12 November 2008

Ur-story: Tolstoy's Ilych

"In the great building of the Law Courts..." sounds like the opening line of a Kafka story, a parable of the unfathomable enigma of life. But no; it is the opening of Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilych. We soon discover that someone named Ivan Ilych has died. Who is he? Why should we care? Well, Tolstoy tells us, II "was a colleague of the gentleman present, and all liked him. It was some weeks now since he had been taken ill; his illness had been said to be incurable." The men, his colleagues, we learn through a feat of authorial omniscience, immediately begin thinking about their own promotions and raises as they rise to fill the professional void. There is also a perfunctory sort of 'there but for the grace of god go I' relief and a nod to the call of social duty. Someone must call upon poor II's widow and children. This falls upon one Pyotr Ivanovich whose main concern seems to be whether he can get in and out of the dead man's home in time for the evening's game of bridge.

Pyotr Ivanovich stands in for us, the readers. He gives us our cue as to how we are to react on this somber occasion:
Pyotr Ivanovich went in, as people always do on such occasions, in uncertainty as to what he would have to do there. One thing he felt sure of—that crossing oneself never comes amiss on such occasions. As to whether it was necessary to bow down while doing so, he did not feel quite sure, and so chose a middle course. On entering the room he began crossing himself, and made a slight sort of bow. So far as the movements of his hands and head permitted him, he glanced while doing so about the room. Two young men, one a high school boy, nephews probably, were going out of the room, crossing themselves. An old lady was standing motionless; and a lady, with her eyebrows queerly lifted, was saying something to her in a whisper. A deacon in a frockcoat, resolute and hearty, was reading something aloud with an expression that precluded all possibility of contradiction. A young peasant who used to wait at table, Gerasim, walking with light footsteps in front of Pyotr Ivanovich, was sprinkling something on the floor. Seeing this, Pyotr Ivanovich was at once aware of the faint odour of the decomposing corpse. On his last visit to Ivan Ilych Pyotr Ivanovich had seen this peasant in his room; he was performing the duties of a sicknurse, and Ivan Ilych liked him particularly. Pyotr Ivanovich continued crossing himself and bowing in a direction intermediate between the coffin, the deacon, and the holy pictures on the table in the corner. Then when this action of making the sign of the cross with his hand seemed to him to have been unduly prolonged, he stood still and began to scrutinise the dead man.
I am a sucker for a novelistic thesis statement, which is what this is: a map to the core of the book. An exegesis of the images Tolstoy sets up here would bring us fairly close the central meaning of the book: the awkwardness of the established rituals of society and its religion; the goings-on of the children of the family; the women's oddness and secrecy; the symbolically incontrovertible deacon; Gerasim, the noble peasant at the center of things, helping us deal with the stench of death; the uncertainty of Pytor's allegiances and the middle ground he strikes with his bowing; and his feeling when he has sufficiently paid his respects that it is time to turn his attention to the dead man. There is psychology (expectations and intentions), action (compromise), and the sort of sensuous detail (whisperings, putrescence) necessary to bring us in close: the true signs of a master.

There is a comic tone, a sense of satire, to Tolstoy's treatment of Pyotr here and throughout this first chapter. His awkwardness, his being buttonholed by the widow, his having to attend the service and miss his bridge game (the comic wink of Shvarts giving the game away), his wrestling match with the ottoman's "deranged springs", his fumblings over the widow's black lace fichu. Tolstoy is even unkinder regarding Praskovya Fyodorovna. She does not much care so much that her husband has died as she does for her own position. She quibbles with II's butler over the cost of a burial plot. She inveigles Pyotr to assist her in obtaining a grant and increasing her pension from the government. II's suffering was a burden to her which made it hard for her to be sympathetic with his plight. Pyotr attends the service with II's sullen daughter and her rich fiance and II's grieving son, his spirit and image, during which "[h]e did not once glance at the dead man, and right through to the end did not once give way to depressing influences, and was one of the first to walk out." Gerasim shows him out, remarking that II's death was "God's will. We shall come to the same." Pytor Ivanovich makes it to his friend's house just as they are finishing their first rubber, "just at the right time to take a hand." Thus ends the first chapter of Tolstoy's novella.

This first chapter is in and of itself brilliant as a short story. It stands alone and if Tolstoy had stopped right there it would certainly have passed into the canon as one of the masterpieces of the genre. It satisfies our criteria for Ur-story: confronting the inevitability of loss and grief (or as Umberto Eco put it "fate and death") as integral to the human condition. The story does just that, indicting all the characters except Gerasim. The son is in the state of youthful innocence and grieves truly; the daughter is narcissistic and haughty, untouched by it all, and doesn't want to be bothered; the widow is mercenary, concerned only with her own material situation; Pyotr Ivanovich, our guide here, is only doing what society requires of him; neighbors are secretive and gossiping; servants and butlers continue to function; and the deacon resorts to his prescribed theological niceties. Gerasim alone is philosophical, accepting. Thus, he stands in for Tolstoy: Gerasim's is the attitude he wants to inculcate in us.

So, how does Tolstoy go on from this magnificent opening? Were he to take the tack we've seen in, e.g., the Gilgamesh, Pyotr Ivanovich would embark on a great quest to come to terms with his true feelings (or lack thereof) concerning the death and suffering of his lifelong friend and colleague. But that is not Tolstoy's approach. What Tolstoy does—and I'm not sure anyone had ever attempted this prior to this story—is to take us inside the dying man's mind. Remarkable. He shows us how this man, Ivan Ilych, confronts his own mortality and in the process hopes to show us how to die. With respect to the former task—let us call it the psychology of Ur-story—Tolstoy's portrait is masterful, original, profound. Ultimately, however, he fails with respect to the latter task. We'll talk about this in a subsequent post.

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