July 23, 2015
The Art of the Novella challenge 34: The Death of Ivan Ilych
by Jonathan Gibbs
Title: The Death of Ivan Ilych
Author: Leo Tolstoy
First published: 1886
Page count: 104
First line: Within the edifice of the Public Courts, the advocates and prosecutor from the proceedings of the Melvinski trial spent a recess together in the office of Ivan Yegorovich Shebek, and a conversation arose about the details of the well-known Krasovski case.
Well, there’s an opening to conjure with! Thankfully, these advocates and that prosecutor will have little part to play in the story that follows, and the Krasovski case none at all. If Tolstoy seems to be aiming to bore his readers to death from the very first line, then he comes awfully close to succeeding – yet there is method here. The Death of Ivan Ilych is a story about the ecstasy of dying, and the strangeness of it, and how it, no less than love, no less than passion, no less than madness, is a force that can puncture the terrible bureaucratic monotony that humans manage to force upon the life that god or chance has given them.
The story is above all about the uncanny trigonometry that operates between the physical act of dying and the abstract entities of death and life, a three-way struggle in the breast of the dying person that throws light on all aspects of human existence. The irony is not that it comes too late for Ivan –the ending of this wonderful story makes that clear – but that it comes accompanied by unfathomable pain and terror, the purpose of which would seem to be to cut off the dying person from those around them, who might otherwise be in the position to learn something from the process. Dying is not a seminar, it is a one-to-one tutorial.
Let’s also lay this out right away, that The Death of Ivan Ilych is another novella par excellence, a forceful and direct 22,500 words that steps effortlessly up above the concerns of the short story, and has nothing at all to do with the worldview of the novel. If a novella is a novelistic extension of – or extrapolation from – the anecdote, or the fullest possible interrogation of a single self-contained episode in a life, then what could possibly be a more apt subject that a person’s death, if that death, gradually and then more quickly approaching, comes to fully dominate that life for a few, final weeks or months? The drawn-out death is the ultimate life-episode.
That’s what’s so strange about reading this story, that it seems impossible that it hasn’t been done before: a story that simply narrates a person’s death! Novels, of course, are full of deaths – people die all the time! – but novels are concerned above all with life, and so what they get out of death is the continuance of life beyond it, despite it, without it. A person dying in a novel means a mystery to be solved, or an act of violence to be revenged, or a will to be read out, a grief to be endured… at the very most a lesson about mortality to be learned. What Tolstoy shows us is that no one learns more deeply about mortality from the act of dying than the person experiencing, in slow motion, their own death.
Has anyone written like this before? A story simply about death? Woolf says that Tolstoy is always saying something new, always giving a new insight into human nature, and perhaps that is the case. (She also says that what one gets from Tolstoy is “one deadly wound straight to the face”…. straight to the face!) I thought first of Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, but not enough of that story is about Félicité’s actual death, and the actual death is treated too religiously (if ironically so) to teach us, or her, anything useful.
Religion, again. When I read Tolstoy’s The Devil (the first thing of his that I had ever read) for this year-long novella challenge, I was surprised by its natural and rather un-Christian treatment of sexuality – not so much in the tortured and neurotic Yevgeny Iertenev, beating himself up over his sexual desires, as in the honest and straightforward Stepanida, the peasant woman he goes to to quell his periodic urges. It was hard to square this with Tolstoy’s ascetic brand of non-conformist Christianity, easier perhaps to square the treatment of death in Ivan Ilych with standard theological ideas. As Nabokov has it:
The Tolstoyan formula is: Ivan lived a bad life and since the bad life is nothing but the death of the soul, then Ivan lived a living death; and since beyond death is God’s living light, then Ivan died into a new life – Life with a capital L.
The book opens with an initial chapter, a sort of prologue, in which we see the effect of Ivan’s death on his colleagues – and, through them, his wife and children – the narrative backtracks and takes us through the life of this respectable high court judge.
“In its details the life of Ivan Ilych was the most simple and the most ordinary and the most horrible,” Tolstoy writes, and the horror is in the bourgeois trappings that Ivan acquires (wife and children included) and then finds himself, well, trapped by. (An aside: ‘trappings’ is derived entirely separately from the idea of a ‘trap’ – it is linked to ‘drapes’ and means decorations.)
That “most ordinary and most horrible” is the opening of the second chapter – the first after the dreary, proleptic prologue. The third chapter begins:
So went Ivan Ilych’s life for seventeen years of marriage.
The horror is in the facility with which Tolstoy can dispense with the supposedly contented and harmonious existence to which we all aspire – although of course it is anything but. The husband and wife squabble, just like Pozdnyshev and his wife in The Kreutzer Sonata, and you begin to feel increasing sympathy for Sonja, Tolstoy’s wife (and the sections of her diaries used as examples of the confines of married life in Beauvoir’s The Second Sex only confirm this).
