No matter how you translate the title of Aleksei Tolstoi’s trilogy Хождение по мукам – as The Ordeal, A Tour of Hell, or The Road to Calvary – the first novel of the series is only a mediocre journey.
Сёстры (The Sisters), written in 1922, begins in 1914 as a story of the loves and lives of two bourgeois sisters… and ends between the 1917 revolutions with the loves and lives of the same two bourgeois sisters. Tolstoi throws war and a developing revolution into the middle of the novel. Some settings and situations are vividly described, but the mix of genres – romance meets revolution – means many of the scenes based more in ideology than character feel grafted on rather than organic.
Oddly, for this reader, it is sentimentality – for both the comforts before 1917 and the spirit of the revolution – that unifies the book. Pre-revolutionary life here looks fairly idyllic and benign for civilians despite a few spells of licentious behavior. Later, revolution in Moscow is shown with cries of “Ura!” and crowds that, symbolically, draw our heroes to political demonstrations. Tolstoi’s portrayal of the Russian government’s disregard for its soldiers during World War I, however, is not at all sympathetic and reflects the role of the war in bringing about revolution.
Unfortunately, Tolstoi lacked the wherewithal – I’m not sure it matters whether it’s writerly talent, political will, or both – to craft The Sisters’ main characters into truly life-like, memorable people. They’re certainly pleasant companions, though: Dasha, the sister Tolstoi features more prominently, has few traits beyond seeming unfailingly nice. Her love interest (no spoilers here!) is a sweet guy who seems to show few aftereffects of some very traumatic experiences, though he does think, rather fleetingly, about a big shift in values.
I suspect that many of the book’s shortcomings reflect Tolstoi’s internal conflicts: he was known as “Красный граф” (“The Red Count”) and lived in emigration for several years after the revolution, then returned to the USSR. The trilogy that The Sisters begins won the Stalin Prize in 1943, but I would bet a bowl of hot borshch that Tolstoi is probably best remembered in Russia for writing Золотой ключик, или Приключения Буратино (The Golden Key or the Adventures of Buratino), a Pinocchio-like story.
Time magazine ran a mixed review, “Red Pachyderm,” of Road to Calvary in 1945 so I know what I’m in for when I resume reading the trilogy after a break. Despite the disappointment of The Sisters, I have an interest in novels about the Russian revolution plus a minor but inexplicable fascination with Tolstoi’s ambiguous writing and life. I’m not alone: Aleksei Varlamov’s biography of Tolstoi won second prize in the 2007 Big Book competition and is part of the “Жизнь замечательных людей” series (“Lives of Remarkable People”).
Edit, January 25, 2008: The December 2, 2007, show of "Книжное казино" ("Book Casino) show on Эхо Москвы (Echo of Moscow) features Aleksei Varlamov as a guest. Among other things, Varlamov speaks about feeling sorry for Tolstoy, the term "Soviet writer," and why Andrei Platonov is the truest writer of Socialist realism. Varlamov also notes that A Tour of Hell is unusual for its positive characters: most writers focused on scoundrels.