Book Review: The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte

The Tolstoy Estate…

About the Book:

Epic in scope, ambitious and astonishingly good, The Tolstoy Estate proclaims Steven Conte as one of Australia’s finest writers.

In the first year of the doomed German invasion of Russia in WWII, a German military doctor, Paul Bauer, is assigned to establish a field hospital at Yasnaya Polyana – the former grand estate of Count Leo Tolstoy, the author of the classic War and Peace. There he encounters a hostile aristocratic Russian woman, Katerina Trubetzkaya, a writer who has been left in charge of the estate. But even as a tentative friendship develops between them, Bauer’s hostile and arrogant commanding officer, Julius Metz, becomes erratic and unhinged as the war turns against the Germans. Over the course of six weeks, in the terrible winter of 1941, everything starts to unravel…

From the critically acclaimed and award-winning author, Steven Conte, The Tolstoy Estate is ambitious, accomplished and astonishingly good: an engrossing, intense and compelling exploration of the horror and brutality of conflict, and the moral, emotional, physical and intellectual limits that people reach in war time. It is also a poignant, bittersweet love story – and, most movingly, a novel that explores the notion that literature can still be a potent force for good in our world.

My Thoughts:

This was an exceptionally good novel. It’s the story of a German medical unit that has set up their hospital on the grounds of Tolstoy’s Estate in the middle of the Russian winter of 1941. The novel spans six weeks although in a stylistic twist, the author gives us the ending about half way through with the introduction of a series of letters that begin in the 1960s. Surprisingly, this didn’t spoil the tension of all that was still to come. Although, Conte displays such a command of his narrative, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by this.

‘War is filthy, of course. It hurts and it hardens. But the fact is that for surgeons it’s also an opportunity. Every month we’re making medical advances: honing old techniques, inventing new ones, even upending a dogma or two.’
‘You’re a seeker after truth.’
‘Is that irony I detect?’
‘Yes, but go on.’
‘Truth be told, professional satisfaction is the least of it, because as well as seeking truth I’m also revelling in mystery. I delve into people, and you’ve just seen how strange, how wondrous that can be. What I’m trying to express,’ he said, ‘earnestly…’
‘No matter. Go on.’
‘…is that surgery is more of an art than a science. There’s an imprecision to it – a fuzziness, if you will – that’s maddening but also compelling.’

Paul Bauer, our narrator for this story, is a highly skilled and dedicated surgeon, widowed, in his forties, a German Officer who is not a Nazi, who, in all honesty, appears to not even support Hitler. He is a fan of Tolstoy and relishes the opportunity to be present on the great literary giant’s estate. There he meets Katerina Trubetzkaya, caretaker of the estate, a Soviet woman who burns with anger and realism. She is also in her forties, and I only mention this because it was refreshing to read a war story that wasn’t entirely populated by young and glamorous twenty year olds. These were characters that had all lived lives prior to the war, loved and lost, been members of political movements and developed ideologies of their own. Both Paul and Katerina were well read, well educated, and their conversations were lively and stimulating, all the more so for them being on opposite sides of the war.

‘Oh, they were grand days,’ she said, smiling, ‘thrilling days. You’ve no idea. We were poor, of course. Everyone was. But there was a feeling of extraordinary possibility in the air: factories would end want, mechanised agriculture would abolish hunger, science would conquer disease. People would be free to work as they pleased, love as they pleased. Some of this we even accomplished. Homosexuality was made legal, though that was later reversed. And literacy – there’s one achievement that’s endured.’
Her eyes were shining and it occurred to Bauer there was no period in his own life that he looked back on with such passion.
‘I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,’ Katerina said. ‘You’re probably a Nazi. Are you a Nazi?’
‘No, I’m not,’ he said. ‘In the election that brought Adolf Hitler to power I voted for the Social Democrats.’
She pretended to recoil at this. ‘Oh, good grief, one of those. If it gets out I’ve talked with a petit-bourgeois socialist I’ll be shot when our forces come back.’

Tolstoy himself is a vivid presence throughout the novel, and not just because the hospital camp is based on his estate. Paul begins a re-read of War and Peace and this novel, more than any other of Tolstoy’s works, becomes a symbol for Paul, a connection to others he encounters who have also read it. Katerina, as caretaker of the estate, has a great affection for Tolstoy and has studied his works extensively. Metz, Paul’s commanding officer, develops a different fixation with Tolstoy, a more bizarre and concerning one. He believes he can feel Tolstoy’s ghost, and rapidly descends, with the aid of rampant drug use, into a manic state whereby he believes he must conquer Tolstoy in order to win the war. Not a state of mind you want in a commanding officer. All of this is unfolding against a background of a war being fought without adequate resources in a country whose harsh winter climate will act as a hand of fate like no other.

‘To be clear, I’m not saying that the novel as a form will disappear, any more than poetry has disappeared since it lost its status as the most prestigious branch of literature. But its importance will fade. Everything fades, I suppose, certainly everything made by human hands, and yet I can’t help feeling bereft to witness this diminution of the novel, which for all its inadequacies has trained us to see the world from others’ points of view. To borrow a Stalinist idiom, the novel is a machine, a noisy, violent thing whose product, oddly enough, is often human understanding, perhaps even a kind of love. I daresay some might look at the last one hundred years and say, ‘Nonsense, what love?’ but if so they are naive because the terrifying truth is that it could have been worse. Hitler could have won. Kennedy and Khrushchev could have blown us all to hell. And who knows what other horrors we’ve evaded because someone, or someone’s teacher, or someone’s mother or grandfather, once put down a novel and thought, ‘My God, I am like that stranger’ or ‘That stranger is like me’ or even ‘That stranger is utterly different from me, and yet, how understandable his hopes and longings are.’ And in the future, as fewer and fewer people use these engines of empathy, what horrors will we not avoid?’

This novel is visually stunning, allowing you to imagine the unimaginable. It’s also a love story, and not only between two people, but more subtly, for novels as a form of creative expression. This is a really intelligent work of fiction that had me thinking critically and feeling deeply.


Thanks is extended to HarperCollins Publishers Australia for providing me with a copy of The Tolstoy Estate for review.

About the Author:

Steven Conte studied Professional Writing at the University of Canberra and Australian Literature at the Australian Defence Force Academy (as a civilian). He holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. Barman, life model, taxi driver, public servant, university tutor and book reviewer are some of the jobs with which he has supported his writing. Steven’s debut novel The Zookeeper’s War won the inaugural Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction, and was also shortlisted for the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, and for the 2007 Christina Stead Award for Fiction. The novel was published in the UK and Ireland and translated into Spanish.

The Tolstoy Estate
Published by 4th Estate AU
Released 2nd September 2020

19 thoughts on “Book Review: The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte

  1. Pingback: The Tolstoy Estate, by Steven Conte | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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