A while back I was wishing I could be reading Tolstoy: Amateur Reading was reporting on Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, while at The Millions, Kevin Hartnett wrote about his experience reading War and Peace:
The night I finished reading about Borodino, it was plainly obvious that I had just read something great. Yet here I was sitting in a corner of my couch, just the same as I had been an hour before. I thought about the question with which I opened—what is it that greatness does? An encounter with greatness, I would say, is like a bright light fixed in time, a marker that defines memory and makes it clearer than it otherwise might have been, that we were here.
I did put my copy of War and Peace out as a promise of good reading to come, but the end of term seemed so far away (seems, as I stare down about 20 more essays and 125 incoming exams)–I couldn’t bear to defer Tolstoy altogether, so I turned to The Death of Ivan Ilych, which I had stored away on my Sony Reader. There’s been a lot of kerfuffle lately about e-readers. I’m not really interested at getting in on that action. I like books, but I don’t consider them all equally collectible, and there are some texts I’m interested in reading that are long out of print. It’s not hard to find Ivan Ilych, but a lot of the other books I’ve put on my reader from Project Gutenberg aren’t so easily found, and if I could find them, they’d weigh a lot more than the Reader–which also has other cool features for academic types. I still love the feel and smell and look of a well-designed book, or a book with a history, but the fundamental reason I pick up a book is to read the words in it. It’s perhaps a little disorienting at first, when you make the shift to e-ink, but once you’re reading, you’re just, well, reading, and it doesn’t get much better than reading this:
Ivan Ilych saw that he was dying, and he was in continual despair.
In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it.
The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius – man in the abstract – was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and with all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad? Had Caius been in love like that> Could Caius preside at a session as he did? “Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.”
Such was his feeling.
Yes, isn’t that just the feeling: “When the commonplace ‘We must all die’ becomes ‘I must die – and soon,’ then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel.”
There’s a gristly quality, a toughness, to the story of Ivan’s life (“most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible”) and death (“He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died”). There’s no romance, no sentimentality, and yet in the harsh light Tolstoy shines on this man who lived his life “all wrong,” we also see ourselves and thus, I think, arrive at compassion.