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.