“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.