Resurrection, By Leo Tolstoy: Book review

 

Sweetness and light among shame and confusion. The greatest of all novels is Leo Tolstoy's final novel, Resurrection. Its effect upon a reader is immense and immediate. Even after eight readings of various translations, I continue to feel its spell and admire its complexity.

It is the story of a man tormented by the injustices of the world about him, who is at the same time tortured by his own self-indulgence. A reader likes but fears him, since it is possible we may find our own weaknesses depicted in these pages.

This battlefield of literacy was published serially first in 1899. Nothing else among Tolstoy's writings has excited such extremes of denigration and approval. I bow to the strength of its commitment, and to Tolstoy's powers in his old age, like a formidable engine that elevates us. Count Nekhlyudov, the central character of this huge chronicle, stays in his youth with two old aunts who have engaged a charming young woman, Maslova, as companion. Nekhlyudov falls in love with Maslova, and she with him. He joins the Army and becomes a general-roustabout. Returning to his aunts' house after a couple of years, he seduces Maslova, making her pregnant.

Later comes the scene where he is appointed to jury service. To his horror, he finds that the prisoner on trial for prostitution and murder is Maslova, now much deteriorated. Everyone bar Nekhlyudov is indifferent to the girl's fate, so that we find that Maslova is to be exiled to Siberia. He tries to marry her but she refuses him. "You had your pleasure from me in this world, and now you want to get your salvation through me in the world to come!"

Although snubbed in this way, Nekhlyudov does everything within his power to save her. He enters stinking prisons while trying to help Maslova. Tolstoy had himself visited such prisons; innocent and guilty alike are incarcerated. Iniquity and inequality fall under Nekhlyudov's inspection. He attempts to give his land to the peasants farming it. They will not have it. Starving men labour among the great fields. Their animals starve with them.

Towards the end, ranks of prisoners, fresh from freezing prison cells, are forced to march through the streets in a heat wave, in some cases being struck down by the heat, and dying: "All this happened," Nekhlyudov says to himself, "because all these people... consider that there are circumstances in this world when man owes no humanity to man." This brilliant, troubling novel at first out-sold Tolstoy's earlier novels, even War and Peace. It was criticised for its outspoken contents. It remains a grand panorama of discontent.

Brian Aldiss's novel 'Comfort Zone' is published by The Friday Project

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