April 2010

Kevin Frazier


The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories is the most recent volume of Tolstoy’s writing to come from the highly-praised translation team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Here, Pevear and Volokhonsky concentrate on Tolstoy’s later fiction, after he converted to his eccentric form of Christianity and denounced War and Peace and Anna Karenina as immoral and self-indulgent. From around 1880 to his death in 1910, Tolstoy reinvented himself as a writer of unsettling and highly original short novels and long short stories. At least five pieces in this collection are major works:  "The Kreutzer Sonata," "Hadji Murad," "Master and Man," "Father Sergius," and of course the famous title story. 

In the final stage of his career, Tolstoy was as much a public figure as a novelist. Readers who knew nothing about his fiction turned to him for his views on social, religious and political topics. His writings on nonviolent resistance played a crucial role in Gandhi’s approach to challenging the British Empire. His attacks on private property and the misuse of wealth and power were bold and controversial. It’s hard to resist the urge to read his later fiction in the light of his position as a pseudo-prophet, issuing pronouncements from Yasnaya Polyana.    

Yet the stories in this collection are surprisingly free from the claustrophobia and navel-gazing we expect in celebrity writers. They assert Tolstoy’s continued ability to imagine beyond himself, to think his way past the limits of his dogmas. Unlike the novelists Katie Roiphe complains about in her recent essay on the lack of sexual passion in some of today’s writers, Tolstoy seldom compromises his fiction to maintain an appealing public persona. He is far more interested in exploring new situations and new characters than he is in protecting his image. An aristocrat rather than a careerist, Tolstoy cares less what we think of him than what he thinks of us. His interest in other people is his saving grace as a writer, and over the years he grew increasingly fearless in pursuing this interest wherever it took him.                    

Even in "Father Sergius," an obvious mea culpa for Tolstoy’s shortcomings as a social activist, the main character stands clearly and vividly apart from the author. This distance is a fruitful one. Like many of Tolstoy’s characters, Father Sergius has his own way of talking, gesturing and thinking. He is completely credible as a well-meaning, hypocritical monk, caught up in his growing fame, and dedicated to bringing about miraculous cures that he doesn’t quite believe in but that feed his vanity.             

"Father Sergius" also belongs to the group of Tolstoy stories that show an intense concern with sex. Specifically, these stories deal with society’s use of sex as an instrument of power and corruption, a manipulative device that distorts the lives of most men and that turns most women into de facto prostitutes. The theme runs through "The Devil," about an aristocrat who carries on an affair with a peasant woman, and through Tolstoy’s masterpiece on sexual themes, "The Kreutzer Sonata." 

"The Devil" was never published in Tolstoy’s lifetime, and it has two different endings, both of which feel rushed and unsatisfactory. It explores how a landowner in Tolstoy’s day could require sexual favors from the peasants on his estate while everyone around him pretended it wasn’t happening. Yet "The Devil" reads more like a draft than like a completed work, and it never quite comes together. Moreover, a similar storyline emerges to far better effect in Resurrection, Tolstoy’s final full-length novel, published in 1899. (Resurrection is probably due for a new translation as well, since it gives us the welcome spectacle of Tolstoy depicting an unjust trial and an epic procession of prisoners sentenced to Siberia.) 

"The Kreutzer Sonata" is Tolstoy’s most radical discussion of sex as a means of abusing women, and one of the most intriguing stories he ever wrote. Philosophically, we’re probably more attuned to the main argument of the novel than its original readers were. Pozdnyshev, whose description of his sexual and marital history takes up the bulk of the narrative, claims that all sex as practiced in his time oppresses women. He says that women are reduced to their value as sex products in the marriage market, and that marriage itself is prostitution in fancy dress. He also says that male and female sexual tastes have been distorted beyond recognition, since society debases those tastes and twists them to sustain the current power system.  

All of this, of course, reads like a modern critique of nineteenth-century patriarchal culture. Yet "The Kreutzer Sonata" is not merely a polemic -- it’s also a meditation on the dangers of rationalization. The subtlety of the story comes from Tolstoy’s decision to give Pozdnyshev many opinions with which Tolstoy himself largely agrees. Pozdnyshev is a man who has murdered his wife, and the novel is built around his monologue justifying the murder, describing it in terms of a full-scale and often valid rejection of the world that produced his ugly, embittering marriage.  

