THE NEW YORKER August 30th 2010 SIMON PARKE SPEAKS WITH THE DEAD Book trailers-the low-budget previews modelled on those used by the film industry-have quickly grown tiresome. They're never very interesting, often overly impressionistic and pretentious, and rarely rise above the level of those silly historical reA"nactments you see on cable. They might get better over time, or die out; either is preferable to their current state. An exception, though, are the finely wrought previews for Simon Parke's Conversations with - A" biographies, published by White Crow Books. In this series, Parke bypasses the more quotidian aspects of historical biography by conducting interviewsA" with his subjects-Jesus, Meister Eckhart, Arthur Conan Doyle, Vincent van Gogh, and Leo Tolstoy-with the answers coming from their published writings. The trailers are stagey-with Parke and the actor playing his subject shown in the recording studio while a musical score soars behind their voices-yet the interviews nonetheless feel natural. Much of this feeling owes to the straightforward and unadorned nature of the exchanges, as when Parke asks Vincent van Gogh why he drinks, and the master answers, If the storm gets too loud, I take a glass too much to stun myself.A" The shot cuts to At Eternity's Gate,A" van Gogh's portrait of a man with his head in his hands, but you can imagine the whorls and swirls of the artist's favored darkened skies as well. Here, Parke conducts his interview with Tolstoy in the assured and chatty style of a British talk-show host: http://whitecrowbooks.com/conversations/page/conversations_with_leo_tolstoy This gambit may be viewed as simply a clever gimmick, but there is something compelling about Parke's style, which in a way that is always promised but rarely delivered, does, in fact, bring his subjects to life. Parke's role as the good-natured interlocutor seems to be an essential component of the project, a disposition on display in this cheeky description of his imagined time spent with Tolstoy: He also proved an appalling husband, hated Shakespeare, never came to terms with his sexual appetite and yet had a profound influence on the non-violence of the young Gandhi. My time at Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's country estate, was never dull; and sometimes, surprisingly comic. Soon after I left the great man, at the age of 82, he ran away from home. by Ian Crouch Loose leafs from the New Yorker Books Department.
About the Author
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, better known as Leo Tolstoy, is rightly regarded as one of the greatest writers in the history of literature and his masterpieces, 'War And Peace' and 'Anna Karenina', are considered by many to be two of the most important novels ever written. He was born in 1828 in Yasnaya, Polyana, in what was then the Russian Empire, into a noble family with old and established links to the highest echelons of the Russian aristocracy. His parents died while he was young leaving relatives to raise him and after a brief and disappointing time at University, where enrolled in 1844, he spent time gambling, and losing, in St. Petersburg and Moscow before joining the army in 1851. He began writing whilst in the army and upon leaving took it up as his occupation with his first books detailing his life story as well as another, 'Sevastopol Sketches', discussing his experiences in the Crimean War. By the time he had completed 'Sevastopol Sketches' he had returned from the first of two trips abroad which would change his outlook on life and consequentially his writing approach and the content of his work. A trip to Europe in 1861 and a meeting with Victor Hugo, who had just completed 'Les Miserables', which had a marked influence on 'War And Peace', would further push Tolstoy towards the mindset that would lead him to write his most famous works. On the same trip he also met Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a French anarchist, with whom he discussed the importance of the need for education for all rungs of society. This revelation lead Tolstoy to open up 13 schools in Russia for the children of the working class, further highlighting his continuing separation from his noble roots. 'War And Peace', published in 1869, and 'Anna Karenina', published in 1878, were universally recognised as great works, but not long after the publication of the latter Tolstoy began to slip into an existentialist crisis. Although not suicidal in the literal sense of the term he did, however, decide that if he could find no reason or purpose for his existence he would rather die and so went about searching for a reason to live. He consulted his many friends in high places who espoused various intellectual theories but none of these sat well with him. Just as he was beginning to give up he had a dream that proved to be a moment of clarity and decided that God in a spiritual sense was the reason to keep on, though he was wary of the church and those that abused religion as a tool of oppression. He published 'A Confession' in 1882 which explained his crisis and his resolution and how it came about. Two subsequent novels, 'The Death of Ivan Ilyich' and 'What Then Must We Do?', further re-enforced his views in which he criticised the Russian Orthodox Church. The culmination of his 30 years of religious and philosophical thinking was 'The Kingdom Of God Is Within you' which was published in 1894. In the book he outlined the abuses of those in power in both the church and the government and this would eventually lead to his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. Tolstoy's main point derived from Jesus' teachings to 'turn the other cheek' and Tolstoy believed that this was the key to Christ's message which can be found in the Gospels and the 'Sermon On The Mount' in particular. This theory of 'non-violence' that dominated the book would make a profound impact on Mahatma Gandhi who read it as a young man whilst living in South Africa. In 1908 Tolstoy wrote 'A Letter To A Hindu' in which he told the Indian people that only through non-violent reaction and love could they overcome their British colonial masters. The letter was published in an Indian paper and Gandhi not only read it but also wrote to Tolstoy to ask permission to translate it into his own native Gujarati. 'The Kingdom Of God Is Within You' and 'A Letter To A Hindu' solidified Gandhi's non-violent idea of rebellion which he implemented and which came to fruition in 1947 when British rule came to an end and India became independent. Gandhi and Tolstoy would continue their correspondence up until Tolstoy's death in 1910.