24 May, 2010Issue 12.3FictionLiterature

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A Pretty Little Thing?

Mark Jones

foerLeo Tolstoy
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Knopf Publishing Group, 2009
528 Pages
£25.00
ISBN 978-0307268815

When The Death of Ivan Ilyich begins, its eponymous character is already dead. The cause of death, however, is difficult to pinpoint. His doctors are satisfied to place it vaguely, somewhere between a floating kidney and appendicitis. Pyotr Ivanovich’s doctor friend cannot speak clearly, ascribing a cause in the most unspecific terms: “a little thing, a tiny little thing, in the appendix.” But why exactly is Ivan Ilyich dead?

The ambiguity that surrounds Ivan’s death is emblematic of the concern that runs through The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories and, indeed, all of Tolstoy’s later fiction: how individuals deal—and fail to deal—with death and love. While the doctors want to divide him into smaller and smaller pieces in an attempt to unearth the origins of his illness, Ivan comes to realise that it cannot be understood in parts. “This is not”, he says, “a matter of the appendix or the kidney, but of life and…death”. In this way, Tolstoy suggests that such matters cannot be understood by dissection. Instead, we should try to face these large forces in their entirety. We should have faith in their movements without understanding the mechanisms that drive them. As Ivan finds, however, people regularly choose the easy option; regarding the scale of his illness, “Everyone around him either did not understand or did not want to understand”. They are content to shy away from spiritual significance and instead search only for a cause. They are happy to blame his death on a failing kidney.

The 11 stories in this new volume of Tolstoy’s shorter fiction were written, with one exception, after 1880, as the author was approaching his own death. They all come after War and Peace (1865- 9): a novel that presents history as an indivisible whole, as a force that moves imperceptibly and is impossible to split into individual causes. Despite being separated from the rest of the tales by the publication of Anna Karenina (1873- 8), The Prisoner of Caucasus does not weaken the unity in this collection: all the stories are examples of Tolstoy’s attempt to graft his model of history as indivisible onto the equally large but more personal forces of death and love. This shift of focus, prompted by moral and spiritual concerns, is accompanied by an attempt to purge his later work of superfluous narrative details and pretension, both of which hinder a more honest engagement with these forces.

Such spiritual concerns are addressed in his 1882 work A Confession, in which Tolstoy asks: “Is there a meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the death that inevitably awaits me?” The focus on individual lives evident in this collection has its origin in this work, which is concerned with the life (and death) of its author. The definite article in the phrase “the death” indicates Tolstoy’s concern not with death as a universal force but instead his personal encounter with it. Despite the apparent difference between this collection, which develops his focus on individuals, and War and Peace, which concerns humanity as a whole, the latter text is nonetheless vital for an understanding of the philosophical principle that underpins these stories: it is in this novel that Tolstoy first enunciates his belief that certain wholes—history, causation, and death—are indivisible. The individual is presented in The Death of Ivan Ilyich as equally unbreakable. To fragment Ivan and suggest, as the doctors do, that his death is rooted in his kidney is to ignore what War and Peace terms “the mysterious forces that move mankind”.

It is love, rather than death, that proves difficult to dissect in The Kreutzer Sonata. In response to a woman’s suggestion that love is a type of preference, Pozdnyshev asks “Preference for how long? For a month? For two days? For half an hour?” He reveals here the hollowness of her definition, the unhelpful semantic slipperiness of her words. His fragments of time, like the tiny little things of Ivan Ilyich, keep getting smaller and suggest that any attempt to divide the indivisible, to place “a tiny little thing…over all the rest”, is doomed to failure. His anger at the woman’s certainty in love expresses itself in verbal faltering and he gets stuck like a skipping record needle on this indivisible concept.

In such ways, both ambiguity and uncertainty become a structural principle born out of Tolstoy’s growing moral and spiritual qualms. His leaning toward aesthetic sparsity, an attempt to rid his art of the enormous inclusiveness of War and Peace, first sprouts in The Prisoner of Caucasus. The story, written as part of a reader for peasant children, aims at a more focused aesthetic by combining a limited subject matter with a simpler narrative. In The Devil, this focused and purposefully lacking aesthetic has burgeoned into full bloom. Here, Tolstoy’s textual design manifests the union of his art with pedagogical concerns guided by a moral unease. In the story, the peasant Stepanida infatuates the landowner Evgeny and sexual relations are presented as an unsuccessful substitute for love. The author creates a crescendo of emotional intensity which, fuelled by glances snatched at from afar, is expected to climax when the pair first meet. Tolstoy, instead, says nothing, choosing to skip over the incident. The obvious temporal jump forward expresses Evgeny’s awkwardness: “He went up to her, looked around, and touched her. A quarter of an hour later they parted.” In the blank space between “her” and “A quarter of an hour later”, filled only with a circular full stop, aesthetics and philosophy overlap; the literal lack of textual detail embodies Tolstoy’s larger moral point: he presents the emptiness of sexual fulfilment simply by saying nothing.

Evgeny and The Kreutzer Sonata’s Pozdnyshev both dramatically exemplify the loneliness with which humanity is left when it turns away from love toward empty sexual relations. This edition presents two alternative endings for The Devil: in one, Evgeny is driven to suicide because of the impossibility of renewing his relationship with Stepanida; in the other, he murders her and is arrested. Pozdnyshev is driven mad by his wife’s (suggested) infidelity, stabbing her to death, and, after being acquitted of her murder, apparently rides trains solo, voicing the self-justification of his actions. Both men are left, in different ways, broken and alone.

Yet humanity readily accepts these illusory fragments, replacing the complexities of love with the animalistic simplicity of carnal fulfilment. In The Kreutzer Sonata, Pozdnyshev knows that it is impossible to address questions of morals, as moral decrepitude is always explained away in physical terms: “If you live badly, the cause is an abnormality of the nervous functions, and so forth.” Death too is reduced simply to “an indecency” or “a bad smell”. In The Devil, Evgeny wants to reveal to his uncle his secret, the betrayal of his wife. Instead, the uncle flippantly converts the terms of the “vile” act into the discourse of virile male banter: “A pretty little thing?” he asks.

There is that unspecific “little thing” again. It seems that the uncle, like the doctors, wants nothing more than objects and words with which to surround himself in an attempt to provide certainty and structure to his life. Any tear in the continuity of normality is negated: so, in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, “the dreadful, terrible act of dying, he saw, was reduced by all those around him to the level of accidental unpleasantness”. The focus on the physicality of life—on pretty women and floating kidneys—is a symptom of the desire to reduce and compartmentalise the sublime forces of love and death into small things that are easier to understand.

The stories in this collection make the reader question, rather than put aside, these indecencies—love and death—but equally suggest that there is no explanation for them. Tolstoy makes Ivan’s last word “forgo”, a failed attempt at “forgive”. What the reader senses is that she must learn to pass over the pain of unanswerable questions and instead, aided not by knowledge but faith, surrender herself to the larger forces that can only ever be felt but neither dissected nor understood.

Mark Jones is reading for a BA in English Literature and Language at Jesus College, Oxford.