Monday, December 27, 2010

Tolstoy, You Magnificent Bastard!

Book Reviewed: Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy. Translated by Rosemary Edmonds

Well, it's official. I'm a Tolstoy fanatic. Russian lit fans tend to be either Tolstoy people or Dostoevsky people (as Elif Batuman argues in her essay collection, The Possessed). By all rights, I should be a Dostoevsky girl. He's funnier, his views are more in line with my own, and he comes from a darker, more interesting point of view. But I'm not a Dostoevsky person. I am a full-blown Tolstoy-ite.

Tolstoy's writing (as filtered through his translators) never fails to blow me away. His fictional world is extremely detailed; Tolstoy never leaves anything out of his descriptions. Characters are fully-realized and capable of great kindness and utter terribleness in equal amounts. When I'm reading a Tolstoy novel, I don't need any stimulation whatsoever from the outside world. I already have everything I could possibly want in front of me. Even during the dullest passages, there is something to admire.

When I picked up Resurrection as my last read for 2010, I wasn't sure what to expect. War and Peace is one of my favorite books ever, but I had a tough time getting through Anna Karenina last summer. I struggle with Tolstoy's philosophies and themes; I disagree with them more often than not. I have to admit: Tolstoy is not an easy writer to get along with.

Resurrection, which was Tolstoy's last novel, is tailored to explore his ideas on religon and society. He's not afraid to point out everything that is wrong with the entire Russian judicial system (or the any judicial system at all, really) or to call the Orthodox church hypocritical or blaming the wealthy for being blind to the country's problems. He's obviously angry about what he sees around him, and he puts it all in this book. The book begins with the murder trial of a prostitute named Maslova (also called Katusha). One of the jurors, Prince Nekhlyudov, recognizes her as a girl he ruined as a young man. Nekhlyudov realizes he's the reason Maslova's life has turned out so badly, so he boldly decides he must join himself to her fate. When she's sentenced to several years of hard labor in Siberia, he decides he not only has to follow her out there, he must marry her as well. In the meantime, he gets caught up in helping other prisoners, realizes owning land is wrong, and loses touch with his fellow landed gentry.

By the end of the book, Nekhlyudov has become a completely different person, a more aware person. Hence, the novel's title. I don't want to give away anything, but things don't turn out exactly as he planned. However, he still comes to the conclusion that giving up his comfy lifestyle is the only way to live an honest and redemptive life. By the end, Tolstoy also brings in the theme of forgiveness, as Maslova comes to her own ideas about what Nekhlyudov has done. In the end, Tolstoy argues, only God can make any real judgments on us. It's an unoriginal theme that comes off very nicely in the final scene between Maslova and Nekhlyudov, a scene that reminded me how good Tolstoy is at creating cathartic moments.

The book's preachiness bothered me, particularly in the last ten pages, which were a bit of a drag (I had very similar feelings about War and Peace, too). However, that didn't keep me from absolutely loving this book. Seriously, it's one of the best reading experiences I've had in quite awhile. It's all because of how well Tolstoy paints scenes. The smallest moments have a grace to them that most authors of such high-minded material can never muster.

Whatever is wrong with Tolstoy as a writer, you cannot argue that he doesn't write some of the best domestic scenes in all of literature. I love the quietness, the longing that goes into these kind of scenes. In the first part of the book, after Nekhlyudov recognizes Maslova at her trial, we are taken to their youth together, when they really were in love with each other. The way Tolstoy writes these scenes took my breath away. In the midst of a very tragic and profound story, we get the description of a ribbon in Maslova's hair, a chaste kiss exchanged before Nekhyudov destroyed everything. It adds to the power of the book, and it makes the characters worth your time and energy.

I really did enjoy the way Tolstoy unfolded his two leads. Even though his views on gender roles are pretty blah, Tolstoy does give a kind of inner life to his female characters that you really don't see in Dostoevsky. Maslova is tough and hard when around Nekhlyudov, but in moments by herself or with her cellmates, you see she's vulnerable and trying hard to deal with what she's been given. Nekhlyudov is a slightly harder nut to crack, but I still found him fascinating. As a young man, he's adventurous and politically liberal, basically something of a budding revolutionist. As he gets older, he becomes a complete snob, taking what he wants only because of his title. His transformation into a kind of saintly figure never felt completely real to me. Towards the end of the book, on his way to Siberia, Nekhlyudov finds himself having dinner with some fellow gentry, and he's so at home there that you can't imagine he's going to make it anywhere else. He's now a man caught forever between two worlds, and I think it's awesome that Tolstoy allowed this kind of shade of gray in a character meant to represent so many of his own philosophies.

In a couple days, I'll be posting the list of my favorite books I read this year. Resurrection will most definitely be on this list. I had such a great time reading and digesting it. If you think you're one of those people who doesn't have time for Tolstoy, think again. This book is shorter than his most famous novels, and it packs quite a punch. Tolstoy blows me away every time. Hopefully, he might do the same for you one day.

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