The featured image is of Tolstoy’s Art and Thought, 1847-1880 by Donna Tussing Orwin, one of the “travel books” I got at Yes Books the other day. I’ve read up to page 63 of Volume XIV of The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoi or Chapter X of The Death of Ivan Ilyitch. I’ve also read up to page 96 of Andrew D. Kaufman’s Understanding Tolstoy, which is very good and from which I will share passages in the future.
The Death of Ivan Ilyitch continues to astound, even now, the second time I’ve read it. Ivan has come to know he’s dying, has found comfort only in his servant Gerasim, a young peasant who feels pity for him and takes care of him with tenderness and honesty. He’s not afraid to touch Ivan, holds his legs on his shoulders, sometimes for the whole night, and is also not afraid to admit that Ivan is dying. What really hurts Ivan is how everyone but Gerasim lies about his condition.
“Ivan Ilyitch’s chief torment was a lie,–the lie somehow accepted by every one, that he was only sick, but not dying, and that he needed only to be calm, and trust to the doctors, and then somehow he would come out all right. But he knew that, whatever was done, nothing would come of it, except still more excruciating anguish and death. And this lie tormented him; it tormented him that they were unwilling to acknowledge what all knew as well as he knew, but preferred to lie to him about his terrible situation, and made him also a party to this lie. This lie, this lie, it clung to him, even to the very evening of his death; this lie, tending to reduce the strange, solemn act of his death to the same level as visits, curtains, sturgeon for dinner–it was horribly painful for Ivan Ilyitch. And strange! many times, when they were playing this farce for his benefit, he was within a hair’s breadth of shouting at them:–
“‘Stop your foolish lies! you know as well as I know that I am dying, and so at least stop lying.'”
This story reminds me of my father’s early death at age 59 and his denial, which took various bad forms. I wish as I read this that I had suggested he read this story, although I’m not even sure I had read it then. But I remember him saying, Why should I read anything? What’s the point? Years later, I read about Clive James, facing death, and wanting to read all that he can before he dies. But I think Dad must have gone through some of this anguish because he had so look forward to retirement. I worked so hard he kept saying, as if that meant he would not die till he was ready. I think he had to face the question Ivan faces at the end of this section I just read, which is, what if I have lived my life in the wrong way? Reading Tolstoy causes you to think about life, your life and life in general and the meaning of life. He can really stir you up inside.
Here are more passages from A. N. Wilson’s Tolstoy:
p. 373: “He expressed opinions about the human condition which to this day are capable of getting under people’s skin and making them angry.”
pp. 376-377: “Tolstoy’s exposition of his beliefs about sex in the Afterword to The Kreutzer Sonata are preached in deliberately intemperate terms. But, as with his doctrines of peace, there is nothing in his ethical view (one discounts his rejection of the doctrine of grace etc.) which would not have found an echo in St. Paul, in Clement of Alexandria, in Tertullian, in St. Augustine. It is, in fact, ‘mere Christianity’. The Afterword, which is one of his clearest expositions of the teaching, is much less thunderous than is often supposed by readers who have only had it described to them. His point is a rather crucial one to any Tolstoyan understanding of Christianity; and that is that Christ taught an ideal. Tolstoy fully recognises that when the ideal is chastity, not many people will be able to attain it. ‘The follower of Christ’s teachings is like a man carrying a lantern in front of him on a stick which might be long or short; the light is always in front of him, and is always inciting him to follow; and then it opens up to him a new space ahead, filled with light and drawing the man to itself.’ There is a great gentleness in this image, which the commentators do not always repeat for us.”
p. 378: “But there was in Tolstoy, as well as a natural cooling of interest in the Kingdom of God on earth, a positive glee in arguments which were absurd, provocative and irritating. Earlier in the year 1889, a happy diary entry recorded reading Voltaire with a niece. ‘We roared with laughter.’ So, when dumbfounded critics confronted Tolstoy with the view (considering it unanswerable) that if we were all celibate, the human race would die out, it was quite inevitable that he would enjoy being forced into the ultimate rejection of humanity itself. ‘You will object that this would mean the end of the human race. . . . What a great misfortune! The antediluvian animals are gone from the earth, human animals will disappear too. . . . I have no more pity for these two-footed beasts than for the ichthyosaurus.’ For a moment the humble Christian who loves all mankind has been taken over by the saeva indignatio and biting comedy of Jonathan Swift.”
p. 384: “If we were told merely the outline of the plot, without knowing its author, we would guess that it [The Kreutzer Sonata] had been written either by Maupassant or Dostoyevsky–two authors much on Tolstoy’s mind at this date. And it is this straying outside his normal territory as much as the so-called autobiographical slant to the tale which leads to our sense of displacement here, our feeling of an imagination not so much out of tune with its material as at war with it. By the time eighteen months had passed, the loyal Tolstoyan vision had reasserted itself, and he was able to write to Chertkov that any mention of the story was ‘terribly offensive’ to him. ‘There was something nasty about The Kreutzer Sonata.’ It was in fact, to use the title of one of Dostoyevsky’s early works, ‘A Nasty Story’; it does not really have a moral; if it did have one, it would be rather more Swiftian than Tolstoyan.”