Artistically, Tolstoy is doing what Poe did in “The Tell-Tale Heart” -- exposing a killer who wants to explain away his most violent acts. But Poe is heavy-handed and obvious, and most readers sense that the narrator protests too much from the opening lines, when he assures us he isn’t crazy. "The Kreutzer Sonata," in contrast, places at Pozdnyshev’s service the formidable resources of Tolstoy’s rhetorical and intellectual skills. Pozdnyshev isn’t illogical or deranged. He speaks to us in that calm, steady voice Tolstoy generally uses when pressing a point. We might not always agree with him here, just as we might not always agree with the essays on historical determinism in War and Peace, but we’re definitely in the presence of a strong, original mind. This makes Pozdnyshev’s powers of rationalization all the more effective, and all the more frightening in their final consequences. 

For if Tolstoy the thinker shares many of Pozdnyshev’s opinions, Tolstoy the novelist slowly steers us towards the difficult sexual emotions that Pozdnyshev wants to banish from his memory. Pozdnyshev performs an elaborate intellectual dance before he’s ready to talk about his true obsessions: his nightmarish marriage, inflamed with sexual vanity and sexual jealousy, and his violent disgust towards women, a disgust that he attempts to prettify with his theories. 

Few other novels present such a convincingly grim vision of married life. The story darts deftly through the repetitions of Pozdnyshev’s conflicts with his wife, the petty disagreements that flare up between them almost against their will. But Pozdnyshev’s real torture begins when he becomes convinced that his wife wants to sleep with other men. He has no evidence for his suspicions, and his jealousy develops independently from his wife’s innocuous actions. One of the novel’s masterstrokes is to have Pozdnyshev play Iago to himself, manufacturing proofs of infidelity from any material at hand. Indeed, Pozdnyshev practically pushes his wife into a position where she has a chance for an affair with a violinist. At the story’s climax -- a triumph of Tolstoy’s ability to imagine even extreme situations in convincing physical terms -- Pozdnyshev murders his wife simply because he finds her eating dinner with the violinist in the drawing room. As in both "Father Sergius" and "The Devil," a man projects his sexual obsessions onto a woman and then demonizes her for being the unwitting recipient of his visions. Long before anyone had given a name to it, Tolstoy knew all about the intricacies of blaming the victim. Pozdnyshev is one of literature’s great self-deluded intellectuals, a misogynist hiding inside a slippery philosophy -- a man who turns some of Tolstoy’s most cherished social observations into a justification for wholesale hatred, paranoia and violence.  

Along with his group of stories about sex, Tolstoy also wrote a series of stories that deal with death. Pevear and Volokhonsky have brought many of these together for us: "Master and Man," "Hadji Murad," "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," and two relatively weak shorter pieces, “The Diary of a Madman” and “Alyosha the Pot.”   

Like many Americans, I first read "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" in high school. For most teenagers, I suspect, the unforgettable aspect of the story is its gruesome depiction of the horror of dying. I’ve never known anyone who read this tale and wasn’t held by the image of the black bag into which Ivan Ilyich feels himself being stuffed. Ivan Ilyich is a judge, a public official who succumbs to a painful disease that his doctors can never adequately explain. The narrative has a terrifying directness: Ivan Ilyich struggles to get well, but the disease relentlessly destroys him.  

The moralistic side of the story originally struck me as its greatest weakness. The novel not only shows the horror of Ivan Ilyich’s death, but tries to use this horror to force him to confront the mistakes of his past. I used to think that this was too facile, and that Ivan Ilyich would sentimentalize his life at the time of dying rather than question its value. Now that I’ve had some experience with people actually facing death, however, I’m struck by the accuracy of Tolstoy’s approach. Ivan Ilyich, like Pozdnyshev in "The Kreutzer Sonata" and the freezing peasant in "Master and Man," ends up asking to be forgiven for his life. Throughout Tolstoy’s later fiction, his characters look back on their decisions and feel a devastating regret for all their failures of compassion and common decency. They come to the revelation that seems to have overwhelmed Tolstoy after Anna Karenina -- the awareness that their existence has involved needless pain and unfairness to the people around them, and that they should have been kinder and less stubborn about hurting others. 