He realized that married life – at least with his wife – did not necessarily promote pleasantness and decency in a life; in fact it might well amount to an assault on these things, and so fortifications were necessary. Ivan Ilych began assembling means to this end. His professional responsibilities were all he could use to impose his independence on Praskovya Fedorovna, and so Ivan Ilych began to use the duties of his office to fortify a wall protecting his independent world from the jaws of his marriage.
Thoughts on this passage: one the supreme solidity of the prose. There is none of the flickering contingency of Chekhov, that would develop into the shattered mirror of Modernism. When Tolstoy talks of the “jaws” of the marriage, the metaphor is crafted, not conjured; it is impervious to doubt. Secondly, the terrible interjection of “at least with his wife” – which is the careless thought of a man who does not realise that life is given us but once, that the personal and the general are not the same thing, that he cannot live his life over again differently, that, ICYMI, YOLO. Thirdly, again, poor Sonja.
That “at least with his wife” allows me to leap forward in the narrative – past the accidental blow to the side that Ivan gets falling from a ladder when he’s putting up curtains, past the funny feeling in his side and taste in his mouth that tells him something’s wrong, past the pointless consultations with various useless doctors (and Tolstoy’s wonderfully pessimistic message is that all doctors are useless) – to his realisation that his death is close, and closing fast, and that this death is his.
The example of syllogistic reasoning he had read in Kiezewetter’s Logic – “Gaius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Gaius is mortal” – had always seemed to him true only in relation to Gaius, not to himself. That it was true of this man Gaius, and of men in general, made absolute sense; but he was no Gaius and was not some man in general. He had always had something unique about him that separated him from others – as little Vanya with his mama and papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with his toys, and his coachman and nanny and later with Katyusha, with all the pleasures, sorrows, delights of childhood, adolescence, youth. What to Gaius was the striped leather ball that little Vanya had loved so much? What did Gaius have to do with him kissing his mother’s hand, and had Gaius ever heard the silken rustle of his mother’s dress? […] So, of course, Gaius could be mortal, and it was right for him to die, but for me, little Vanya, for Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions – for me it’s a different story. It can’t possibly be that I have to die. That would be too horrible.
There is universality in this, but it is the individual detail – the striped leather ball, the rustle of his mother’s dress – that brings it home, and it brings it home by making Ivan pathetic. Faced with the prospect of death, we instinctively retreat to the safety of childhood.
There is something Shakespearean about this marrying of the universal and the particular: this could be a soliloquy – and I say this only partly ironically, with reference to Tolstoy’s pamphlet on Shakespeare. At moments like this he is closer to the poet than he would like to think – he is close because he is an instinctive psychologist, and he plays that psychology out through character, and that character through the language of thought.
If I had to die like Gaius, somewhere deep inside I’d know it, but I don’t; and all my friends and I – we understand for us it’s different than for Gaius. And now here it is! He said to himself. It can’t be. It just can’t be, but it is. How could it be true? How am I supposed to understand such a thing?
How am I supposed to understand such a thing? There, in one sentence, is the paradox of death. Death limits and defines us, yet it escapes our comprehension. Logic is a form of life, and death is as much the absence of logic as it is the absence of life.
There is more to Ivan Ilych than this – for example, the relationship with his servant Gerasim; the thoughtful treatment of Ivan’s wife, how she becomes bored and irritated with his slow, laborious ascent towards dying and death; the refracted echoes we heard of the opening chapter, how all of Ivan’s insight, all his self-knowledge, is swept away with his death and rendered dumb, and might as well never have been – but still it is this meticulous unfolding of one person’s coming-to-consciousness of their own mortality, just at the moment that their death overcomes them, that makes the tale, and the telling, and the teller, so great.
But here again I pause, and I think of Tolstoy’s religion. Yes, the message of the novella is clear: that the shallow materialist life is an immoral one, is a living death, but then there is no explicit religious ending to the story. Ivan’s wife persuades him to take the sacrament, but this changes nothing. The revelation of the ending, that death is nothing more than life leaving him, is not linked to any idea of salvation – and here you might accuse me of being particularly obtuse, for Tolstoy does give us the line:
Instead of death there was light.
Is this religious? If it is, it’s not definitively so. You can read that light as God’s presence, but you can also read it as the synapses burning out, or something similar. The crucial thing, and the thing that makes Tolstoy a great writer, a writer for the ages, is that he doesn’t give us the answer, but fixes the problem. The problem is mortality. Certanly, religion is one solution to that problem – in fact you might say that it, or rather the idea of an afterlife, is the only solution to that problem. Without religion, mortality is an insoluble problem – except that, as Tolstoy seems to suggest, there is another solution after all.
And suddenly it became clear to him that what had been afflicting him and unabated was suddenly dissipating at once, and on both sides, on ten sides, on all sides.
(What a line! What an enactment of the expansion of consciousness!)
There is another solution to the problem of mortality, and that is death.