Readings & Workings

A Hunger For The World

L. Rhodes

A month or two ago, I decided once and for all to make a concerted effort to read Tolstoy's final novel, Resurrection, which had been sitting on my shelf for so long that the date had faded from the receipt. I must have bought it some time after bookstores started printing receipts on thermal paper, at any rate.

A number of shorter, more recent novels have been demanding my attention, so I was tempted at several points to abandon Resurrection, but found myself enjoying the read. By some measures, I probably shouldn't have. It's a slightly disreputable book — how many of you even knew Tolstoy had a third big novel? — in no small part because it hails from his late phase as a religious radical. It is, as such, a moralizing book, which can be tolerable in a novella, but to moralize for six-hundred pages? That's asking a lot of your reader.

And yet, I did enjoy it, and had plenty of time during the course of reading it to think about why. There is, for one thing, the way that Tolstoy handles the narrative arc. Rather than drag out the moral education of Nekhlyudov, his main character, he delivers the conversion in a sharp shock in the book's first part. From thereon, the conflict is centered on Nekhlydov's efforts to live the ideal he has adopted. The principle difficulty is that a genuinely transformative ideal tends to be a hungry sort of thing, demanding that you feed it more and more of the world. What begins as an effort to free one unjustly sentenced woman quickly grows into a campaign to reform the entire Russian penal system.

That hunger for the world carries over into Tolstoy's style. Much of what kept my interest — as well as padded the word count — was his sense of detail. The courtroom sequence with which the novel begins, for example, takes very little for granted. Not only does Tolstoy's exposition provide for a working understanding of how the Russian judicial system operated during the liberal phase of the late 19th century, it also rounds out characters that, in other hands, might have been left as mere stage dressing. We learn, for example, that one of the judges is embroiled in an extra-marital affair, and that arranging a rendezvous with his mistress continually takes his mind off of justice. This is no mere aside — it resurfaces over a number of chapters — but neither is it a subplot, and once Nekhlyudov has left the court, we never hear of it again. In a different sort of novel, we might call that world-building.

Reading Resurrection, it's easy to see how Isaiah Berlin arrived at his celebrated thesis in The Hedgehog and the Fox. There, the idea is that there are people who, like the hedgehog from a fragment by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, know one big thing: that is, their perspective on the world is organized around a central, defining truth. By contrast, Berlin compares those who can see the world from multiple perspectives to Archilochus' fox, who knows many little things.

Tolstoy, Berlin wrote, was by nature a fox, predisposed to see the world as multifaceted or (to borrow from another analysis of Russian literature) polyphonic. Arguably, that's best reflected in War and Peace, which moves almost restlessly between characters, delving into their personal histories and exploring their responses to the sweep of history. Resurrection, by contrast, was written during a period when Tolstoy sought to stifle his own capacity for seeing the multiplicity of the world in favor of the reductionist clarity of a single-minded idealism, specifically that of a Quaker-influenced radical puritanism. That made him, in Berlin's formulation, a fox trying to be a hedgehog.

On that theory (from which Berlin later retreated), the world-building of Resurrection can be explained as backslide: Tolstoy's fox-nature winning out over his dedication to the singular truth. That strikes me as an unsympathetic, even dismissive, understanding of how the novel works.

The examples of world-building that we find in modern literature, and especially in the genres best-known for their world-building, like high fantasy, are often idle. The details are there to give the illusion of weight to conceits that might otherwise feel flimsy. I have said already that the digressions in Resurrection are neither asides nor subplots, but that is not to say they are superfluous. The conflict of the novel centers on the attempt to extract oneself from an ethical morass. The substance of that morass is social, the lives of those around Nekhlyudov illustrate how even a person consciously striving to live a more ethical life may be bound to old habits.

Far from habitual lapse, that would seem a deliberate repurposing of a characteristic feature of Tolstoy's talent. If War and Peace depicted the polyphonic response of a society to great historical events, and Anna Karenina honed in on the tensions that tear at the fundamental social unit, then Resurrection uses polyphony to demonstrate how the demands of living in society militate against the individual's pursuit of an ideal. Rather than a fox trying to be something he is not, then, let us call it Tolstoy putting the fox in service of the hedgehog.