoy: evidently Leo was a Germanisation.

There are two timelines, wartime and peacetime if you will. Katerina and Paul’s story is told linearly for the most part, over the six weeks Bauer is stationed at Yasnaya Polyana in 1941. The trajectory is broken by three epistolary chapters interspersed in the final third: their late-life correspondence between 1967 and 1969; and a stunning final chapter in 1975.

The plotting is propulsive, particularly the first half, several chapters ending with last-line hand grenades. The dialogue is quick fire and this part of the book borders on black comedy, satire almost. Some momentum is lost when Metz exiles Bauer to a dressing station near Malevka at the front for two weeks. Mind you, this interlude is more than 200 pages in. Metz is off his head by then and this demotion is trigger-happy. Here is the arbitrariness of war, and this sidestep has tragic, pointless consequences for Bauer and his orderlies. The horror of war surgery has been described but this is the closest we get to the frontline and conditions are abject. The Germans lack winter uniforms and Soviet-issue gear is prized. Bauer is advised, ‘You’re going to need boots, sir, proper boots, and we’ve just the thing.’

Bauer turned around and saw three pairs of boots lined up beside the stove, their leather damp, their openings stuffed with what looked like brown fabric but which he recognised an instant later as human flesh, three pairs of legs sawn off at the shins, tibias and fibulas sprouting as if attempting to regrow.

The writing is accessible and merits a mass audience. You do not have to have read War and Peace or have expert knowledge of Tolstoy to enjoy The Tolstoy Estate. Conte (presumably) has and it’s pitch perfect: not overly dense as a literary novel or too light an entertainment. He harnesses War and Peace when it serves the narrative context. It consoles Bauer, he values a novel with ‘a compelling plot, well-drawn characters, a powerful sense of a time and place’. Clever parallels are drawn and historical echo is one of the book’s signatures. Towards the end of the book Bauer is depicted 70 pages from completing his rereading of War and Peace. Napoleon and the French are retreating from Moscow in the latter, just as the Germans are preparing to retreat from Tula (and the medical battalion from Yasnaya Polyana). The convergence is delicious.

The narrative is metatextual in parts, as it is also concerned with The Novel. Conversations like this are how Bauer and Katerina commune:

‘A woman [Anna Karenina] bent on self-destruction – sounds like you when you first met Metz,’ he said, smiling.

‘Oh, Metz is more a figure from farce, don’t you think? He’d fit into a novel just fine.’

This is assured stuff and a bit of fun: it could be self-referential but avoids coming across as too knowing or up itself. ‘I forgot to make my second book interesting’ laments Katerina.

The Tolstoy Estate is an intelligent blockbuster, a clever historical fiction and an illuminating novel. Conte’s writing is polished and the narrative flows in notable tracts – a sense of time and place is powerfully captured. The setting – the birthplace of War and Peace in wartime – is an inspired premise made for a novel, maybe also a movie, and the reading experience feels cinematic. If there is to be more than ten years between books (why so?) then write one as rich as this.

Steven Conte The Tolstoy Estate HarperCollinsPublishers 2020 PB 416pp $32.99

Paul Anderson is an aspiring book editor. He completed the Graduate Certificate of Editing and Publishing course at UTS last year and is an associate member of IPEd.

You can buy The Tolstoy Estate from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.