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Shakespeare and Tolstoy

I was reading two articles in the Sunday Times today that made me think about fictionalised accounts of real people, something I tend on the whole to avoid in choosing novels.

One was by Jay Parini, about the film he has written based on his novel The Last Station, about Tolstoy (which I have to confess I hadn't heard of, though it was written in the 1980s!). †The novel (and thus the film) is about the last year in Tolstoy's life.

The other is a new novel by Robert Winder, The Final Act of Mr Shakespeare, which sees Shakespeare writing a play about Henry VII as a piece of anti-Tudor propaganda - apparently the play itself, a pastiche of Shakespeare, takes up a quarter of the novel. †

The latter sounded dire, the former more appealing - Christopher Plummer is Tolstoy in the film, Helen Mirren his wife Sofya, and James McAvoy plays Valentin Bulgakov, disciple of Tolstoy and target of Sofya's bitterness about Tolstoy willing his estate away from her. †Has anyone read the book by Jay Parini?

Writing a play in the style of Shakespeare seems just a tad megalomaniac ... well, at least you can't accuse the author of lack of ambition!

I have heard much of Jay Parini's novel, but have never read it. Many years ago, I read a biography of Tolstoy by the French novelist Henri Troyat, and although it was a good read, it was deeply unsatisfactory as a biography: the book is very much the work of a novelist rather than a biographer, with many pages of supposition and conjecture passing itself off as fact. But Tolstoy's life - especially the last few years - are fascinating, and it's not surprising that novels and films are being based around them.

(I seem to remember many, many years ago thatthere was atelevision drama about teh very eventful final days of Tolstoy, with Alfred Burke playing Tolstoy. Anyone else remember this?)

The reviewer of the Shakespeare novel said that the play was quite impressive as a pastiche purely of the language of Shakespeare, but had none of Shakespeare's dramatic skill, particularly in terms of pace.  It said the novel was very enjoyable, and probably intended to be nothing more - Shakespeare is presented as a feminist, a sensitive soul, etc - all the things a modern audience might want.  John Donne's daughter is an actress who flouts the ban on female actors, and other references to historical characters are mixed in.

It sounded a bit naff to me, but yes, certainly ambitious too!

I actually like novels about real people.  Anthony Burgess' A Dead Man in Deptford (about Marlowe) I seem to remember enjoying (it was years ago that I read it mind).  More recently, I enjoyed Christopher Rush's Will (the title has a double meaning, as it's about Will Shakespeare writing his will!).  Peter Ackroyd's Milton in America I recall being slightly surreal, but it explored some interesting themes.  Ackroyd is of course famous for writing novels based on real people, with Chatterton and Wilde also getting the treatment from him.

Anthony Burgess also wrote a novel about Shakespeare called, rather wittily and somewhat self-deprecatingly, Nothing Like the Sun. I donít know to what extent one could take something like this as a serious novel, but it was an enjoyable read for all that Ė mainly thanks to Burgessí obvious love of the times and the people he recreates.

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