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From this state of affairs there is really not a very far cry to the problems of writers like Tolstoy in whom the artist struggled with the preacher; the great introvert with the robust extrovert. Tolstoy surely realized that in him as in many writers there did go on the personal struggle between creative solitude and the urge to associate with all mankind — the battle between the book and band. In Tolstoyan terms, in the symbols of Tolstoyan later philosopy after he finished Anna Karenin, creative solitude became synonymous with sin: it was egoism, it was the pampering of one's self and therefore a sin. Conversely, the idea of all mankind was in Tolstoyan terms the idea of God : God is in men and God is universal love.

And Tolstoy advocated the loss of one's personality in this universal God-Love. He suggested, in other words, that in the personal struggle between the godless artist and the godly man the latter should better win if the synthetic man wishes to be happy.

We must retain a lucid vision of these spiritual facts in order to appreciate the philosophy of the story "The Death of Ivan Ilyich." Ivan is of course the Russian for John, and John in Hebrew means God is Good, God is Gracious. I know it's not easy for non-Russian-speaking people to pronounce the patronymic Ilych, which of course means the son of Ilya, the Russian version of the name Elias or Elijah, which incidentally means in Hebrew, Jehovah is God. Ilya is a very common Russian name, pronounced very much like the French il y a; and Ilyich is pronounced Ill-Itch—the ills and itches of mortal life.


Vladimir Nabokov: Lectures on Russian literature

Now comes my first point : this is really the story not of Ivan's Death but the story of Ivan's Life. The physical death described in the story is part of mortal Life, it is merely the last phase of mortality. According to Tolstoy, mortal man, personal man, individual man, physical man, goes his physical way to nature's garbage can; according to Tolstoy, spiritual man returns to the cloudless region of universal God-Love, an abode of neutral bliss so dear to Oriental mystics. The Tolstoyan formula is: Ivan lived a bad life and since a bad life is nothing but the death of the soul, then Ivan lived a living death; and since beyond death is God's living light, then Ivan died into new Life—Life with a capital L.

My second point is that this story was written in March 1886, at a time when Tolstoy was nearly sixty and had firmly established the Tolstoyan fact that writing masterpieces of fiction was a sin. He had firmly made up his mind that if he would write anything, after the great sins of his middle years, War and Peace and Anna Karenin, it would be only in the way of simple tales for the people, for peasants, for school children, pious educational fables, moralistic fairy tales, that kind of thing. Here and there in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" there is a half-hearted attempt to proceed with this trend, and we shall find samples of a pseudo-fable style here and there in the story. But on the whole it is the artist who takes over. This story is Tolstoy's most artistic, most perfect, and most sophisticated achievement.

Thanks to the fact that Guerney has so admirably translated the thing I shall have the opportunity at last to discuss Tolstoy's style. Tolstoy's style is a marvelously complicated, ponderous instrument.

You may have seen, you must have seen, some of those awful text books written not by educators but by educationalists—

by people who talk about books instead of talking within books. You may have been told by them that the chief aim of a great writer, and indeed the main clue to his greatness, is "simplicity." Traitors, not teachers. In reading exam papers written by misled students, of both sexes, about this or that author, I have often come across such phrases—probably recollections from more tenderyears of schooling—as "his style is simple" or "his style is clear and simple" or "his style is beautiful and simple" or "his style is quite beautiful and simple." But remember that "simplicity" is buncombe. No major writer is simple. The Saturday Evening Post is simple. Journalese is simple. Upton Lewis is simple. Mom is simple. Digests are simple. Damnation is simple. But Tolstoys and Melvilles are not simple.

One peculiar feature of Tolstoy's style is what I shall term the "groping purist." In describing a meditation, emotion, or tangible object, Tolstoy follows the contours of the thought, the emotion, or the object until he is perfectly satisfied with his re-creation, his rendering. This involves what we might call creative repetitions, a compact series of repetitive statements, coming one immediately after the other, each more expressive, each closer to Tolstoy's meaning. He gropes, he unwraps the verbal parcel for its inner sense, he peels the apple of the phrase, he tries to say it one way, then a better way, he gropes, he stalls, he toys, he Tolstoys with words.

Another feature of his style is his manner of weaving striking details into the story, the freshness of the descriptions of physical states. Nobody in the eighties in Russia wrote like that. The story was a forerunner of Russian modernism just before the dull and conventional Soviet era. If there is the fable noted, there is too a tender, poetical intonation here and there, and there is the tense mental monologue, the stream of consciousness technique that he had already invented for the description of Anna's last journey.

A conspicuous feature of the structure is that Ivan is dead when the story starts. However, there is little contrast between the dead body and the existence of the people who discuss his death and view his body, since from Tolstoy's point of view their existence is not life but a living death. We discover at the very beginning one of the many thematic lines of the story, the pattern of trivialities, the automatic mechanism, the unfeeling vulgarity of the bureaucratic middle-class city life in which so recently Ivan himself had participated. Ivan's civil service colleagues think of how his death will affect their careers: "So on receiving the news of Ivan Ilyich's death the first thought of each of the gentlemen in those chambers was of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances.

" 'I'll be sure to get Shtabel's place or Vinnikov's,' thought Fyodor Vas-ilievich. T was promised that long ago, and the promotion means an extra eight hundred rubles a year for me besides the allowance.'


Vladimir Nabokov: Lectures on Russian literature



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