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Raging against the dying of the light

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The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy

The second short work in the Tolstoy collection which OH gifted me at Christmas time is the title story, and it’s apparently reckoned to be one of his masterpieces. First published in 1886, so considered one of his later works, I imagine it’s been gathered with the three other pieces in the book as they all seem to focus on marriage and the relationships between men and women. However, although I’ve only read the first two, I think “Death” is something more than just a meditation on the battle of the sexes.

The novella opens with three men receiving the news that their friend and colleague Ivan Ilyich Golovin has died. These are officials of the Russian court of Justice and although sorry about their friend’s death, they also can’t help thinking of the effect this will have on their careers and their lives. Golovin’s best friend of the three, Pyotr Ivanovich, goes to pay his respects; yet he cannot wait to leave the house after the service, glad to be alive and able to go on with his own life.

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The story then takes us back to Ivan’s younger days, following his life from childhood through to school days, early working life and making his way in the civil service. He moves from province to province to improve his lot; meets his future wife Praskovya in one of these outposts and they marry because she is in love and he thinks it would be a good match and she is quite agreeable; and they have a family. However, things deteriorate once the children arrive, as Ivan finds his wife too demanding and unreasonable, and he retreats into his work.

In all this the great thing necessary was to exclude everything with the sap of life in it, which always disturbs the regular course of official business, not to admit any sort of relations with people except the official relations; the motive of all intercourse had to be simply the official motive, and the intercourse itself to be only official.

After a good promotion, however, the family move to a new home which Ivan decorates in readiness for their arrival. It is here that fate takes a hand: Ivan falls whilst hanging curtains and hurts his side. This apparently minor injury develops into what will be a fatal one, and the rest of the book takes us with Ivan on his final journey towards an angry death. And a long, dark journey it is. Ivan’s illness is undefined, and the doctors seem unable to diagnose or treat him properly. His family is relatively unsupportive, with only his young son seeming to care about him, and Ivan himself only realises towards the very end quite how much his condition has deteriorated. He suffers the indignity of having to have what we would now call ‘personal care’ from a peasant in his employ, who ends up being the most comforting presence around him because he is totally non-judgemental. Ivan is not ready to die, and suffers more when he comes to realise that he has probably wasted his life, doing things that were pointless and meaningless, and it is this that makes his death so painful – as well as dealing with the physical agony, he is also in mental and emotional agony.

What of the portrayal of his marriage? Well, it isn’t a happy one but then when are they in Tolstoy? Initially the young couple seemed to jog along quite nicely, but as soon as Praskovya becomes what Ivan thinks of as far too demanding he pulls away, shutting himself off from his family and making walls around himself. Tolstoy is critical of Praskovya, but I couldn’t help thinking that in fact Ivan was emotionally copping out and if he had *really* cared about his wife he would have tried to understand and meet her halfway (especially as her demanding behaviour began when she was pregnant and her hormones were presumably running riot). The marriage is mostly conflict and it does seem to be Tolstoy’s feeling that that’s what a marriage is.

But of course central to the book (and its title) is Ivan Ilyich’s death, and Tolstoy is unsparing in his depiction of this. I can’t recall reading anything that deals so starkly and realistically not only with the physical effects of a human’s deterioration but also the mental effects. Ivan’s coming demise dominates his thoughts and emotions to the exclusion of anything else; he is unable to put it out of his mind and it gnaws away at his brain as much as his disease does at his body. His gruelling path to death is not an easy read, but perhaps it’s an essential one. In a society that doesn’t talk about the practicalities of death very much, maybe we need reminding of what it’s really like to take leave of this earth and this life.

So a much more powerful read than the first story in the book, a dark one which I can understand being ranked with Tolstoy’s great works. Next up will be “The Kreutzer Sonata”, a story I’ve tried to read before and failed because the attitude towards women and marriage was just too much. We’ll see whether I can get through it on a second attempt! 🙂

Tackling Tolstoy

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The figure of Tolstoy towers over Russian literature; as well as producing his massive tomes “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”, his moral and spiritual influence on the country was huge. I read AK in 2013, and “War and Peace” is still on my radar. However, the size is a little intimidating and I most likely won’t get to it any time soon. So I was really pleased when OH came up with a collection of shorter works as a Christmas gift; he bought it mainly because of the title story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, which he’d heard of somewhere. However, I thought I would read through it one story at a time, and the first in the book is “Family Happiness”.

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The story is narrated, perhaps unusually for Tolstoy, by a young girl of 17, Masha. As the book opens, she has been left an orphan by the death of her mother. She and her sister Sonya, plus their old nurse Katya, are living in the country and waiting for family friend Sergey to visit. Masha has know the latter all her life as her father’s best friend (although younger than him) and someone the family could rely on. And indeed Sergey comes to sort out the family’s affairs and keep an eye on them, whilst taking care of his own business at his nearby estate where he lives with his mother.

