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You Must Read This
Sun January 6, 2013
Adjust Your Vision: Tolstoy's Last And Darkest Novel
George Saunders' latest book is called Tenth of December: Stories.
It's become commonplace to say that good fiction "wakes us up." The speaker usually means that he — a righteous, likable person, living in the correct way — becomes, post-reading, temporarily even more righteous and likable.
Resurrection, Tolstoy's last and darkest novel, works differently.
It's a shocking and impolite book, seemingly incapable of that last-minute epiphanic updraft or lyric reversal that lets us walk away from even the darkest novel fundamentally intact.
The story is simple: In his youth, Prince Dmitri Nekhlyudov seduced and impregnated a young servant, Maslova. Years later, on jury duty, he encounters her again — she's a prostitute on trial for murder. Nekhlyudov resolves to rescue her and atone for his sin. He follows Maslova down, down, down — through the corrupt Russian courts into a filthy prison and finally on a long, brutal march to Siberia.
What makes it so dark is its extreme truthfulness. Tolstoy does not flinch at the places that we, as writers and readers, reflexively agree to cloak. A clerical error adds 15 years to Maslova's sentence. It can't be helped; it would be rude to protest. A man dies of thirst in a crowded town, just feet away from water; women are raped in captivity; men cannibalize other men. Everywhere is poverty and debasement.
Before I read this book I didn't quite understand the Russian Revolution. How do we get from Anna Karenina or the reasonable and progressively discontent characters in Chekhov to the murder of the czar, to bludgeoning in the streets of Moscow, to the Stalinist purges? Resurrection is the missing link. In it, we see how bad Russian life was in the lower depths — and how impenetrable the boundaries were between the haves and the have-nots.
Is Resurrection a period piece, happily out of date? Is it merely a Russian work, irrelevant to our contemporary American project?
"All this comes," Tolstoy says, "from the fact that all these people — governors, inspectors, police officers, and policemen — consider that there are circumstances when human relations are not necessary between human beings. ... If once we admit — be it only for an hour or in some exceptional case — that anything can be more important than a feeling of love for our fellows, then there is no crime which we may not commit with easy minds. ... Men think there are circumstances when one may deal with human beings without love. But there are no such circumstances."
Is there a solution?
There is, but it's hard.
"If you feel no love," Tolstoy writes, "sit still. Occupy yourself with things, with yourself, with anything you like, only not with men. ... Only let yourself deal with a man without love ... and there are no limits to the suffering you will bring on yourself."
Resurrection argues that we don't, in our reasonable hours, have the true measure of life. We bracket and discount the miserable. Tolstoy shows this submerged misery so unflinchingly that our eyesight gets adjusted: We see, as if for the first time, how strange and harsh our life here is — how naturally we accept the idea that the neglected and debased will be — must be — with us always.
Reading Resurrection, you'll resent Tolstoy and be glad you're not him — dragging that heavy conscience around making everything miserable. You'll feel, when finished, relieved to get back to being the person you were before you started: reasonable, optimistic, able to enjoy the simple pleasures of life; a progressive thinker, again understanding the suffering of others as regrettable but inevitable, the cost of doing business, as it were. You will once more feel that their suffering is ultimately their problem, not yours, and that it would be irrational to feel otherwise, and that their misery does not — cannot — implicate you.
But for a few precious, harrowing hours reading Resurrection you will feel otherwise, and, if you're like me, the memory of those hours will stay with you forever.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by the team at NPR Books.