13 November 2008

Ur-story: Tolstoy's Ilych—Nearly Fallen Man

After a breathtaking, magisterial first chapter that on its own has surely stood the test of time, Tolstoy reverts in the second chapter of The Death of Ivan Ilich to a more traditional, nineteenth-century mode of storytelling—however fine. Where the first chapter was presented in a free indirect style from the point of view of Pyotr Ivanovich, an acquaintance and colleague of the protagonist, the second chapter rather omnisciently tells the backstory of Ivan Ilych.

"The previous history of Ivan Ilych was the simplest, the most ordinary, the most awful," begins the second chapter a line echoed by Ford Maddox Ford in the first line of his The Good Soldier: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." Indeed, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." One suspects this might have been the original beginning of the novella; it has that classic first line ring. It seems to me the first chapter must have been written after the rest was finished for the reasons we discussed yesterday.

II leads a good, some would say ideal, bourgeois life with only a few minor professional and family annoyances, for seventeen years until he experiences what my kids today term an MLC:
"The summer of that year [1880], to cut down his expenses, he took a holiday and went with his wife to spend the summer in the country at her brothers'.

"In the country, with no official duties to occupy him, Ivan Ilych was for the first time a prey not to simple boredom, but to intolerable depression; and he made up his mind that things could not go on like that, and that it was absolutely necessary to take some decisive steps."
II gets a big promotion and raise and patches up things with his wife. He takes new apartments in Petersburg and, in a truly modern fit of OCD, throws himself into its interior decorating to make it just so. Then this: "One day he went up a ladder to show a workman, who did not understand, how he wanted some hangings draped, made a false step and slipped; but, like a strong and nimble person, he clung on, and only knocked his side against the corner of a frame. The bruised place ached, but it soon passed off." Tolstoy passes off what is one of the most consequential actions in the story in two scant, non-descript sentences. Then he intrudes to insult his protagonist's self-satisfied—albeit bourgeois—taste:
"In reality, it was all just what is commonly seen in the houses of people who are not exactly wealthy but want to look like wealthy people, and so suceed only in being like one another—hangings, dark wood, flowers, rugs and bronzes, everything dark and highly polished, everything that all people of a certain class have so as to be like all people of a certain class. And in his case it was all so like that it made no impression at all; but it all seemed to him somehow special."
Ouch! The snark of aristocracy cannot but exert itself, no matter the authenticity of one's alleged conversion, eh, Count? Which is worse, you might well ask, the bruise of the fall or the ironic glance of the classist blow? No matter, II shrugs the whole thing off: "'It's as well I'm something of an athlete. Another man might have been killed, and I got nothing worse than a blow here; when it's touched it hurts, but it's going off already; nothing but a bruise." Right, but we moderns know better. Though still animated by bourgeois striving and dissatisfaction, their lives improved, the Golovins perservere, pursuing education, society, and professional advancement with only a few noticeable cracks in the facade of their new-found existence.

Chapter Four begins:
"All were in good health. One could not use the word ill-health in connection with the symptoms Ivan Ilych sometimes complained of, namely, a queer taste in his mouth and a sort of uncomfortable feeling on the left side of the stomach.

"But it came to pass that this uncomfortable feeling kept increasing, and became not exactly a pain, but a continual sense of weight in his side and irritable temper."
From here it's all downhill for poor II. Tolstoy subjects his protagonist to a run of the sort of sadistic nastiness we don't really see much of until Nabokov imperiously strides upon the New World. [to be continued]

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