Saturday, April 03, 2010

Leo Tolstoy: The Death of Ivan Ilyich (povest / a tale)

Смерть Ивана Ильича / Ivan Iljitshin kuolema. RU 1886. Translated into Finnish by Eero Balk. Helsinki: Basam Books 2001.

Inspired by our Leo Tolstoy retrospective I read for the first time this povest (tale). It is generally considered to be one of Tolstoy's masterpieces, but unfortunately I must disagree. There is exceptional honesty in the way Tolstoy faces the truth of the mortal disease and the agony of the death itself. The satire of the judge Ivan Ilyich and his family and milieu is relentless, and it is too easy to agree with everything in this grotesque caricature without a single redeeming feature. Missing is the sense of the complexity of life. Tolstoy's unique vitality and passion for life only appears in the negative, in the furious battle with death during the three final days of Ivan Ilyich's life.

Cinematic in this tale as also in Hadji Murat and in Anna Karenina is the stream of the consciousness of the protagonist as he/she is coming near to the end of his/her life.

Basam Books has made a great job with this edition. There is Eero Balk's fine compilation of Tolstoy's thoughts about death and Torsti Lehtinen's illuminating essay "The Secret of the Green Stick: Leo Tolstoy's Conception of Death". Tolstoy was less than two years old when he lost his mother, and only seven years old when his father died. Many of Tolstoy's 13 children died in his lifetime, and death was always his great obsession. "Our waking up in the morning is a kind of birth, the course of the day from morning till night is like life in miniature, and sleep resembles death". "Our life is not a wave but the eternal movement which only appears as the wave of our life".

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