Obviously this feeling is one that easily loses its authenticity. One of the problems with compassion is that it can slip without warning into self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Tolstoy dissects the elusiveness of genuine sympathy in "Father Sergius," and he makes the sheer difficulty of acting decently central to my favorite of his death stories, "Master and Man." 

The story takes full advantage of Tolstoy’s skill at presenting people as physical creatures in a physical world. Over and above everything else, "Master and Man" is an experience, strong and direct. Reading it, you feel you’re driving through the snow with the landowner and the peasant, who lose their way together and start to freeze in the winter night. Tolstoy’s descriptions are never static. They move along, briefly but strikingly, in constant development. Tolstoy doesn’t stop the story, for instance, to tell us at great Victorian length about the horse that takes the landowner and the peasant on their trip. Yet the horse is a steady presence, always seen in quick, calm strokes. Early on, the peasant brushes his coat against the stallion’s “chafed, dusty back, fat and with a groove down the middle.” Other asides show the horse playfully nipping at the landowner and the peasant, and feeling the ground under his hooves as he follows the curves of the road. Although Tolstoy never makes a big deal out of the relationship between the horse and the peasant, it runs through the entire story: 

Nikita took the reins and merely held them, trying not to move them, and rejoicing at the intelligence of his favorite. Indeed, the intelligent horse, turning one ear, then the other, to one side, then the other, began to swing about. 

As usual, Tolstoy’s writing feels freshly observed, taken from direct experience: 

At times they came upon bared winter growth, and the sleigh rumbled over ridges of frozen earth. At times they came upon stubble fields of winter or spring crops, with clumps of wormwood and straw sticking up from under the snow; at times they drove into deep, uniformly white, level snow with nothing showing above it.

The physical perceptiveness of the story is matched by its psychological perceptiveness. After the landowner accidentally leads the carriage astray from the road, he has to spend the night in the snow with the peasant. As the landowner grows colder, he begins to fear that he is going to freeze to death. He then decides to take the horse and ride off, leaving the peasant to die. Tolstoy carries us so far into the landowner’s thoughts and feelings that we don’t judge or condemn him, and instead see how inevitable his decision is, given his situation. He is unable to find his way to the road, however, and the horse eventually takes him back to the place where he left the peasant. Only now, when he realizes that he wouldn’t be able to save himself anyway, does the landowner protect the peasant by placing himself on top of the other man and warming his body. It’s one of the few believably selfless acts by a character in literature, and Tolstoy makes it real for us by taking us through all the landowner’s least attractive qualities and showing their subtle balance with his better features -- his resolution and determination when he has made up his mind to do something. The ultimate irony of the story is that the landowner thinks his act is pointless, and that the peasant will die anyway. He doesn’t realize that the reverse is true:  the landowner is the one who freezes to death, while his final gesture saves the peasant’s life. The landowner doesn’t willingly sacrifice his life for the peasant’s. Rather, the landowner fails to see that he is going to die until the end, when it’s too late for him to move anymore. 

"Hadji Murad," the longest piece in the collection, is another story about death, but it comes at the subject from an entirely different direction. It’s one of Tolstoy’s essential works, a tale of a Muslim warrior making his last stand in a situation where he must fight against both the invading Russian soldiers and some of his own people. Tolstoy follows the unpredictable outcomes of Hadji Murad’s decisions, and moves from the throne of the Tsar to the home of the family of a young Russian soldier. When Hadji Murad is killed at the end, he dies murdering as many other people as possible. The pacifist Tolstoy can’t possibly approve of Murad’s actions, but the story displays a bewildered awe towards the warrior’s bloody defiance of death. Implicitly, the novel recognizes that Murad’s murderous vitality is an inevitable part of the life force which, in one way or another, Tolstoy captures in nearly all of his fiction. Yet "Hadji Murad" gives violence its due without ever losing track of the injustice and suffering that it causes, and without ever suggesting that Murad’s bloodlust illustrates a greater truth than the waste of the young soldier’s death. The final effect is tragic but never hopeless or resigned -- the last great vision of an artist who works at least partly outside our efforts to understand him. Too large and deep for even the most intelligent criticism to fathom as fully as we would like, Tolstoy remains, in the best of these stories, a writer who needs to be read more than defined, and explored more than explained.        

The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
ISBN: 0307268810
528 Pages