Vital Signs

Writing in the Tolstoy Tradition

"I always wanted to be a writer I can remember the first book I ever wrote when I was very little. I wrote the title and the index, but I didn't actually get ’round to the contents." Nikolai Tolstoy laughs and leans back, trying to fit his extremely long legs under my dining room table.

Count Nikolai Tolstoy, who considers himself a Celtic scholar whose specialty is the study of Merlin, was in this country to receive an award from the USIC Educational Foundation in Washington in recognition of that part of his writing that examines the forced repatriation of Russian soldiers at the end of World War II.

He's an extremely tall fifty-three-year-old Russian emigre, born and raised in England, who never heard the Revolution mentioned in his own home and has ambivalent views about aristocrats. He's a countryman whose chickens escape and whose roof leaks, who keeps donkeys that have been left in his paddock, and enjoys the occasional sword fight with his small son. He ran into Tintern Abbey the last time he tried to drive. He laughs easily, and talked to me for four days without avoiding a question.

When I asked how he felt about aristocrats, he said, "In my personal case, I think it's a great advantage because, being obsessed by history, one knows so much more about one's ancestors, and it makes one feel in some way very much part of that unfolding process.

"But...

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