Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Ivan Ilyich is a comer. Promotion after promotion, he’s making a steady climb in the government. And though each promotion is accompanied by extra roubles, he and his wife are in constant straits. With each rise in status, they’re moving in ever more opulent circles.Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories

The Death of Ivan Ilyich · Leo Tolstoy · 1884-‘86
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 52 pages, paperback

To Ivan it’s a headache. To Ivan it’s fakery. To Ivan…well, it was the same as with all people who are not exactly rich, but who want to resemble the rich, and for that reason only resemble each other.

Like much of his work, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich snubs affectation in all its guises. With  Ivan Ilyich though, this putting on of airs is a suffocation when time is running short. Ivan Ilyich is dying, so please will you stop pretending?

Ivan Ilyich links his illness back to the fakery of his life in a material way when he blames it on the fall he took while furnishing his apartment so comme il faut (it’s a style he himself doesn’t much like but alas! what can he do?)

Tolstoy knew what a terrible illness does to a person: even the most dignified, relied upon, successful human being wants some sympathy and care if he’s to writhe in agony for who knows how long and for who knows what cause. He doesn’t need his wife admonishing him, doesn’t need his daughter impatiently looking for a way out of his sick room.

Wife, daughter and future son-in-law stop in to see him before they leave for the theater one night and it’s just a matter of going through the motions. It’s expected that they do so. They don’t really care much. He’s only sick; he’s not dying. What a bore!

Ivan Ilyich values what is real and unaffected, in feeling as well as in decoration, even when this real and unaffected crops up on a lower social stratum, namely in the figure of his servant, the muzhik Gerasim. The advice and linctus of famous doctors offer him no respite, but Gerasim holds his legs and—

his pain subsides.

Health, strength, vigor of life in all other people offended Ivan Ilyich; only Gerasim’s strength and vigor of life did not distress but soothed him.

Ivan favors Gerasim’s simple heartedness, his “heavy boots” and the “pleasant smell of boot tar” that comes with him to the triteness, the rustling skirts and perfume of his wife and, by extension, of the high society he once tried to serve.

The simpleness in Gerasim but also his inability to put on a front endear him to Ivan still more. Ivan becomes embarrassed, apologetic, before Gerasim, and at the same time he waxes reproachful and impatient toward his family, forever wishing they would stop believing in the lie that he was merely ill and not dying.

All this talk of a floating kidney or a diseased appendix, when will they understand?!

The spatio-temporal measurements in Tolstoy’s novella contract without reprieve as his novella moves relentlessly toward, not a passed kidney, but the end.

Because, you see, Ivan Ilyich is dying.

Into the black sack: his world contracts from the ministry of an entire province, travel to its towns and business with its men; to his apartment, comme il faut in its blasé decoration; to his office, refuge in work; to his deathbed.

Into the black sack: time contracts from the sweeping overview of his childhood and adolescence to a handful of years early in his career, to a few months of illness and the strain of carrying on in pain, to his last days of life.

Into the black sack, yes, but his mind has more room to move about (don’t those final three days of ceaseless screaming testify to this?) For Ivan it’s the question we’re all cautioned against having to answer with rue in our old age: did I have a good life? He tries so hard to convince himself that he did.

And this is why the abyss is so terrifying. He’s holding onto life as it slips away from him, and it’s a life he can’t altogether remember with fondness.

But what makes Ivan Ilyich so withering lies in its first pages, while we’re at Ivan’s funeral, before we learn the details of agony and when his old colleagues and friends are moving through the rooms of his apartment, wrestling with the rebellious little poufs that spring up when a man gets up from them and generally the whole drawing room was filled with knickknacks and furniture…It’s Tolstoy’s reproach to all of us, himself included, this reproach of how to live.

And who is present here at the funeral? An old colleague who’s banking on a game of vint later that night; the widow, asking how she might get a little more money from Ivan’s pension; family stopping in (on the way to somewhere else)…and every one of them content in the fact that it was another man’s death and not his own.

Time’s running short for us all, but there’s vint to play and this black sack contains only kopecks. It was another man after all (thank God it wasn’t me). Now deal me in, quick, before that sack contains something more than the ante.

— Recently reviewed: Tolstoy’s Kreuzer Sonata

The Death of Ivan Ilyich · Leo Tolstoy · 1884-‘86
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 52 pages, paperback

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