Sunday miscellany, 5

The guy on the front cover of Triffids is really giving me Bill Murray, idk

I spent the vast majority of this week reading Leo Tolstoy’s final, and much lesser-known, novel, Resurrection. It was published in 1899 but took him at least ten years to write, which makes some things about it more readily understandable. The premise is that a nobleman sits on a murder jury and discovers that the defendant is a maidservant named Katusha Maslova whom he seduced and abandoned a decade ago. Because of a culpable lack of attention to procedure on the part of both judge and jury, Maslova is acquitted of poisoning but not exculpated of “intent to murder”, and so despite being innocent, she is sentenced to Siberian exile. Nekhlyudov, the nobleman, decides to go with her to atone for his part in destroying her life, and even offers her his hand in marriage. From this summary, I had assumed that the first sixty pages or so would be taken up with the above and that the novel would then follow Nekhlyudov and Maslova into Siberia. Instead, most of the novel takes place before the convicts’ departure, as Nekhlyudov tries to find bureaucratic and legislative solutions to Maslova’s wrongful conviction only to discover the hollow cynicism at the heart of Russian social institutions. Very powerful scenes depict life in the prison (not just from Nekhlyduov’s perspective; the scenes focalized through Maslova’s eyes, in which female prisoners chat, comfort each other, share contraband, and get into fistfights, are brilliant). The forced march of the convicts—men, women, and the children they’re bringing with them into exile—is one of the best known set pieces in Russian literature, in which two men die of heatstroke; the policemen, prison officers and local doctors collectively responsible for their deaths run the gamut from incompetence to cruelty, but none can be individually accused of murder, and this failure of the collective to take responsibility for suffering is (through Nekhlyudov) Tolstoy’s great theme. Nekhlyudov himself is an interesting creation, often patting himself on the back for his liberal, self-sacrificing intent, but with his pretensions always punctured—frequently by Maslova herself, who rarely responds to him in the ways he expects or wants, and thereby transcends the character type of the wronged woman to be a real and surprising individual. There is a lot of anger and indignation in Resurrection, in ways that I think probably do hamper it from being great. That’s not to say that great literature can’t be angry, but that it has to find a way not to be eaten alive by its own anger, and Tolstoy often doesn’t manage to keep a tight enough rein on his social ideas, doesn’t ensure that they’re always in service to his story. Still, very glad to have read it.

John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, meanwhile, took very little time—I actually stretched out the reading experience because I was enjoying it so much. Most people, I imagine, have read it at school or know it from the BBC adaptation, but although I knew of it, I’d never read it til now. Its treatment of women, for 1951, feels relatively equitable (this is now the first thing I look for in post-apocalyptic fiction, particularly older specimens); the narrator’s love interest, Josella, has to get some self-deprecation in, but she’s tough-minded and independent. Given its publication date, and the suggestion near the end that Cold War satellites were ultimately responsible for the disaster, I’m particularly intrigued by its imagery of islands and siege: in the countryside, triffids surround the houses that contain survivors like an ocean, making those houses de facto islands of civilization, safe while one stays within boundaries but hard to move between. The eventual solution is to join a colony of mostly sighted people on the Isle of Wight: an island province in an island nation, and one that—at the time of Wyndham’s writing—had just repelled foreign invasion in World War II. It doesn’t feel like Wyndham advocates insularity per se, more that there is an element of haunted-ness in the British psyche at this time that manifests itself in this imagery of tactical defensive positioning. Oddly, no one in the novel talks about the war at all, which has only just occurred to me but which now seems like a gigantic, and meaningful, omission. I don’t know. I mean, it’s also just a great science fiction novel about scary plants. (It does take characters a disturbingly long time to begin to admit that triffids seem to have rudimentary consciousness and communication abilities. THEY ARE DEFINITELY TALKING, GTFO.)

