Author: Leo Tolstoy
Date finished: 29 October 2016
Where did I get this book: I think this was another Hay-on-Wye purchase. Bought, first read and loved around 2006, and been waiting for a reread ever since.
Part of the experience of reading along with the ‘Not The Booker’ prize shortlist this year has been that I’ve read more newly published books in a short space of time than I ever normally do.
As a rule, I buy most of my books second hand, and rarely within a few years of their being published. This has meant that, while books and reading have always been hugely important to me, I have only occasionally been au fait with the cutting edge of literary developments and newly published works. Usually it would take something momentous like Go Set A Watchman to bring me up to date.
So, reading this shortlist of new books was a double-edged sword. I enjoyed the sense of community and camaraderie around reading books at the same time as others. But I don’t enjoy reviewing books I haven’t loved, especially if it’s possible the writer may read my review. And I suppose that without the passage of time to sort the wheat from the chaff, I am more likely to be reading a decidedly average book.
About halfway through the shortlist, I started to crave a book like this. I needed to recalibrate. Tolstoy as a palete cleanser. Resurrection is the literary equivalent of lemon sorbet; return to factory settings and remember what outstanding is.
I know I’m never averse to a bit of hyperbole, but in this case it is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the best books I have ever read. I feel like it should be compulsory reading for everyone in the world, so rarely does a book get right to the heart of what it means to be an imperfect person trying to live well in an imperfect world.
Resurrection tells the story of nobleman Nekhlyudov who, whilst serving on a jury, recognises Maslova, the unfortunate woman in the dock, as the former ward of his aunts. In their youth, Nekhlyudov had seduced her (Tolstoy’s, or his translator’s, word which, when you get to the description of what actually happened between them, seems rather a generous way of putting it to be honest), setting her formerly respectable life on a new path leading directly to the wrack and ruin she is facing in the courtroom.
I read once that Tolstoy is not a creative writer, but that he is better than any other at describing what is real. And I think there is a lot of truth in that. What starts off as a good old-fashioned courtroom drama quickly becomes an intricately detailed exploration of Nekhlyudov’s reassessment of his whole life, and its purpose. The book deals with the meatiest of meaty subject matter: what are we here for, and how can we live well? As well as dissecting some pretty hefty social injustice along the way. The resurrection of the title is not a return to life from death, but rather Nekhlyudov’s repeated attempts to renew his life and become a better person.
Despite the weight of the content, it is beautifully readable. The story is as much about the ridiculousness of human frailty and fallibility, as it is about striving to live a good life.
One of the commonest and most generally accepted delusions is that every man can be qualified in some particular way – said to be kind, wicked, stupid, energetic, apathetic and so on. People are not like that. We may say of a man that he is more often kind than cruel, more often wise than stupid, more often energetic than apathetic or vice versa; but it could never be true to say of one man that he is kind or wise, and of another that he is wicked or stupid. Yet we are always classifying mankind in this way. And it is wrong. Human beings are like rivers: the water is one and the same in all of them but every river is narrow in some places, flows swifter in others; here it is broad, there still, or clear, or cold, or muddy or warm. It is the same with men.
This is one of those passages that, similar to quoting Marlon James or Hilary Mantel in previous reviews, is impossible to find a good place to finish. It just goes on and on being amazing.
As you would expect, Nekhlyudov is a highly ambiguous figure: well-intentioned, but hypocritical and often annoying. There is an awful lot of:
He was seized with such anguish and despair
He changes his mind frequently; he is self-indulgent and self-congratulatory whenever he has one of his many revelations about the path he must take; he repeatedly fails to follow through with the promises he makes to himself. He renounces the trappings of his wealth, but more than once retreats back into the comfort of wealthy friends and everything he was vowing to forsake only two pages earlier. But, while frustrating on occasion, this only serves to make the book feel more vividly real.
Resurrection was first published in 1899, but feels almost uncannily pertinent to the times we are living in now.
It was clear that all the things which are commonly considered good and important are actually worthless and wicked, and all this glitter, all this luxury serve but to conceal old familiar crimes which not only go unpunished but rise triumphant
Maybe this book is one of those books that has always been pertinent, and will always remain so. It’s not that it really even contains any answers, but Tolstoy is one of the best askers of the questions that don’t get asked enough, that there has ever been.
This book is an incredibly hard act to follow, but my palete has been well and truly cleansed of averageness.