Friday, 27 November 2015

On Existentialism, Marxism and Feminism in Leo Tolstoy's Final Novel, "Resurrection" (1899)

with gratitude to Mercy Hadfield

The Russian novelist Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) was - whether we're speaking physically, morally, intellectually or artistically - a pretty towering colossus, a true giant of his day. "If the world could write, it would write like Tolstoy," Isaiah Berlin memorably said of the man, and there is something to be said for such a sentiment. His two most famous novels, Anna Karenina and War and Peace, are justifiably held up as two of the greatest works of literature in the entirety of the Western canon. They are vast, sprawling, almost incomprehensibly insightful epics and are in effect summations of the modern world (if you're artsy and pretentious like me and consider anything post-1850 to be pretty damn modern). They are also both highly popular today - the relatively recent Joe Wright film of Anna Karenina, which I still judge as a sumptuously lavish misfire albeit a fascinating one, and the forthcoming BBC adaptation of War and Peace are both hot topics and considerably hyped. As far as we are generally concerned, they are Tolstoy's two great achievements. His two chart-topping albums, if you like. What this fails to take into account is the whole raft of other work that Tolstoy produced: his moral and cautionary tales, his short novellas such as The Kreutzer Sonata, Hadji Murad and The Death of Ivan Ilych, and a number of political and educational pamphlets. And then there is arguably his final great work - his rarely-discussed third novel, Resurrection, dating to relatively late in his long career: 1899.

Resurrection was greeted with a rapturous reception upon initial serialisation, with critics eager to read his first novel in 22 years - indeed, it outsold both Anna Karenina and War and Peace. And yet it is so little remembered today. There are perhaps numerous reasons for this: it does not have an expansive canvas, in the way that we as readers like to remember all 19th century novels - and certainly the Tolstoy ones - as having. Instead, it centres almost exclusively on a single figure, Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov, cleaving as much as possible to his own thoughts and his alone rather than roving far and wide across countless families, generations and classes. It is a much more overtly religious book than his other works, written as it was on the near side of Tolstoy's infamous existential crisis of the late 1870s - just after finishing Anna Karenina. In his later years, he adopted pacifism, vegetarianism, the simplest of clothing, and a more determined focus on a spiritual life alongside his ever-growing anger at the corruption and materialism of society (no wonder that Gandhi cited the Russian novelist as a key inspiration); Resurrection must inevitably be viewed through this lens, especially given Nekhlyudov's personal ending and religious epiphany. Perhaps both these elements have seen it fall in favour, and there is certainly a case that it is a "smaller" book than his other two - not merely in the unimportant sense of page count, but in scope and, arguably, in narrow-mindedness. Tolstoy has a fixed message he wishes to deliver here, seemingly at odds with his considerable focus on aesthetic quality in the past; it is not hard to see that this might damage the overall impression Resurrection leaves on us. 

