Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Leo Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Ilych + Confession": Book Review

The pairing of these two accounts of mortality, Mary Beard explains in her introduction, reveals Tolstoy's interest in death during his fifties. Although he lived another quarter-century or so, Leo Tolstoy's fascination with what transpired as the body aged and fell apart animates the story of forty-five-year-old Ivan. His fate, well-known and well-translated by Peter Carson, possesses its own poignancy. As Beard relates, the finished manuscript of these paired translations was delivered by his wife one day before his own death in January of 2013. An editor at Penguin, he came to the choice of texts ideally suited, being raised by his Russian mother and Anglo-Irish/French father trilingually. Rosamund Bartlett's afterword elaborates on Carson's rendering compared to his predecessors in English.

He favors for Ivan a plain style. You can see his use of repetition, suiting the matter-of-fact manner of Ivan and his colleagues and family, indirectly telling his story by the coolly omniscient voice in plain fashion that Tolstoy adapts for this streamlined, efficiently conveyed novella. His wife "began to wish that he would die, but she couldn't wish for that because then there would be no salary. And that irritated her even more. She considered herself terribly unhappy precisely because even his death could not rescue her and she became irritated; and her concealed irritation increased his own irritation."

Similarly, you see Ivan's own haunted realization that he must share our common fate. "He tried to defend all that to himself. And suddenly he felt the fragility of what he was defending. And there was nothing to defend." I've heard and admired this as read by Oliver Ford Davos for Naxos on audio (review 7-5-12), and Carson's version provides Ivan Ilyich and his harried household a fitting tribute.

"Confession" is less familiar to readers, but as Beard shows, in the manner of Augustine or Rousseau, it preoccupies itself with similar concerns, and indeed the fact and fiction of Tolstoy's pursuit of mortality enters into this purportedly non-fictional treatise as it does his story. He assumes the kind of air that sounds like Ivan and his circle at the bar or while he plays cards, too. "People with our kind of education are in a position where the light of knowledge and life have dissolved artificial knowledge, and either they have noticed this and emptied that space, or they haven't yet noticed it."

He tells of his youthful turn from Orthodoxy to rationalism, although this text anticipates his controversial return to a fervent evangelical, idealistic, but committed phase late in his life. It's valuable for recording the type of mindset Tolstoy and many advocated in the mid-19th century, when Russian intellectuals chafed against tradition and piety. He agonizes over the loss of comfort the aesthetic pursuit affords and how helpless he feels he can ease his family's support, when "the truth is death." He and Ivan combine to show the ridiculousness of vanity and the feebleness of ambition.

He anticipates the existentialists and complements Dostoevsky perhaps as he looks into himself and finds emptiness, and contemplates suicide at the age of fifty. "Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn't be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?" Science does not satisfy his quest, either. Socrates, Shakyamuni, Solomon, and Schopenhauer gain citation, as Tolstoy looks to philosophy and speculation for wisdom. While this segment for me rambled, like Ivan as he interrogates doctors, undergoes treatments, and tries on remedies to no avail, Tolstoy here wonders: "Why do I live?"

Most of us, he avers, do not investigate so diligently. Rather, the majority prefer ignorance (especially when young) or escape into Epicureanism (often when not so young, too). A third way, he suggests, lies in "the way of strength and energy." If life's a joke, take action and strangle evil. Fourth, weakness presents a way to be dragged along; this resembles Ivan's choice after his illness invades. Life is "contrary to reason," so why is it that so few seem to recognize this, while so many shrug it off and plunge into pleasure or denial?

One answer may lie in the "consciousness of life" that impels generations to create and improve our lot. But, standard definitions of faith cannot easily satisfy Tolstoy as he wrestles with a trust in the unseen or the irrational solution. He must redefine it as "the knowledge of the meaning of man's life, as a result of which man does not destroy himself but lives."  Some of this smacks of romanticism, and much of it rambles, but Tolstoy's intelligence prevents him for long from indulging in idle reflection. He keeps returning to the need to make sense of his life, and to balance reason with a less measurable but still present sense of a force that eludes mathematics or the laboratory.

In the common people, he witnesses a faith that helps them endure and find comfort. They also die a "calm death," one that by the way Ivan Ilych fights and only meets at the last moments. Tolstoy abandons himself to a belief that he can assent to out of conviction, his own melange. He is saved from despair by this message: "Live seeking God, and then there will be no life without God." He finds the shore after being pushed into a boat and cast adrift, and he uses his oars to steer accordingly.

Three years re-learning the truths of Orthodox Christianity on, Tolstoy bristles at that denomination's hostility to other Christians. He resigns himself to the human manner all seek the life force. He accepts truth can reside outside an institution's definitions. Falsehoods are mixed in, it being human.

He ends this with an eerie vision of suspension, a dreamlike state evoking the vertigo of Ivan in his torment, three years after writing the early chapters. It's an odd conclusion but a complementary one to Ivan's own tale, and a fitting inclusion for these two thoughtful works, together at last. (Amazon US 11-13-13)

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