Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Steven Conte, The Tolstoy Estate


Our group's June book was Australian author Steven Conte's second novel, The Tolstoy Estate, which takes place over six weeks - November-December 1941 - of Germany's World War 2 campaign in Russia. The specific setting is a German medical unit that was based in Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's estate, near Tula, south of Moscow. 

The novel is told through the perspective of German military doctor, Paul Bauer, who is based there with a medical unit led by Julius Metz. At the estate is the curator of the site, Katerina Trubetzkaya, who is, not surprisingly, hostile. A relationship develops between Paul and Katerina, but against a backdrop of deteriorating conditions both on the war-front and in the unit, as commanding officer Metz's behaviour becomes increasingly erratic.

The book has been shortlisted for the 2021 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and longlisted for the 2021 Colin Roderick award.

We started of course with our ...

First impressions

  • Enjoyed it because of its setting in a German army hospital in Russia, its exploration of love (particularly of love in difficult times), its discussion of writing and literature with wry reflections on Conte’s own book, and its structure with its sudden change of tack partway through. 
  • Loved it, couldn't put it down, because of its details which suggested it was well-researched. The harrowing details felt convincing, and the ending didn't let me down. 
  • Loved it, though got tired of all the operations, so loved it when the first set of letters appeared, because this kept me going. Haven't read War and peace and felt it might have added some layers. Loved the description of the house. 
  • Really enjoyed it, found the historical context very interesting, including that Tolstoy was a pacifist, as this novel is. It's a little romanticised, but reality wasn't romanticised. Hitler and many in the army used drugs during war, which may have resulted in some madness or deluded behaviour. There were great characters in the medical team, some feeling real, others more "hyper-real".
  • All of the above. As with Overstory, this is a book I'd love to write an essay about to draw out all the paths. Enjoyed the themes about love and writing (such as its discussion of "the usual reasons one values a novel"). Thought the book was particularly about Katrina, and the many facets of her as a person. Was interested in the reference to the Kreutzer sonata
  • A bit "iffy" at the start but ended up enjoying the book; it won me over. 
  • Liked it but didn't love it. Thought A gentlemen in Moscow was a better novel (says the member who recommended this one!) The references to the use of drugs during war are real. The surgery scenes felt like they'd come straight out of a textbook. Thought the Caesarean scene by candlelight was a bit far-fetched but "it probably did happen sometimes". Made me want to read Tolstoy again. 
  • Enjoyed it, particularly all the different characters. Found it a gentle book, considering the topic. Liked the descriptions of the snow, trees, countryside. 
  • Really enjoyed it, though doesn't think it's a great book. 
  • Really enjoyed it too, found it a visceral read with the descriptions of the icy cold conditions on the dressing station, in particular. The surgery scenes were very real. Thought it a political story, about a good man in a bad army. Katerina, also, was a good person in a bad regime. 

Further discussion


We talked about the novel's exploration of the past and the future. Metz saw himself as a man of the future, a d criticised Bauer for wallowing in the past (in Tolstoy). In one of his letters, Bauer talks about old people wanting to "wallow in memory, when clearly the healthier thing to do was to stride into the future". However, it's a complicated issue as Bauer seems to realise. In his letters, he wants to pick up the past and stride into the future with Katerina.

We talked about Nazism's master race theory, which posited the German race as the heroes of the future. But, as one member said, Bauer's life on the front is immersed in the consequences of aiming for this future. The gay dentist/anaesthetist Hirsch is an example of Nazism's vision riding roughshod over individuals. 

Bauer, on the other hand, saw people as individuals. War and peace, he tells Katerina, restored his faith in

doing good in the world; because if, as Tolstoy argued, we are all specks in a vast world-historical drama, including those who think they’re in charge, it follows that everyone’s actions are potentially significant, that the humblest person can influence events as much as any general, emperor of tsar. (p. 218)
One member reminded us of Bauer's recognition of the future in Demchak, 

It was good to be reminded of the talents of the young, who in time would run the world and, one hoped, make a better fist of it than those who were currently in charge.

Ironically, though, the black-and-white Hiwi Demchak is perhaps not the best of the young to achieve this!

One member commented that war is ethically confronting, which we Australians are seeing played out now in the SAS Officer Ben Roberts-Smith court case.

We also talked about the links with War and peace re Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. As one member said, both Napoleon and Hitler's armies had confronted unseasonably cold winters.

We looked at some of the questions from Steven Conte's website

One question is, "Is Julius Metz a bad person? What about Hermann Molineux? Norbert Ritter? ‘Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner,’ goes a French proverb: to understand all is to forgive all. How true is this?"

We talked about Metz being mercurial, unreliable, and able to be "played" by Katerina. Bauer believed the drugs being given experimentally to Metz affected his mental ability. We talked about their being value in "understanding" bad behaviour but where is the line? At what point can you forgive? Also, how do you empower people to stand up for their own beliefs? One member noted that Metz was good at his job, and did save lives.

One person wondered whether Bauer is a somewhat idealised character? Some thought perhaps he was, while others thought that he falls within the range of "real" people. As a surgeon, Bauer didn't have to be involved in the politics, one member suggested, though others felt that being a doctor in the regime, he couldn't avoid it.  

Considering the discussion this question engendered, one member suggest that it was a sign of a good novelist that we could get so much into the skin of his characters.

SOME SPOILERS

Another question concerned the structure and plotting: "What did you think when the first letter was introduced into the narrative? Did it shock you? Did it change your mind about the novel or change the way you read it? Did it reduce the tension for you or increase it?" 

One member had already mentioned in her first impression that it kept her reading, as she had become worn down by the extended chapter on the surgeries. Another member commented that it told us that Bauer and Katerina had survived the war, and wondered why he had decided to tell us this? What did he want us to focus on if it wasn't that plot issue?

We discussed how Conte explores a relationship coping with the stress of competing regimes, and that it showed what a strong bond they'd formed. One member hadn't got the feeling that Katerina was "into" Paul (Bauer). However, as others said, the novel is told from his third person subjective point of view, so, until the letters, we only see the relationship from his point-of-view - and he is uncertain about her interest. Another noted that Katerina's reference to not ruining his looks in the frostbite scene suggested her attraction to him! 

A member complimented Conte on his insight into human feelings, finding particularly real Katerina's description of how she missed Paul.

The final question we considered was: "Siegfried Weidemann advises Bauer to ‘Focus on your own job. Don’t look left or right. Obey orders and let someone else fret about the rest.’ What do you think of this advice? In your family, your workplace, your locality or your nation, is it unethical, necessary or reckless to disregard politics?"

Being Canberrans, we immediately thought of the challenges currently faced by public servants whom we feel are not encourage to give "frank and fearless advice" but to follow party lines. We talked about other works which explore personal responsibility, including Bernard Schlink's The reader, and Christopher Hampton's play, A German life, about Brunhilde Pomsel who worked in Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry. 

One member talked about the Government's being invested in creating heroes because we need people to go to war. Conte, we agreed, makes us think about making decisions. We can get caught up in the heroic stories. 

We liked that Conte has covered here a story that hasn't been told before - the 41 days of German occupation of Yasnaya Polyana. (Though, as one said, the book was inspired by Marie Curie's daughter, Eve Curie's Journey among warriors, 1943, which includes her description of a visit to Yasnaya Polyana, three weeks after its liberation from invading German forces.)

This was a book that engaged us all and generated a wonderful and wide-ranging conversation. A great choice, even if the person who recommended it didn't love it!

Present: 9 members

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