And yet the novel has a number of extraordinary qualities: it is passionately, angrily, vividly written, and its socially liberal message is one that would, I think, be well-received today (and certainly one that in many ways still needs hearing). I used the word 'angry' in the above sentence and that would appear to me particularly apposite in a way you could hardly say of Tolstoy's other novels - this work sees him in full-on Jeremy Corbyn mode, bristling with righteous fury at the world's many injustices. The principal focus of Resurrection - and the aspect which most elevates it as a reading experience - is often on the most underprivileged of society, on its underbelly: the squalor of prisons, the dank smell of diseased and starving children, the trauma of life as a maltreated prostitute, the grey terror of a courtroom as guilt is examined and punishment is pronounced. He roundly condemns the authorities and the officials, from every judge to every superintendent. He can viciously attack an assistant prosecutor as "quite monumentally stupid" precisely because of the man's self-obsessed arrogance and slick, easy manner; can ruthlessly mock the priesthood, in both court and in church, as a faith interested only in power and in empty ritual (though a brave opponent in Tsarist Russia, leading to Tolstoy's excommunication in 1901). He rebuts these lascivious and hypocritical Powers That Be as having an unhealthy obsession in keeping the poorest on the straight and narrow (see the Orthodox Church's emphasis on female chastity, Mary, etc.) whilst so often indulging in the same vices themselves (the very judge who is to pronounce sentence on Maslova in the trial with which the story begins is itching to get the whole procedure over and done with so he can head to meet his young Swiss mistress in a hotel room). Time and again, he skewers the self-importance of these figures who so blindly uphold an unjust system ("thus ended the Christian divine service, performed for the comfort and edification of our brethren who had erred and gone astray," he says bitterly at the end of I.39). We are made to conclude that none of us really have any right to judge anybody else ("being evil themselves they presumed to correct evil", putting me again in mind of Hamlet's observation that "use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"). The sheer futility of the hard labour sentence ("[the work] can't be useless, or they wouldn't be buildin' it"); the clarity with which he sees through his society's propaganda ("could it really be that all the talk about justice, goodness, law, religion, God and so on, was nothing but so many words to conceal the grossest self-interest and cruelty?"); the terrifying physical and mental impact that prisonhood has on a person ("line after line they advanced, strange fearful creatures dressed alike"); and the awful human choices that have led to such a state of affairs ("if once we admit, be it for a single hour or in a single instance, that there can be anything more important than compassion for a fellow human being, then there is no crime against man that we cannot commit with an easy conscience") - these and far more possible quotations help to illuminate the book's strong and persuasive moral crusade. You can see why Tolstoy's works were some of the few permitted in Stalinist Russia.

In short, we have caught Tolstoy in a phase that most resembles Dostoyevsky's writing, with all those themes and images much more prevalent in Dostoyevsky's work (a man who did, after all, famously state that "the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons"). There is some justification for believing that the count was influenced by his fellow novelist (and this book sees a reference to him, much as Tolstoy himself was name-checked in The Brothers Karamazov): his more spiritual leanings which emerged post-existential crisis saw him align far more with the latter's most pertinent concerns, whilst Dostoyevsky's main oeuvre itself spanned 1866-1881, and had thus been the topic at the centre of decades of controversial discussions by the time Tolstoy decided to end a twenty-two-year silence and pick up his pen once more. The powerful insights that form the backbone of Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils and The Brothers Karamazov had become yet more relevant in the years following their publication - and, given that the 1905 revolution was on the horizon by this stage, would only become more relevant still. The whiff of anarchy and rebellion, it would seem, was in the air. If there was a time to write your definitive take on the inequality of late-19th century Russia, it was now.

And so Tolstoy does so. But what is most peculiarly fascinating is the manner in which he does so - quite unlike Dostoyevsky's approach. Certainly, he is a more consistently omniscient narrator, always presuming to know with great clarity the minutest details of his characters' interior and exterior lives where Dostoyevsky would sometimes limit himself or draw a veil over certain aspects or deliberately render things unclear - but we must also discuss the different ways in which they treat this central topic of the terrible hardship and poverty spread throughout Russia. In the hands of both novelists it comes across as desperately piteous realism, and both clearly aim to evoke a stirring emotive response in their readers. Their goals are both laudable and compassionate; what, then, separates the two? Simply put: Tolstoy weeps for the downtrodden, where Dostoyevsky weeps with them. That's grossly simplistic, of course, but it gets across the central point that Tolstoy's vantage point and the status of his narrator is and always shall remain that of an elite and well-educated liberal nobleman suffering as he watches the terrible conditions in which the poorest are forced to live. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, gets right down amongst the most impoverished of society and writes from their perspectives, and from his own, as a man who was often feverishly ill and impecunious for much of his life.

