Saturday 6 June 2009

Saturday night's alright for fighting with Leo Tolstoy

Oh damn. It's Saturday night and I'm sitting on my ass with the TV on and the computer playing videos on YouTube. I'd planned to make dinner for my hubby, who will be returning from PEI this evening. I'd planned to pack for my trip to Kingston which involves me being on a train at an offensively early hour tomorrow morning.

Instead, I laid down for 5 minutes and woke up 2 hours later, had a peanut butter and jam sammich for dinner, and am now about to write what may be the lamest post ever while simultaneously watching Lady GaGa videos. All these factors combined may constitute a spiritual bottom for me.

I was incredibly excited to read Leo Tolstoy's Resurrection, my first Russian novel in about 3.5 years - the last being Anna Karenina, which I read while taking trains through various eastern bloc European countries. Creepily apropos, yes. Anyway, I really, really enjoyed Anna Karenina, even though I understood why some people I know found it a little too heavy-handed in its moralizing.

I was able to get past the pedagogical in Anna Karenina because it was so chock-full of story. I like morals, when told in a compelling way that involves a denouement wrapping up a bunch of interesting Happenings. Not much Happens in Resurrection; indeed, in this book, there's not much room for Happenings what with the whole boat-load of Lessons (called "Learnings" in the corporate world. *Shudder*) that keeps crashing up on the shore. (I don't think I like this metaphor even though I'm sure you get what I mean. But I'm not going to change it because that wouldn't be in keeping with the whole "spiritual bottom" aspect of this post.)

Spoiler galore from here on in!
A rake and all-around upper-class meathead named Prince Nekhlyudov is doing jury duty when he realizes that one of the people he's helping to try is Maslova, his aunts' former ward/maid who 10 years before he seduced and then abandoned. Having been seduced, abandoned, impregnated, and lost the baby, Maslova, of course, has turned to prostitution and is on trial for murdering one of her clients.

She's innocent of murder, but the jury being given incomplete instructions from the judge, and the meathead saying nothing because he's worried people will figure out what he did 10 years before, manages to find her guilty without meaning to and she's sent off to Siberia. In the meantime, Nekhlyudov is walking down memory lane remembering how much finer a fellow he used to be and also remembering what a cad he was to Maslova. Based on said stroll, he decides to try to make right by taking on the appeal for her case and by sacrificing his life by marrying her.

The prince is very pleased with his re-emerging spirituality and has very tender and loving feelings for himself and all the good he ends up trying to do for his former conquest and some other prisoners she draws his attention to. The prince is a very self-satisfied shit and Tolstoy treats him with irony once or twice but not really enough for this book, with its earnestness and not-Happenings, to be a very good and - for Tolstoy I think this would matter more - convincing read.

And Nekhlyudov's transformation into a spiritual being isn't just unconvincing, it's incomplete but not, I think, because Tolstoy intended it to be so. Rather, faced with having a member of the gentry marry a fallen servant girl, Tolstoy lets the prince off the hook by having Maslova refuse to marry him because she doesn't want to ruin his life. The problem with this is that he gets to feel a great deal of self-satisfaction for having felt differently but without his life being materially affected by his feelings (much like when he seduced her) - while she, of course, remains in exile for a crime she didn't commit. What makes this worse is that by having Maslova refuse to marry the prince for the above reason, and by having him accept her refusal, the class imbalances that Tolstoy so earnestly and strenuously damns and laments up until the book's conclusion are made to look as explicitly empty as they just quietly seemed to be throughout the book.

I would love to think this book wasn't only a harsh critique of late 19th-century Russia's penal system and the severe class imbalances reflected and perpetuated therein, but also of upper-class sentimentalists who have the privilege of dipping in, empathizing, and helping when they feel like it precisely because they can return to their easy lives whenever they like. But it just didn't feel like the latter at all, and for me, that severely undermined the effectiveness of the former two.

Also, not much Happened.


Mel u said...

I also did not find the transformation of character of the main persona of the novel as well explained or shown as I was hoping. I read it right after reading "War and Peace" for the second time so maybe I was judging the book by to high a standard. There are scenes and conversations as he approaches Siberia that are the work of a great artist. Tolstoy only wrote three full length novels and this is the third best. Keeping things in perspective, the other two belong in the top twenty list.

Bookphilia said...

You're right, there are some great scenes in Resurrection. Unfortunately, I think those great moments made me even more frustrated by the rest of the book.

I haven't actually read War and Peace yet so I'm glad there's something brilliant to return to with Tolstoy.

Meytal Radzinski said...

I skipped over the spoilers so I might be getting a skewed view of the book, but I just discovered "Resurrection" and I'm debating whether or not I should read it before "Anna Karenina", which I have (shockingly enough) not yet read. I'm intrigued mostly because I'm wondering if the lack of "Happening" might suit me - if it's character driven with some great scenes, that might actually be good. Any tips?

Mel u said...

A strong point in favor of Resurrection is that it centers really only on one character or at most two so it is easy to follow. To me some of the scenes with the deported persons in Siberia were very powerful. Resurrection is not rightly seen as a minor work by a great artist, like maybe Herman Melville's novels other than Moby Dick. Resurrections will make you want to read Tolstoy's other works and prepare your for them in part.

verbivore said...

Hmmm...I'm normally a sucker for Tolstoy (although I haven't yet read War and Peace) so I'd like to try this one at some point.

silverseason said...

I haven't read Resurrection yet, but I just obtained a copy of Childhood, Boyhood and Youth, so that will be my next Tolstoy. Regarding Anna Karenina, I recently reread it and this time got much more than a story. I found it a study of character -- moralizing also, but more about character than I remembered. Anns's failure is not just what she does, but her inability to control herself and foresee results. When the results come, she turns on Vronsky and destroys their relationship too.

Mel u said...

Help me please! If you had to pick a Henry James novel as the one that you would set on your book shelve next to War and Peace or even Resurrection what would it be? I have just begun to read The Europeans and I like it a lot. The consensus among James readers seems to be that it is not near his best work. What big James novel should I start with?

Bookphilia said...

mel: My favourite Henry James is still Portrait of a Lady. Not sure if it can be compared to the Russians at their best but that may just be a matter of taste. :)

Mel u said...

Collen, I have decided to read all of the Henry James novels. I think I read "Taming of the Shrew" 40 years ago in college. I was able to buy 5 of his works here (in Manila) in a local bookstore-Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Europeans, and two shorter works, Daisy Miller and Taming of the Shrew. I have completed The Europeans. I liked it a lot-in terms of Tolstoy-it seems like something the master in his latter years would see as a work to be read by the overrefined who really should be out working for social justice. There are many beautifully written sentences in The Europeans and it is considered on of his less baroque works. The project will take me some two years I guess, with a lot of other works in between to avoid an over load of James.