It’s been a bit quiet on the blog front… I’ve been trying to write a story, which not only takes time, but brings on all sorts of angst as you move from initial joyous moment of inspiration through dark despair at ever being able to get things down on paper the way you envisaged it.
It doesn’t help when you take a break and read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories and feel nothing but hopeless inferiority beside it.
I’ve never read any Tolstoy before, but had been interested to read Ivan Ilyich since seeing it used to illustrate some points about Existentialism (by Thomas E Wartenberg, another good book).
Thomas E Wartenberg makes the point that although most Existentialists were atheists, it was possible to be both religious and Existentialist, and it’s interesting that Tolstoy went through a religious conversion after writing War and Peace and Anna Karenina, to an odd kind of Christianity, which wasn’t exactly the same as the Christianity of the Orthodox church.
The four stories in the book are presented in chronological order. The first, Family Happiness, was written in 1859, before War and Peace. It is a sumptuous examination of an eighteen year old orphan and her infatuation with and marriage to a thirty year old man. I found it quite astonishing that Tolstoy, never having been an eighteen year old orphan, was able to get so convincingly inside the mind of his character, right down to the awful misconceptions about the world and relationships that I remember having at that age and are so embarrassing to look back on that I don’t think I could even bring myself to talk about them in public.
The second story, Ivan Ilyich, was written just after Tolstoy’s conversion and it’s brilliant, generally considered his best short story. It stars with the announcement of the death of Ivan Ilyich, then works through his illness and life. I’d describe it as a bit of a horror story with a three pronged attack: firstly describing our (for the most part) indifference to any random individual’s death, compared with the business of our own living. Secondly the loneliness of being the one trapped inside a dying body. And finally, the most terrifying of all, the question of whether we will be content at the end of our lives that we have lived it as we should have done, or whether we will think that we got it all wrong.
The brilliance of the story lies in the unremarkability of the characters – we are invited to think about we could be Ivan, or any of the observers of his death.
The third and fourth stories, The Kreutzer Sonata and The Devil, are works from 1889. It’s hard to know what to say about them; they come across as slightly maniacal in the condemnation and terror that the principal characters feel in their obsession with the temptations of women and sex. They possess a certain intensity, but when placed directly after Ivan Ilyich, I found them a bit disappointing.
They are also not as interesting as talking about the Notting Hill Carnival, which I went to on Sunday 🙂
A friend organised it as his birthday jaunt and it was the best day out I’ve had in ages.
No pictures, because it was a very messy sort of a day, with more than a dozen of us trying to get through thick crowds while not trying to lose each other, and the inevitable queuing for toilets after lots of drinking in the park didn’t help.
It did make me think how strange it was that if we had all just walked through the streets, had a bit of a dance, and then left again, it wouldn’t have been such fun! It was the staying together through thick and thin that made it so memorable (bearing in mind that most of us didn’t know each other, so it was very bonding!). Although it did remind me a bit of a slasher movie, where every so often someone would go, “Where’s X?? Where’s Y??” and we’d realise that we’d lost a few more of our party. And then we’d shrug and push on to our destination.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich, writ large.