This "vantage point" of Tolstoy's is certainly worth bearing in mind when reading Resurrection - indeed, it is fairly essential to understanding the principal character of Nekhlyudov. For all his mourning and his liberal handwringing, he is so often vain, arrogant, conceited and egocentric; at least at first, he lays as much focus on his own guilt at having seduced Maslova, who was at the time a young and innocent serving-girl but is now a prostitute, thrown in jail under the false accusation of being a poisoner, as he does on her suffering. He is concerned to help her as a "superior" member of society, as someone who has wronged a lesser kind of human (whether she should be classed so in his eyes because she is a woman or because of her social status is deliberately rather obscured). Although he grows more selfless throughout the novel, this remains a distinct problem. What seems to irk Nekhlyudov most - and, dangerous though it is to presume, one cannot help feeling if one understands the character as a self-portrait and reads around Tolstoy's diaries and numerous biographies that the same thing also irked the author himself - is that for all his superhuman efforts to help the downtrodden and the oppressed and the worst-off (and to his credit, he tries far harder than anyone else in the novel, or indeed than we are likely to know in our daily lives), for all his compassion, he is unnecessary and unwanted. He is terrified, it would seem, of the possibility that the mysterious lower classes and the fallen women he does not understand do not need his beneficence to function, whereas he is utterly dependent on and still slaved to the society he despises and does not respect. "He was dismayed by the mystery that both she [Maslova] and all the other people collected in the prison were to him", we are told; and then later, that he "always found it horribly disagreeable, when he wanted to help the oppressed, to have to rank himself with the oppressors". Note the English translator's choice of that word "disagreeable" there, as though this state of affairs just doesn't quite fit with his preferred view of the world; it almost sounds like a dish that slightly upsets his stomach. Nekhlyudov spends much of the novel on the road with the prisoners, living in squalid conditions and trudging on the path to Siberia, and yet when he reaches that far-flung barren wasteland, he is relieved to enjoy a hearty meal with the governor, and feels as though all that misery out there is "a dream from which he had wakened to reality"; he feels that he is at peace with the world, "as if he had just found out what a good man he was".

I find this last tiny excerpt particularly significant, since it skewers in Nekhlyudov's character and motivations exactly the kind of double standards we feel Tolstoy has been uncovering in the unpleasant and hypocritical priests, judges and officials. Even the man who helps, even him, seems to want to because he enjoys the sensation that it is he who is helping ("'how good!', he said of what was in his soul" is Nekhlyudov at his most odious); this, it would appear, drives even his seemingly astonishing and selfless desire to marry the unfortunate Maslova, so that he might help alleviate her sentence and lot in life. But to his horror, it transpires, "she did not need him, and it made him feel sad as well as mortified". The sickener hits: she does not need him. In the well-drawn figure of Nekhlyudov, who (as has been pointed out to me) is something of a development on the same concepts Tolstoy explores with his hero Levin in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy blows open the illusion of liberal charity and essential goodness and unveils how it is so often motivated by mere guilt and self-interest. It is a trait he evidently both respects and deplores, both in the character and in himself. This compelling psychological insight is yet another area in which Resurrection excels and impresses us.

And yet this book is fatally flawed, and fascinatingly it is flawed in almost the same manner as it is great. Let us retrace what Tolstoy is doing in Nekhlyudov's character - showing us an admirable yet problematic attempt on behalf of an otherwise comfortable nobleman to do what he can in the name of justice and charity in an inhospitable, harsh world. The stunning irony is that the novel Resurrection is Exhibit A of exactly the same impulse. Tolstoy's work is angry, and outraged, and often sickens and frightens us or may have us nodding along with agreement. Yet it is also in its very nature and focus a product of the victors - nay, of the oppressors, however reluctant our hearts may be to use that word. The book is a product of the writer's liberal guilt, and if it strikes a chord with its readers, then it is also reflecting our own guilt back at us. What I mean by this is to consider the story as one full of absent spaces - lacunae, if you like, where words and stories and character and narrative should be, but where there is instead a void into which we stare with our mass-produced telescopes from our comfortable observatories. Its focus is so tightly knit with Nekhyludov's response to misery that it does not fully engage with those for whom the misery is a reality. In an irony yet more stunning, this very essay is doing exactly the same thing. And so will the next piece to be written on this book, most likely. Repeatedly missing the point, and erring again. I have devoted considerable time already to Nekhlyudov's guilt, to illustrate both how powerful and problematic that element is; in so doing, I have overlooked the people about whom the book feels as though it should really be telling a story. QED.

