Thursday, March 3, 2016

I did not wish to be ridiculous but terrible - Tolstoy is some of one, some of the other; also something else

“The Death of Ivan Ilych” (1886) is accurately titled and is a work of great somberness, mostly.  Yet it begins satirically, even farcically.  The judge Ivan Ilych has just died.  His colleagues wonder who will get his job, and dread having to pay condolences.  Tolstoy follows one who does, a special friend of the deceased.

In a scene where he comforts the widow, the friend sits

on a low pouffe, the springs of which yielded spasmodically under his weight…  on her way to the sofa the lace of the widow’s black shawl caught on the carved edge of the table.  Peter Ivanovich rose to detach it, and the springs of the pouffe, relieved of his weight, rose also and gave him a push.  The widow began detaching her shawl herself, and Peter Ivanovich again sat down, suppressing the rebellious springs of the pouffe under him.  But the widow had not quite freed herself and Peter Ivanovich got up again, and again the pouffe rebelled and even creaked.  (Ch. 1, tr. Louis and Aylmer Maude)

This is almost literally a farce, like a scene from a Jacques Tati movie, with the material world appearing to openly rebel against the characters, both of whom are at least alive and well.  In subsequent chapters, the life of Ivan Ilych is told from his own point of view, and again, the material world fights back, as it always does, although not always so early and so fiercely.  I was selfishly relieved to note that I have now outlived Ivan Ilych.

The illness transforms the character into a giant vermin, effectively.  James Chester notes that “Ivan Ilych’s experience of illness is quite like Gregor Samson’s transformation.”  His illness detaches him from everyone else, even from his family, who in their health can never understand what he has become.  Nor does he, until the very end, when he understands – now, if nowhere else, are we in didactic territory – that illness and death are illusions (“’Death is finished,’ he said to himself. ‘It is no more,’ Ch. 12) and I understand that I have been mislead by the title, which could as easily have been “The Life of Ivan Ilych.”

The two contemporary stories about the torments of the male sex drive, “The Devil” and “The Kreutzer Sonata,” more didactic and less universal, by which I do not just mean that we all die and are not all tormented by the male sex drive, but that Tolstoy never figures out how to tell the stories without making the protagonists seems merely nuts.  The stories, especially their violence, seems arbitrary.  “The Devil” even has two endings, one with a homicide and one with a suicide, suggesting that Tolstoy himself realized that the story had become disconnected from whatever argument he was trying to make.

My favorite part of “The Kreutzer Sonata” is when the lunatic protagonist, crazed by jealousy, discovers his wife with her possible lover – they are playing the piano.  The lover runs off.  “’I wanted to run after him, but remembered that it is ridiculous to run after one’s wife’s lover in one’s socks; and I did not wish to be ridiculous but terrible’” (Ch. 27).  To the extent that “The Kreutzer Sonata” can be saved as either a work of art or as an ethical argument, and I am not sure that it can, it is because the devil at the center of the story is merely ridiculous, however much harm he does.

But mostly I think, “You renounced Anna Karenina as trivial for this?”

All right, tomorrow, that crazy play.  

21 comments:

  1. So, which is more significant: the life or the death of Ivan?

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  2. They are the same, or simultaneous - we are constantly living and constantly dying.

    I think that is close to the ethical position of the story. "There was no fear because there was no death."

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  3. Well, yes, and -- by coincidence -- that issue (life and death) comes up in my Hemingway posting this morning: when does death become preferable to life? I wonder if Ivan and Ernest ever came up before in the same discussion. Hmmmm.

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    1. Previously misplaced. My apologies.
      Ivan, perhaps not, but Ernest famously raised the subject of Leo: "I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one. But nobody’s going to get me in any ring with Mr. Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better. "

      Interesting for Hemingway's attitude to writing and writers and his apparent estimate of writers.

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    2. H had no trouble with his ego; he knew he was better than almost anyone...

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  4. And there is this from the Wikipedia article:
    The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Russian: Смерть Ивана Ильича, Smert' Ivana Ilyicha), first published in 1886, is a novella by Leo Tolstoy, one of the masterpieces of his late fiction, written shortly after his religious conversion of the late 1870s.[1]

    " . . . shortly after his religious conversion" becomes, I guess, a rather important consideration in reading/understanding the novella. And, by coincidence (again), reading/understanding Hemingway in light of his religious attitudes is also important. My curiosity has now piqued, and I need to dig into my old research files/notes on Hemingway to see if I can find/explore any Tolstoy/Hemingway connections. Hmmmm.

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  5. Yes, Tolstoy's fiction of this period is all a direct response to his religious crisis. "Crisis" is the word I used. "Conversion" seems like the wrong word to describe the process Tolstoy described in Confession, doesn't it? I guess in the end Tolstoy converted to Tolstoyism. Founding a new religion is a kind of conversion.

    You might enjoy a reading list Hemingway jotted down for a young writer in 1934. W&P and AK are on it.

    Hemingway openly talked about Tolstoy as an influence, for what that is worth.

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  6. Thanks for the link and feedback. This is great stuff!

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  7. Tolstoy's conviction that art must serve a moral purpose led him to condemn pretty much every other writer of his time. His pressure on Chekhov to write morality tales resulted in some awful stories for a year or so of Chekhov's career.

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  8. Googling suggests that compare-&-contrast papers on "Ivan Ilych + A Clean, Well-lighted Place" and "Ivan Ilych + Snows of Kilimanjaro" are common assignments.

