Copyright Dennis Mitton
There are few things that I love more than a morose, philosophical, and depressing Russian novella. This one is written by the great Count Leo Tolstoy, who, after spending his youth vacillating between whores and responsibility, found religion. (Found true religion more accurately. He was Russian Orthodox his entire life until renouncing the approved state faith for his own version of Jesus.) The Death of Ivan Ilyich – a novella easily read in an afternoon – was his first published effort after his change in faith. It tells the story of a man who, with no real effort or intent, rises to a mid-level court position, learns to despise his once beloved wife, and largely ignores his once adorable children. He is secretly doubled over with angst, worrying that he doesn’t live up to the sophistication and urbanity of his neighbors and colleagues. So he spends his time crowing about his achievements, of which there are few, and his taste, which is poor. In modern parlance, he’s a reality television star, a Kardashian: all puffery and pretense with little substance.
After agonizing over the color and cut of his new curtains, Ilyich falls while hanging them. This irony drones quietly through the entire story. Ilyich has made it. He’s a somebody. He has a new home to show off and each corner and niche reveals something more of what a fine man he is. He is proud of his new curtains: surely their design and color speak of the richness of his soul? And then – a trip. The step-stool topples. He falls to the ground in a thud and sets death in motion. Over the following days, he feels an ache in his side and tastes metal in his mouth. He agrees to see a doctor, then doctors, and then specialists who fail to ever accurately diagnose his ailment. He knows, but will not admit, that he is in a downward spiral toward pain and death. Increasingly beset with anger and an urgency that death was never meant for him – not now! – he despises everyone around him. Doctors, friends, and family are all liars who feign concern while plotting their escape to the card table. People avoid him, he is sure, because he reminds them of death, of wasting, of their own demise. His only comfort is his peasant servant, an old friend who sees the world clearly, a theme woven through all of Tolstoy’s writing.
He is in agony during his last three days. Not from pain only but from nagging emotional ache from thinking that he has lived his life wrongly. Like a vapor. A wisp of nothingness blown in any direction by any breeze. He has lived a false life pursuing and showcasing artifice and selfishness in the same way as the people he now despises. In the hour before he dies he sees it: the good life is an authentic life. The peasant life. A life of concern and compassion. A life of dirt and dust and open eyes. His heart turns and he is filled with love and pity for his family and friends. He will die content and release family and friends from the burden of his care.
Tolstoy breaks the rules of writing and only nudges the reader toward these revelations. He avoids pamphleteering by leaving questions unanswered. Is this part of his genius? To let each reader discern their own meaning? Can we live ‘authentically’ as wealthy people? What good is it to ‘inherit the earth’ if you are poor, weak, and ill? And what of the noble peasant so deeply woven into Russian writing? If it’s so wonderful to be a peasant then why does every peasant wish to escape the burdens of his place? Is the very thought of authenticity an artifice of luxury and wealth? Tolstoy provides no firm answers and leaves the questions open for readers seeking something more than fashionable drapes.
What does it mean for us here at Choosing The Good Life? Tolstoy’s protagonist came to see on his deathbed what we already know: the good life includes living intentionally, engaging relationships, and an examination of your driving beliefs. Are leisure and fine things wrong? Is there an intrinsic reward in service and hard work? I’ll let you read the book and work these things out for yourself.
Regarding Tolstoy’s writing: if you aren’t at home in the classics you might struggle with the prose. There’s nothing difficult here, it’s just not modern. And Tolstoy takes time to develop the story. There are lots of confusing names for Westerners but this is a wonderful and thought-provoking read. It deserves a place on the thinker’s bookshelf and can be profitably read and re-read.
Thirteen years later, Tolstoy expands on Ilyich in his novel Resurrection. See it here on Amazon.
Troyat’s excellent and readable biography of Tolstoy here.
Fight Club on Amazon. Palahniuk’s modern look at consumerism and authenticity.
Brief overview of Tolstoy Communities here.
Tolstoy’s Letters to Gandhi here on Brain Pickings.
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