Review Of The Death Of Ivan Ilyich & Master And Man, by Leo Tolstoy
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/23/05
I was not aware that Random House still even issued editions of its Modern Library series until my wife came home with, a few weeks back, an edition of The Death Of Ivan Ilyich & Master And Man, by Leo Tolstoy. Now, I was hesitant to read the book because I’ve always thought the great Russian prose masters- Pushkin, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, were vastly overrated. As mixed as my feelings were about Charles Dickens’ and his overly long epics are, my feeling that the Russians were worse has not been greatly argued against. Pushkin’s poetry always appealed more to me than his prose. Turgenev is a total blank, although I did read two or three of his most famous works, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov was excruciating, and his Notes From The Underground dull and clichéd, so I have been loath to read Crime And Punishment since I know the basic tale, and figure why torture myself with the excess verbiage? As for Tolstoy? I read War And Peace and only remember the two nouns took place. Anna Karenina is Tolstoy’s Crime And Punishment to me. In fact, the only Russian prosist I can stand (and I’ve not read the prose of Vladimir Nabokov nor Boris Paternak) is Nikolai Gogol. He is the only one with a dram of humor, and a bent to be concise. As a whole I vastly prefer Russian poetry to its prose- give me Marina Ttsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak, and Osip Mandelstam any day. As a bit of synchronicity, this translation is by Ann Pasternak Slater, the niece of Boris Pasternak.
Yet, as I have started to write prose fiction myself, including short stories, I figured it would be interesting to read these two tales. Of course, in truth, both are really novellas, not short stories, and I seriously wonder if long-windedness is some Russian trait to fend off the chill of death in the tundra. That, not incidentally, is the subject of the second tale. The first, The Death Of Ivan Ilyich, is probably the best known of Tolstoy’s non-novelry. At 57 pages it is very long, and in need of severe trimming. The excesses of Tolstoy’s prose are still evident, even in his short storytelling. Unlike Walt Whitman’s poetry, Tolstoy’s excesses serve no purpose. They add nothing to the tale, and he has a very elliptical prose structure to his sentences, paragraphs, and pages. In short, he cannot make excess seem necessary. He feels a need to hit the reader over the head with multiple mentions of the same thing- be it suffering, the shade of light, or an insight, as if the reader has missed it on the first go-round. Now, this would not be necessarily bad were this told from the point of view of an obsessive character, but as an omniscient voice it words, but not information, and tends to inject ennui into all other modifiers and descriptives. Here’s an example, with the overuse of the words and idea of Ivan’s dead head:
….The dead man lay with that particular ponderousness common to all corpses, the dead limbs sunken deep in the lining of the coffin, the head bowed forever on its pillow, displaying-prominently, as the dead always do-a waxy yellow forehead with bald patches on the sunken brow, and a pendulous nose seemingly compressing the upper lip. He had grown much thinner and was considerably changed since Piotr Ivanovich last saw him, but his face, as with all the dead, was more beautiful and, more important than that, more meaningful than it had been in his lifetime. The expression on the face suggested that what needed to be done had been done, and done as it should be.
The titular character is a career bureaucrat who plays the civil service game until he gets what he wants, all the while letting his marriage fall apart, and his children estrange from him. It opens with the news of his death, then follows a colleague to discover the details, until the tale ends with the intense suffering of Ivan on his deathbed, for days. The last few pages before the tale ends, in which Ivan’s death is displayed in gruesome detail, and leavened by the idea that his suffering brings him a form of joy or wisdom, is well done, if a bit trite and overdone. Tolstoy is one of those writers who feels a need to detail things in extremis, but this is not a bar from some wonderfully poetic descriptions and depictions of the inner workings of his characters. The problem is, it seems, that 19th Century Russia either lacked editors, or had those who had no spine to stand up to the writers who were sorely in need of their services.
That said, the ideas explored in the tale are far more interesting than the prose used to convey the points. In a sense, Ivan Ilyich is a person who is wholly anonymous, save that we have dropped in on his life. He is not rich nor handsome nor an intellectual nor artist. Nor is he a particularly nice nor engaging person, and his death seems rather random- as in life. His suffering is needless, for while not a great man, father, nor husband, he is certainly no villain- merely a vain, aimless, materialist with a slavish conformist devotion to contemporary propriety. In fact, his ultimate end is wholly accidental. Yet, this calls for a tale that focuses in on these aspects. By the time the reader gets to this end few are engaged by the plight, for the rest of Ivan’s life is, well, dull. He does make observations on how the doctors play God with his life as he has with those of criminals brought before him when he was a judge, and his disaffection for life and family as his pain increases, are both possible ins to a deeper tale, but they are barely grazed. Ivan’s death scream has been taken to be greatly symbolic, and it is- but it is also a nice feint away from deeper issues that could be explored. These are things which should have been substituted for some of the dull and rote aspects of Ivan’s earlier life that Tolstoy lingers too long on. In short, Tolstoy is a writer of surfaces, and in describing those surfaces he has moments of greatness, but his understanding of the human condition is apple skin deep.
Too many details are thrust up that, like the overuse of certain words detailed above, merely state the same rather manifest aspects of his character. Why Tolstoy thought that hammering points over and over was effective I can only feel was perhaps because many novels in Europe in that day were serialized for the masses, and thus, to reach a wider, less educated, audience he felt he needed to grind points to pabulum. Yet, this gratuity, which may have been needed to establish his name, now undermines it.
Another thing that stands out about this tale is how utterly nihilistic and existential it is, especially since Tolstoy, and this tale in particular, are often portrayed as being suffused with the glory of Christianity. Ivan’s life, despite his steady social rise, is never enough. There is no step outside, spurred by religion or intellect, until the last moments of pain induce the requisite human quest for relief. Tolstoy wisely makes this not the last moment of Ivan’s life, therefore lending the end of the tale an exhalation, not just a climax. Critics have often carped that the title is the tale’s outline, but that’s unfair. However, there was a lot more he could have done with it.
The other story, Master And Man, is shorter- 47 pages- but even less engaging, about the death of a wealthy businessman- Vassily Andreyich- lost in a blizzard, whose corpse ends up saving the life of his serf, Nikita, whom he’s cheated most of his life. The duo end up in their predicament because Vassily pushes them on at night, in hopes of greater profit. It’s not a particularly deep tale, although, again, it probably was written with a good sense of the times, and Tolstoy’s displaying an egalitarian conscience was a good move to help endear him further to the mass public. This tale has an O. Henry-The Gift Of The Magi-type twist, in its end, but overall was even less compelling than The Death Of Ivan Ilyich. In fact, while reading it I had the old poem Snow-Bound, by John Greenleaf Whittier, in mind, and that poem’s descriptions seemed far more powerful, albeit also more pleasant.
Both of these Tolstoy tales put me in mind of a far superior short story by Daphne DuMaurier, The Apple Tree, in which the death of the lead character, in a snowstorm, is far more existential than Vassily’s, as well as being far more dramatically satisfying than Ivan’s. Overall, Tolstoy makes his points- they just are not particularly new nor cogently presented; which seems to be all that Tolstoy’s writing was, and hoped to be.
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