Finally, I read Antonia Honeywell’s chapbook short story A Last Gift For My Father yesterday, and loved it. It’s a deceptively simple story about a girl seeking her father’s approval, but there are undercurrents of cold unease: misogyny, casual violence, and a whiff of sexual threat make the girl’s devotion to her father something queasy and alarming, something we know isn’t safe. What I like about the story so much is that Antonia (she’s my friend, I can’t call her Honeywell in a review, sorry) doesn’t leave it there, but follows the girl’s developing sense of self as she and her mother flee their domestic situation, then as the girl leaves home, makes mistakes at university, starts working, falls in love and starts a family. It is a story that insists we are more than the sum of the things that happened to us. It also acknowledges that we can be happy and fulfilled without having everything tied up neatly in a bow; that there are some parts of our lives we have to decide to close ourselves, because we won’t be provided with closure. The attention to process and detail is wonderful, whether it’s a chocolate factory production line (“enrobing” nougat in melted chocolate), varieties of heirloom apple, or the sartorial habits of the father’s mistresses. It’s published by Seventy2One, and the entire print run is now sold out (yay!) but keep checking the website—they produce regular chapbooks of short literary fiction, and I think they’re going to be big.

AOB 1: I forgot to confess to the purchase of two books last week! I know, I know. I said I wouldn’t. But I get a free pass for these, I think, a) because I’ve read them both before but didn’t own copies, b) because they were in my local Oxfam for £1.99 each, and c) because they were both absolutely pristine Oxford World’s Classics editions. The first was The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, which is one of my favourite childhood books of all time; I found, somewhat to my surprise, when last re-reading it, that I have about 70% of it memorized (probably aided by the gorgeous 1995 animated film). The second was Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope, the third of the Barsetshire series. I read all of these in totally different (and largely janky) paperback editions, a few years ago, and I’ve been thinking fondly of re-buying them all in a uniform edition, as I’ve mostly done for the Palliser series. It felt providential.

AOB 2: I’ve found a great podcast called Tipsy Tolstoy which has proved very useful for Russian Spring. Most of the books on my list haven’t been covered by them yet, but of my limited Russian reading, they’ve got a great two-episode miniseries on Fathers and Sons (which they translate, probably more accurately, as Fathers and Children), a five-episode series on Crime and Punishment (which I think I’d have to reread before such a deep dive), another five-episode series on Anna Karenina (likewise), two on Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and one on Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. The hosts, Matt Gerasimovich and Cameron Lallana, are engaging, funny, and have genuinely good analysis—they met while studying in Russia, one is currently pursuing a PhD in Slavic Literature at Northwestern and the other is currently applying to grad school. Go check it out!

12 thoughts on “Sunday miscellany, 5

  1. After reading it with my children so many times, I think I have memorised most of Wind in the Willows as well – we also live close to Henley and the River and Rowing Museum where they have an exhibition about it, so we know that by heart too!

  2. Sounds like Wyndham does rather better with his female characters in Triffids than usual (I have read it but it’s one of my least favourite of his novels and I can’t remember much about it).

    1. The only other book of his I’ve read is Chocky, which is about a creepy imaginary friend who… isn’t imaginary. I was still a child when I read that and have no memories of its feminist credentials one way or the other, but it’s interesting to hear you say that—is Wyndham generally Bad On Ladies? (1950s sf does have form for being dreadful on this, I suppose. I read Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud five or so years back and the gender politics were like… whoooooo boy.)

      1. My two favourite Wyndham novels are The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos, which I’d definitely recommend but with the warning that the women are not great. (With The Kraken Wakes it is at least possible to console yourself with the idea that the male narrator is simply unreliable). I also remember The Chrysalids being dodgy on women but it’s a long time since I read that one.

        Chocky was also the first Wyndham I read, as a young teen – I also can’t remember much about it other than that it creeped me out!

      2. Maybe he got worse about women as his career progressed? What a thought. (I also wonder if The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids are worse on women because they’re so inherently to do with freaky children and the horrors of procreation?)

    1. It’s shorter than the two major ones (a little under 400 pages in my edition), so not too much of a commitment, if that encourages you!

  3. Have you read Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy? So interesting to contrast her utopian and dystopian visions as of 1976, and see how her idealized society dealt with things like gender roles and even pronouns!

  4. I loved reading your reviews. Resurrection sounds like a powerful book which I will be ordering soon. I liked The Day of Triffids when I read it, but I just wished it was written, structured and generally executed better.

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