Leo Tolstoy, by Ilya Repin. 1887
Back to back films, biopics of great writers. Thinking about the trade offs. First, Sylvia Plath and then Leo Tolstoy. Marked contrast between the two on so many levels. Most obviously, Tolstoy lived a long life, dying at the ripe old age of 82, while Sylvia Plath took her own life at the age of 30:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
Both movies portray the struggle, the conflict of life against art and art against life, of sacrificing loved ones for that craft and for genius. But in “Sylvia,” the betrayal runs too deep. There is no reconciliation, no final, moving, powerful reunion, as there is with “The Last Station.”
It may well be that to know a poet’s biography intrudes upon the poem, especially if a poet’s life was stormy, filled with drama, childhood traumas, and her life seems to ripple out to impact others long after her death. But with some poets and artists, we can’t help ourselves. We have to know what they were like beyond the page, or the painting, or the song. And there is the tradition of the tortured genius, the soaring poet, the damaged, shattered creator, who takes the broken vessel of their life and rearranges the fragments for a greater whole. Like a god torn to pieces by subterranean forces, only to be reborn ritually, endlessly, death after death.
Sometimes the poet, the painter, the singer or the rebbe enact tikkun olam, the repair of the world, in the process. And sometimes it is the people who follow them, attend to their works, study them, celebrate them, group them with others. They take what was shattered and then made whole further, combining it with other makers and other contexts, linking disparate beings and their art to as much of the world, past, present and future, as we can walk into.
We’ll never know exactly why Sylvia Plath took her own life, but the break up of her marriage with Ted Hughes was a likely trigger. His affair with Assia Wevill led to the split, and then like a horrible dream repeated, Assia committed suicide six years after Plath took her own life, possibly due to a further string of infidelities by Hughes.
In Tolstoy’s case, at least from the point of view of the film, his final walk out was due to his wife’s opposition to the movement created around him, and his desire to give away all of his wealth and the copyrights to his novels. Countess Sofya was determined to keep the estate in tact for her children, and to make sure there was income to keep it going for them. Tolstoy had other ideas. To be an ascetic, and cast off his worldly riches like Buddha and Francis of Assisi. This would later influence Gandhi and MLK profoundly. Not just his novels, his short stories, his essays, but his example, the way he chose to live his life.
In a sense, watching the two films in the order I did leads to another round of death and rebirth. It might have been otherwise, if I had reversed the order, watching the Russian Sage and his long suffering wife at Astapovo Station, and then seeing Lady Lazarus fail to rise again. An accident. A coincidence. I don’t believe in fate. But the gods never really cared what we believed, so long as we burn enough irony for them to get their fair share.