‘Resurrection’: Reading Tolstoy’s Last Work of Fiction in 2021

This is an attempt to write on Leo Tolstoy’s last work of fiction titled Resurrection and my reading of it in 2021. The book initially came out in Russian in 1899. It was later translated by Anthony Briggs in 2009 and published by Penguin Classics.

It is the story of Prince Dmitri Nekhlyudov, who is frustrated by an extramarital affair and the courting of the daughter of an aristocrat who he has no interest in. With things abuzz, he is invited to be a part of the jury for a case where a sex worker and two housekeeping staff are accused of murdering a man for his money. When the accused are brought in, he looks at the sex worker and realises it is Katyusha, the woman he had once seduced when he was a young boy.

Seeing her, he is reminded of all the things he had done that brought her to this courtroom and his life in general and he makes a resolution to save her from the punishment that awaits her. It is on this journey to save her and himself, he begins to see the life below him and his aristocracy, and the resurrection begins.

When I thought about the kind of books I’d read this year, I never had Tolstoy’s works in mind. The imposing physical length of War and Peace and Anna Karenina always told me that someday when there’d be lesser deadlines to meet, I would surely pick them up. After reading Middlemarch in May, I began craving classics. The expanse of the stories in these big books offered me solace in times of discomfort and uncertainty.

I knew Tolstoy would give me one such story too. Reading up on him a little, I discovered the other books that often go unnoticed by readers who are subsumed by the charm of his two books mentioned above. Having only looked at the title, the cover and the number of pages (510 pages), I knew Resurrection would be the first novel by Tolstoy I would read. What I didn’t know was that it would offer anything but an escape from the year I am living in.

If you read it for the sake of finishing a Tolstoy, I don’t think you will enjoy it as much. Rather, its intense, thought-provoking nature is why you should throw yourself in wholeheartedly. I began this book not knowing where it would go. And once I was through the first chapter, I knew I would love the book though I remained sceptical over whether the story would simply be of a sinful character undergoing a spiritual transformation.

Also read: Revisiting the Concept of Absurdity in Today’s Covid-Ridden World

My anxiety was steadily abated by the sharp, intelligent manner in which Tolstoy juggled with the politics of religion, state, and crime. I was dumbfounded by the way he analysed human conscience, of doing the right and the reasons to do it. Every element had questions, the doubt if it’s really so, so should it be? Rare are writers who would go so deeply into their characters’ thoughts, their decisions to make them what they are and then also continuously unmake them from that.

It may be necessary to have governors, superintendents and policemen, but it is terrible to see people deprived go the most important human attribute – the capacity for mutual love and sympathy.

Reading his work today felt even closer because the politics with which he views his society reminded me of today’s times. At the time I read it, we were recovering from the first wave of the pandemic, settling into the online mode, witnessing the farmer’s movement gather strength, reading about Stan Swamy, Umar Khalid, and other activists languishing in jails, of several journalists being killed, the horrifying impact of the Delhi riots and so on.

In 2021, newer kinds of injustices surfaced – from a comedian’s imprisonment, Stan Swamy’s death, the ravaging second wave, to the plight of the migrant labourers whose struggle saw no end. As I read through Nekhlyudov’s journey from being in the riches to entering the prisons, the villages thronged by dilapidated houses and peasants looking sickly and sad; I was reminded of all these events that transpired in India in 2021 and the past few years. My heart was heavy with guilt and sadness as the story stopped being fiction but came alive to me with the current affairs of the nation. It was the honesty with which Tolstoy jotted down these finer details of oppression that makes his work appeal universally.

The character-driven nature of this book is something that will stay with you long after you put the novel down. I still keep thinking of Nekhlyudov and his changing thoughts, and the life Katyusha chose for herself; like many women wronged by the State. The unapologetic ‘weird old man’ the protagonist meets on a ferry and the imprisoned activists who, like the youth and scholars today, have given their lives to end the oppression. These characters are not alien to us – turn around and you will find someone like them or a part of them in each one of us. The journeys these characters undertake and the lives their bodies are fated to, made me angry at the system, and weak, as Nekhlyudov felt, of being incapable to change it.

I swam through this book because of the effortless way in which Tolstoy writes, and credit goes to the translator for such a smooth translation.

Even 111 years after his death, this author still has important things to tell us about the time we currently live in.

Rahul Singh is a post-graduate student in Sociology. He loves reading literary fiction and runs an Instagram handle where he writes short reviews of the books he reads.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty/Editing: LiveWire