    There is way more internet writing connecting "Ivan Ilych" and Jacques Tati than I would have guessed.

    When was the bad Chekhov year? 1895 or so? Can't be 1896 - that's got My Life. Or 1897 or - okay, that is one strong set of stories there towards the end.

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    1. I base my poorly-phrased comment more on Chekhov's letters than his published work. In his private correspondence, Chekhov complains that because he feels pressure from Tolstoy to write ethically-uplifting stories, he is spending a lot of time writing rubbish that he ends up burning, because none of it is any good. Those are the awful stories I really meant.

      Though there is stuff like the ending of "The Duel", which story I love a lot, that tries to make claims about faith being a guide away from evil but it's a weak ending and I blame Tolstoy's influence; there's also "The Kingdom of Women," which has a "message" ending, and a few other stories from '96 or '97 that I can't quite remember just now, where a moral is clumsily tacked onto the ending. I'm lost in a digression.

      One thing I like about the stories from 1896 to the end of Chekhov's life is that the best of them at least in part respond to that pressure from Tolstoy by defying it. "The Lady with the Little Dog" is an inversion of Anna Karenina. "Peasants" is a rebuff of Tolstoy's claims about peasants being noble savages. So he did some of his best work while struggling against Tolstoy's ideas of morality. Maybe that's an oversimplification. Maybe my basic claim here is an oversimplification.

      Chekhov hated "The Kreutzer Sonata." He never said so to Tolstoy, but he said it to other people.

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  9. I was looking at a chronological list, and I knew when I got to "Peasants" that any burdensome Tolstoyan influence had been shaken off and then some.

    Awful stories that don't exist are the very best kind of awful stories, but it is too bad Tolstoy wasted Chekhov's time. Although given the quality of that last run of stories and plays, I don't know, it sure worked out all right.

    "The Kreutzer Sonata" is easy to hate. It is a good candidate for worst work by a major writer.

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  10. i wish i was "mr. hulot" instead of "mudpuddle"...

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  11. It's a good handle, rich with possibility.

    I was originally thinking of Buster Keaton, but the Tolstoy scene although quiet needs sound, the sproing of the springs in that footstool.

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  12. I'm struggling with your characterization of "The Kreutzer Sonata" as a work easy to hate, because I'm struggling with it as a work of art. Maybe because I'm halfway through My Year of Melville I've got him on the brain, but this short Tolstoy novel reminds me of Melville in that the author is so wrapped up in the brilliance of his own philosophical view of the world (Ayn Rand also come to mind) that he cannot see that his philosophy, when expressed through character, makes the character look completely whacked out. Now in Rand's case I find her philosophy repellent, with Melville I'm confused (as I think he was too, so crammed with facts as his addled brain was) but with Tolstoy I'm not so sure. His greatness cannot be denied, but his insistence of giving (Rand-like) the explanation that follows "The Kreutzer Sonata" (at least in the Modern Library paperback) feels like beating a dead wife. I also read "The Cossacks," "Family Happiness," and "Death of Ivan Ilych" and certainly agree with you that "Ivan Ilych" is the best of the bunch. I don't know whether I'll go back and read more of his short works or, for that matter, any of his his late works. Whatever "conversion" he had seemed to have fried his brain in a way that makes him less interesting than Melville, whose whackiness goes in unpredictable directions (and toward atheism and doubt), rather than the usual uninteresting straight line to Christian self-loathing and denial of "The Kreutzer Sonata."

    I'm surprised, however, that you didn't call attention to the mothers who make sure that their sons' "health" is assured by making sure their boys always have access to good sex from healthy courtesans. That gave me a good laugh. Modern mothers, take note.

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    1. Perhaps the difference is that Tolstoy and Rand knew what they thought and wanted to tell people The Truth. All that they had in common, probably.
      Melville was trying to find out what he thought: "How can I know what I think until I've heard what I say?" Even when he's a bad writer - quite often, I think - Melville's an interesting writer.

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  13. The protagonist of "The Devil" also gives quite a lot of attention to sex as hygiene - the notion that sex might be anything else seems to drive him insane - but he works this out on his own, not with the help of his mother.

    Your description of the differences among the writers is helpful. Melville's confusion is his artistic salvation. Tolstoy could have used more confusion.

    I strongly, with no hesitation at all, recommend "Hadji Murad" among Tolstoy's later works. It is not at all a "problem" story like "Family Happiness" or "Kreutzer." It seems to have been written, against Tolstoy's own advice, for artistic reasons.

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    1. And "Hadji Murad" has that comic interlude, the burlesque of the tsar, stuck into the center of the narrative. Just the right amount of Tolstoy-as-high-riding-bully.

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  14. Yes, Melville thought by means of writing. But so did Tolstoy, which is part of why the Confession period results in these strange works. They are not natural for him, and the results often show it. The two incompatible endings of "The Devil" are pretty clear signs of frustration, that the Truth motivating the story is fitting badly with the resulting writing.

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  15. And you've moved on to Zuleika Dobson, for God's sake, a book that's been on my TBR shelf since forever! I can't keep up. But I'm itching to read Kipling short stories (in the Everyman edition) based on this week's NYT book review article about Kipling's fiction being underrated. I thought retirement would bring endless time for reading and reflection, but it hasn't. Perhaps if I took a note from Tolstoy and engaged in frequent sex it would improve my health and well-being...

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  16. My encounters with Kipling, who I did not know at all a few years ago, have been shocking. Charles McGrath gets many things right. Although only a few of the stories about talking animals and machines are chores.

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