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New Year's Resurrection
Solomon Wakeling gives us another review of a classic novel. Ho hum, another book onto the must read pile...
Completed in 1899, Resurrection is Leo Tolstoy’s final stab at the epic realism he mastered in War and Peace and Anna Karenina. It tells the story of prince Nekhlyudov’s – land-owner and aristocrat – deepening identification with the cause of social justice in the sphere of criminal law and land-ownership.
Nekhlyudov is especially drawn to the case of prisoner Maslova, a woman he seduced and bribed off as a younger man, after he is called to serve as jury member in her trial for poisoning a brothel client. Tolstoy is sympathetic to her and depicts the drudgery of prostitution without romanticising it; he documents the “yellow licence”, the medical examinations and the harrowing statistics. Although Maslova confesses to administering a sleeping powder she claims ignorance of any poison.
A bored and indifferent jury convicts Maslova to exile in
Nekhlyudov’s memory of their earlier love is told by Tolstoy with a blissful, wintery lyricism that almost pre-figures Nabokov. Winter is a time for unrestrained sensualism; beckoning and hidden, existing in the simpler past. It is this romanticism which sustains his tender feeling for Maslova despite very little display of reciprocal feeling. Her true feelings towards him are mysterious throughout. The distance between them makes any real relationship impossible. What the prince experiences belongs only to a young man steeped in melancholy and loneliness for a lost past. She exists for the greater portion of the novel in the shadows, shy of revealing any vulnerability or gratitude. It is his will, not hers, that insists on the resurrection.
The title Resurrection presents a bold statement about the religious and philosophical problem at the heart of the narrative. Tolstoy writes, “The spiritual man in him raised its head and began to assert his rights.” (p. 80). This is the eternal law, written on all men’s hearts, to which Tolstoy gives voice. The person of Christ is not so elemental here, as it is in Dostoyevsky, but rather speaks for the resurrection of the Russian soul after its institutions had fallen into a state of corruption. Tolstoy charts the difficult path of a well-meaning aristocrat attempting to remedy the injustices of the class system in which he finds himself. He is pulled through the nose on this course by his love for Maslova but once bearing witness to the terrors of the system, acknowledges them, and tries to change them.
Where as Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead depicted the Tsarist prisons of the era from the point-of-view of the inside, as one who had experienced exile as a political prisoner, Tolstoy’s book is built out of the observations made from the outside, much like an investigative journalist. He builds a convincing universe out of hundreds of tiny observations, often giving an inventory of a room as a guide to the character of its owner.
In the first chapter, when we are introduced to prisoner Maslova, Tolstoy takes cares enough to record the sores on her feet and her sigh at spying a blue bird. Tolstoy praises the simple pleasures of spring in contrast to the squalor of the women’s prison, both in its physical toll and its petty preoccupations. There is another type of life yearning at the edges of this work which cannot even comprehend the poverty of imagination that would will to create this, of all things, when there is so much more in life to cherish.
The descriptions of the prisons verge on horror, bringing the author and his creation into a state of nausea. There is an extended passage at the end, describing the prison convoy, where the evil is not the Russian winter but a penetrating hot summer, causing several deaths of prisoners by sunstroke, described by the protagonist as murders.
Mirroring our own age, Nekhlyudov comes across prisoners detained merely for having no passport. Others are detained for political crimes. Significantly, Tolstoy records that conditions were better for political prisoners but their communications were more restricted. Such conditions were reversed in Stalinist times as notoriously documented by Solzhenitsyn, where to be an ordinary criminal was less feared by the state than those in dissent.
Often Tolstoy the essayist and Tolstoy the author converge into wrath-filled attacks on the powerful on behalf of the powerless. This breaks the narrative and yet comes from such wells of fury that as readers we are swept up in it.
Nekhlyudov’s ability to straddle high society and squeeze out favours from the powers-that-be is necessary in a legal system which has forgotten basic principles of human compassion, and instead relies on nepotism and the good will of the powerful. In the Tsarist legal system of the period an appeal could be made on questions of law but not on merit in the “Senate”, like our own appellate courts, and from there a petition could be made to the sovereign. Bureaucracy in the novel, whether church or state, is treated with withering sarcasm, as counter-point to real human suffering. Tolstoy pins criticism to officials in direct proportion to how many epaulettes they wear.
All the way through Tolstoy kicks his protagonist at the heels, ensuring that he carries his insights about land ownership through to their conclusion. His hero is autobiographical but he has a younger man’s intransigence, which from time to time lures him back to forgotten pleasures of luxury. Such moments are in fact the most moving in the work, expressing as they do Tolstoy’s own fatigue at his spiritual quest.
Nekhlyudov grapples both with the suspiciousness of the peasant class and the hypocrisy of the aristocracy in trying to carry his plans through to the end and give away private ownership of land to the peasants themselves. And this, finally, is what the novel asks of us; to carry out what we have started, to do as we have promised, and to align our inner morality with the grim facts of the outside world. More than any other work in Tolstoy the work appeals to the ascetic taste, what is good for us, rather than what we enjoy. This means that although the work is seldom entertaining it is often gripping.
The book flirts with the perfect denouement with Nekhlyudov coming to the realisation that Maslova does not love him and doesn’t want the salvation his connections offer, preferring the love of a political prisoner to himself. There are precious moments here of self-doubt and loneliness brought about by his position, poised between two classes who do not attempt to understand one another, and the loss of a love which he would have given anything to keep. Strangely her actions are interpreted by the hero, unconvincingly, as a loving self-sacrifice to save his reputation, in the name of the very love she now withholds.
Then the New Testament falls, as if from the sky, into the narrative, like a deus ex machina without lube mobile, resolving nothing. Tolstoy argues that no class of man has the right to punish or sit in judgement upon another, and, from out of the crucible of complexity which he has painstakingly built his story, gives a conclusion almost point-by-point worthy of a lesser evangelist.
From the time of the novel it would be less than twenty years until the Bolshevik revolution, when the squabbles over the ownership of Russian land were resurrected with unprecedented violence, the Royal family slaughtered and revenge taken, first on the upper classes, and then on all classes indiscriminately.
Prophetically, Tolstoy declares that the system of one class punishing another could drive individuals to extremes not just of violence but also of cannibalism, which has its beginning “Not in the Siberian marshes, but in Ministerial offices and government departments”.
Ominously, towards the novel’s close, Tolstoy records a conversation by a revolutionary and political prisoner, declaring that now that hot-air balloons have been invented, we should use them to exterminate the upper classes, in a moment of macabre humour.
“They are people too,” declares Nekhlyudov to a circle of revolutionaries of whom he is not the leader. This is a great warning hidden amidst many smaller warnings. It is to the eternal credit of this great writer that he kicks at our heels to remind us of our humanity.