Perhaps in some small way, we can try to redress that and turn now to Maslova, the young woman whom Nekhyludov seduced in his youth and who is later thrown into prison. In many respects, Tolstoy's writing of her is properly stirring, wonderful, sympathetic stuff, and probably a more fully-realised personality than equivalent individuals like Dickens' Nancy from Oliver Twist. She is miserable, wretched, exploited and abused, yet has her own kind of nobleness about her. "She had come to hate the thought of a man", we are told in one of the novel's more concerted efforts to get inside her head - these men who pester her for her attention, in the brothel, in the prison, dating right back to a young Nekhyludov. We learn that she cannot understand the attitude of all these men to her, since she has always found favour with them in the past because of her beauty - even the men of the courtroom all cannot stop gazing at her - and yet is now reviled, loathed by them all, old and young alike, wealthy judges and putrid male convicts. We have been brought full circle to society's and the Orthodox Church's emphasis on female chastity and purity, and to Nekhlyudov's own attraction to women throughout the novel: wherever the allure is there, so too is a kind of repulsion, a fear of female sexuality as something that must be controlled. This, too, recurs throughout the novel (though is most overt in the comment that Novodvorov thinks all women are intensely dull and stupid, with the exception of whichever one he happens to be in love with at the time, and then she is so perfect and pristine that only he can possibly appreciate her virtues). Maslova is deceived and betrayed by those who land her in gaol for a crime she did not commit - even if, as Nekhlyudov muses, "the only suitable place for an honest [person] in Russia at the present time is prison". Since its treatment of her has been hard, she has become hardened against the world (far more so than any of the so-called 'great and the good'). The few scenes that do focus on Maslova's plight are far and away the novel at its finest - simple, unfussy, and yet profounder for it.

The prison life for her and her fellow prisoners, many of whom we get to know one way or the other, is illuminated particularly painfully in I.29-30. Tolstoy describes with enormous compassion how twelve women and three children have all been forced to live in one cell; their hunger, their tears, their desperate drinking, describing their past in vivid, emotionally honest little vignettes, elucidating the often trivial reasons for their current destitution. By the time we reach III.18-19 the stagnancy of the prisons has reached an almost fantastical - yet horrifically real - fever pitch, as a little boy "of about ten" lies in the liquid oozing out of the overflowing latrine, his head and arm resting against another criminal's leg because he must cling to something - by the time we reach this point, it is almost too much to bear. These women and children are seen by Tolstoy's society as the most guilty, yet they are in his own eyes far and away the most wronged.

The issue is that we spend so little time with Maslova; scant chapters are devoted to her that do not also revolve around Nekhlyudov. This is true of most characters in this novel, certainly - it being so focussed on the one protagonist - but such an approach stings far less with regard to, say, the mostly flighty and upper-class Missy Korchagina than it does in Maslova's case, about whom the very point is that her story is not being heard. How frustrating, then, that this novel does not really give us Maslova's story. We may glimpse it, in fractured moments and brief windows onto the past, through Nekhlyudov's eyes; sometimes Tolstoy lets us be privy to this woman's thoughts. How frustrating that she is portrayed as the paragon of innocence until she is corrupted by him, or that she falls into the familiar mould of "far too selfless heroine", willing to marry another convict instead of Nekhlyudov because she has come to love him and will not drag him down to her level. Perhaps we should be forgiving of a novel that was written in 1899; perhaps we shouldn't. Perhaps some flaws are too deep-rooted in the art's very inception to be properly forgiven - ironically enough for a novel which ends with Nekhlyudov whole-heartedly embracing his own individual faith in God. I am, of course, no great fan of the ending, which feels more like the fascinating conclusion of the novel's first part - we shall see his greater disillusionment in the second part of the story, perhaps, along with Maslova's narrative plugging the lacunae that has loomed large thus far. This is how I like to approach Resurrection, in the end - as an enormously intelligently written novel by a writer of consummate talent that, ultimately, does not brave the places where I feel it ought to go, nor does it quite follow through on many of its own most lyrically resonant passages, but that can be lived out in one's head as a far more powerful work. Make no mistake: it's a novel that needs to be read, about a world so akin to ours, in which prisons such as the one Tolstoy describes are depressingly common in all variety of allegedly more civilised nations, whether that's Brazil or the US.  It is a beautiful novel that will help us to look more closely at how broken the world is. I just wish it could have achieved this by handing the microphone over to those whom the world has most broken.

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