I have finished Volume XIII of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi and read 21 pages of Volume XIV, which places me at the start of Chapter III of The Death of Ivan Ilyitch. The last two stories in Volume XIII were “Family Happiness” and “A Prisoner of the Caucasus.” The featured image is the frontispiece of Volume XIV and is entitled “Face to Face with It,” by T. V. Chominski.
At times I have thought that perhaps it was a mistake to delve so deeply into Tolstoy but I have not grown tired of reading about him. He is endlessly fascinating. So far, at least. And so while in downtown Portland (Maine, of course) at Yes Books I bought Tolstoy’s Art and Thought, 1847-1880 by Donna Tussing Orwin, which appears to focus on the role of philosophy in Tolstoy’s art–while another recent purchase, Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger, focuses on the role of theology and religion in Tolstoy’s art–and Tolstoy in London by Victor Lucas, which is about Tolstoy’s sixteen days in London where he met, among others, Herzen and Matthew Arnold. I was tempted to buy a history of the Tolstoy family, a mass market 60s anthology of Tolstoy’s essays, and an abridged version of Herzen’s memoirs, as well as a book on Tolstoy’s education essays. But the latter consisted mostly of the essays, which I will read in due course and the other books were not essential. But we’ll see. I know they’re there.
I finished “Family Happiness” with mixed feelings. It doesn’t quite succeed but comes very close. It’s about how love in marriage changes from an ecstatic union into a day-to-day compromise and companionship. Doing the laundry after the honeymoon. “A Prisoner of the Caucasus” is a straight-up adventure tale about a Russian taken prisoner by Tartars and his attempted escapes. It has Tolstoy’s usual masterful descriptions and also includes insights into Chechen culture and is not all one-sided. In other words, the Russians are not Good and Chechens Bad.
In The Death of Ivan Ilyitch, Tolstoy is merciless:
“Ivan Ilyitch [of whose death they have just learned] had been the colleague of the gentlemen there assembled, and all liked him. he had been ill for several weeks, and it was said that his case was incurable. His place was kept vacant for him; but it had been decided that, in case of his death, Alekseyef might be assigned to his place, while either Vinnikof or Schtabel would take Alekseyef’s place. And so, on hearing of Ivan Ilyitch’s death, the first thought of each of the gentleman gathered in that room was in regard to the changes and promotions which this death might bring about among the members of the council and their acquaintances. . . . Over and above the considerations caused by the death of this man, in regard to the mutations and possible changes in the court that might result from it, the very fact of the death of an intimate friend aroused as usual in all who heard about it a feeling of pleasure that ‘it was he, and not I, who was dead.'”
Because I am reading The Death of Ivan Ilyitch I am going to return to the introduction to my Bantam edition of the book, which is by Ronald Blythe. I had copied some passages from it into this blog and here are the rest (up to 1000 words):
p. 22: “The traditions governing death in nineteenth century fiction are broken page by page. This is how it really happens, Tolstoy is saying, this is what the outrage of the ego is like.”
pp. 22-23: “A nonidentifying process has moved across their [his family’s] usual view of him like a filter, and already, with the breath still in him, he is outside their comprehension. One of Tolstoy’s themes is about the inability of the dying to communicate and of the sick to remain inside the old circle of relationships.”
p. 29: “He [Ivan] sees that when a man is made disgusting through sickness, all those people with whom he has made his life become disgusting as well. And just as he made others suffer and cringe by exercising the law in a professionally obscure manner which made them powerless, he sees that the doctors are doing the very same kind of thing to him. Men make money and reputation by joining one or other of ‘the conspiracy of clerks.’
“Real help, if not salvation, comes from the lowly.”
pp. 32-33: “Love masters death at the penultimate hour in Tolstoy’s story [through the care that his peasant servant Gerasim gives him]. It could have rescued Ivan Ilyich from all the fright and despair which terrorized him during the final two weeks had he allowed it to. But so rigidly had he repressed love throughout his adult life that anything pointing to its enduring nature, such as certain happy memories of his childhood, upset him. At some early moment in his development he had taken a stand against love and all that emanated from it, but which he now saw as ‘the real thing,’ and cynically opted for other values, although exactly why he had done this he could not say. He just had. Realizing this during his illness had produced a spiritual anguish which even exceeded his physical agony. During these double sufferings, sights and touches, not language, began to reduce everything that had created this base self with its smart life-style to worthless rubble. The first sight was of the disinterested goodness in his servant boy’s face and the first touch was of Gerasim’s strength so lovingly put at his service.”
Now back to Wilson’s Tolstoy:
p. 358: “The warfare between Tolstoy and his wife was a terrible symbol of the division in Russia itself. On the one hand, there were those who believed in the autocracy, in the Orthodox Church, and the status quo, who feared the violence of the revolutionary movements which threatened Russia at home, and the Turks, the British, the Germans, who threatened her stability abroad.”