Okay, today’s quiz: Which Tolstoy novel sold the most copies during the author’s lifetime? Was it War and Peace, or Anna Karenina? Or wait, maybe it was that short masterpiece, The Death of Ivan Ilyich?
Sorry, the correct answer is Resurrection, Tolstoy’s last novel, first serially published in 1899–1900.
I know what you’re thinking: Uhhh . . . it’s called what? Resurrection? By Tolstoy? The Russian? Balding, with a beard?
Excellent questions. After all, the man achieved artistic perfection in 1877 with Anna Karenina, a novel considered even at the time the greatest ever written, and then repeated it in 1886 with The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and then — then — sat back down at his desk and unleashed a novel that outsold all his previous works and was hailed as a crowning masterpiece — a novel that today few have heard of, and almost no one’s read.
It’s as if Beethoven, having written the Ninth Symphony, having reached that pinnacle, had gone on to write a Tenth, and today no one can even hum a few bars.
How can a novel from a recognized master working at the peak of his talent go in a short hundred years from best seller and acclaimed masterpiece to almost total obscurity?
A most promising start
The answer isn’t immediately apparent, because on the surface Resurrection has a lot going for it.
To start with, the novel offers one of the most ingenious plot premises ever devised (and which by the way was based on a true story). A young, egotistic nobleman, Nekhlyudov, is called to sit on a jury. One of the accused brought into the courtroom, on trial for robbery and murder, is a prostitute named Maslova. Nekhlyudov realizes with horror that he knows her. We learn through an extended flashback that years earlier she was a hired girl at his aunt’s estate, whom he had once seduced, impregnated and abandoned, thus launching her descent into vice. And then we return to the courtroom, where Nekhlyudov sits with this awful secret among his upstanding aristocratic peers in the jury box.
Pause for a moment to savor the enticing dramatic possibilities here. What will Nekhlyudov do? How? Who will survive, and who will perish? Who will be redeemed and who condemned? At the outset it seems we’re in store for a profound psychological exploration of the boundaries of personal responsibility.
Adding to the initial strength of the plot is Tolstoy’s expository talent in its usual abundance, a talent so effortless in hitting artistic bullseyes you don’t even recognize it as talent. While other writers will take any desperate measure to hit that tiny bullseye — fire one arrow after another, make elaborate trajectory calculations, lick their finger and test the wind — Tolstoy does something quite different: he grabs an arrow from his quiver, marches right up to the target and with his hand sticks the arrow in. Why make it hard?
Here is an example, from the first courtroom scene:
“The president of the court, a tall, stout man with long grey side-whiskers, had come early. He was a married man but led a very dissolute life, and his wife did the same. They did not stand in each other’s way. That morning he had received a note from the Swiss governess. . . . ” And so on. That one minor sentence — “They did not stand in each other’s way” — deftly captures the entire marriage. You know exactly what that couple is like. You even know what it would be like to sit uncomfortably in their living room while they talk to you but not each other. This sort of brilliant simplicity can be found all over the early pages of the novel.
So what went wrong?
By the time he began Resurrection, Tolstoy had undergone a deep spiritual conversion. He developed a philosophy of Christian anarchism that rejected any guidance from church and state, preached non-violence, and held that ownership of land was immoral.
In the novel, through a mistake made by the jury, the girl Maslova, though innocent, is sentenced to hard labor in Siberia. Nekhlyudov suffers a crisis of conscience, and in a passage that bears scrutiny vows to rescue her:
“I will beg her pardon, as children do.” He stopped. “I will marry her if necessary.”
He stopped, crossed his hands over his breast as he used to do when he was a child, lifted his eyes and said, addressing someone:
“O Lord, help me, instruct me, come and take Thine abode in me and cleanse me from all impurity.”
He prayed, asking God to help him, to enter into him and cleanse him; and in the meantime that which he asked had already happened. The God who dwelt within him had awakened in his conscience. He felt himself one with Him, and therefore he was conscious not only of the freedom, the courage and joy of life, but of all the power of righteousness. All, all the best a man could do, he now felt himself capable of doing.
So there you go. Spiritual perfection.
There’s just one teensy problem: That’s now how life works, Tolstoy’s included — his own conversion took years. That’s not even how fiction works, again Tolstoy’s included. (If only Anna Karenina had said that short little prayer! Then she wouldn’t have had to throw herself under that horrid train.)
Other than perhaps St. Paul, anyone who has undergone a spiritual conversion, or even simply tried being a better person, knows what a struggle it is, and can thus recognize the falseness of this passage, the fundamentally lazy and fatal shortcut Tolstoy takes here.
And that is a central problem with the novel and at least one likely reason no one today reads it. From that moment of his conversion, with 400 pages still to go, Nekhlyudov ceases to be a lifelike character and becomes Tolstoy’s puppet. You feel it on every page. Past temptations are gone. The affairs, gone. Mistakes, self-doubt, conflicting desires, all gone. Tension itself is gone. Nekhlyudov follows Maslova to Siberia, his repeated offers to marry her repeatedly rejected. And then the book ends.
His conversion is not earned, but Tolstoy converts him anyway, then uses him to preach his own sermon.
It’s likely Tolstoy’s own rock star-like popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries accounted for the astounding sales figures of the book, because the story itself does not measure up at all to his earlier, more artistically disciplined works.
Part of the sermon Tolstoy preaches is the awful state of prisons in Tsarist Russia. So as history, as philosophy, as sociology, the book is a worthy indictment.
But as art, the book desperately needed a central character facing actual conflict.