As Masha starts to mature, inevitably Sergey’s interest in her changes, and Masha herself begins to see the family friend in a new light. Inevitably she falls in love with him – or is it just a young girl’s infatuation? The courtship is a long and hesitant one, as Sergey expresses doubts as to Masha’s real love for him, thinking she will soon grow bored with him. However, the two marry and start their married life living in Sergey’s family home. Initially, things are all happy and lovely, but it isn’t long until, as Sergey predicted, Masha becomes restless, unsatisfied with country living. A trip to the society of St. Petersburg awakens her interest in the finer things in life, which inevitable has a detrimental effect on the marriage…

“Family Happiness” was published in 1859 and I was fascinated to see in it early hints of themes which would come to the fore in “Anna Karenina”. The age difference in the marriage of the two protagonists, the love of society and the flirting and shallowness developed by Masha, and the inevitable disintegration of the marriage, reminded me very much of the union of Anna and Karenin. However, by using the female perspective to narrate, the viewpoint is somewhat different as we follow Masha’s changing views and emotions during the changes in her life.

I did, however, at times feel that Masha was not there so much as a character in her own right; more that she was there to represent much that Tolstoy felt was wrong in womanhood and that there was a didactic purpose behind the writing. Interestingly, the age gap between Sergey and Masha is very similar to that between Tolstoy and his long-suffering wife Sonya, although the marriage between the two took place after FH was published – a case of life imitating art, perhaps!

I enjoyed reading the story very much, particularly for the quality of the writing/translation – a passage like this, for example:

We went up to him, and truly it was a night such as I have never seen since. The full moon stood over the house behind us so that it could not be seen; and half the shadow of the room of the columns and the verandah awning, lay slanting en raccourci on the sandy path and the circular lawn. All the rest was light, and bathed in silver dew and moonlight. The broad flowery path, all bright and cold, with shadows of the dahlias and their sticks lying slanting on one edge, and its rough gravel glistening, ran into the mist in the distance. Behind the trees there gleamed the roof of the conservatory, and below the ravine roses the gathering mist. The lilac bushes, already beginning to lose their leaves, were bright all over in every twig. The flowers, all drenched with dew, could be distinguished from one another. In the avenues the light and shade were so mingled that they seemed not trees and little paths between, but transparent, quivering, and trembling houses. To the right of the house all was black, indistinct, and weird. All the more brilliant rising up out of this darkness was the fantastically-shaped top of the poplar, which seemed as though, for some strange inexplicable cause, it had halted near the houses, in the dazzling brightness above it, instead of flying far, far away into the distant dark-blue sky.

Frustratingly enough, my very nice Wordsworth edition doesn’t state anywhere who the translation, which is very naughty as I always like to credit the person who’s done such wonderful work so I can read a book from another language. So thank you, unnamed translator!

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However, it was hard not to view this story with the knowledge of Tolstoy’s life informing it. The book ends with passion of any kind having burnt out and the two partners in the marriage settling into a kind of companionship for the rest of their days. Was this Tolstoy’s view of marriage? If so, he should have been more honest with his own teenage bride, who we know was treated despicably from the very start of their union. And I felt much more strongly in this work the didactic tone of Tolstoy; the women in his books *do* seem to suffer and bearing in mind his sexual appetites and behaviour, I’m going to have to try to read more of his works by putting what I know of him to the back of my mind and reading them objectively. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see where Tolstoy goes with the rest of the stories in this collection, particularly the title work which is very highly regarded.

Well, you can’t blame me, can you???

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A few more books made their way out of the house today to the charity shop, and I made a point of not browsing too much – but I really couldn’t resist this:

w & p

I do, of course, already own a copy of “War and Peace” which if I recall correctly is the Maudes translation. Whichever one it is, it’s riddled with the original French passages which Tolstoy put in the book (as upper class Russians of the time only spoke that language) and this has always been a stumbling block for me as my French is very, very, VERY basic.

However, this lovely box set which was produced to tie in with the old BBC adaptation is translated by Rosemary Edmonds and hurrah! the French is translated! So it may that this is the impetus I need to get me reading W&P at last.

w & P spine

Plus it’s really pretty, in great condition and it only cost £1.50 – amazing! As I’ve said before, I do love the local charity shops! 🙂

Little Black Classics – The Russian Edition!

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It’s been common knowledge round the Ramblings that I’ve been suffering from a bit of a reader’s block – not a thing that happens often, but nevertheless very painful when it strikes. For days I was unable to settle to reading *anything* at all and began to wonder if I would ever be able to get through another volume. Fortunately, salvation came in part from the Penguin Little Black Classics! Commendably enough (in my view, anyway) the series features number of classic Russian authors, all of whom I’ve read and all of whom I love. So these were the perfect way to revisit them in small bites and ease back into reading! I tackled them in the order below and I’ll share just a few thoughts on each.

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The Nose – Nikolai Gogol

Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809 – 1852) is one of Russia’s most important authors, and generally regarded as the country’s first realist writer. He wrote on classic novel, “Dead Souls”, and some brilliant short works; this volume contains “The Nose” and “The Carriage”. The first is one of his most famous tales, in which a Collegiate Assessor wakes up one morning to find that his nose has disappeared and taken on a life of its own. Of course, without a nose of his own, it’s quite impossible that he should appear in his normal circles, and the story follows his attempts to track down his nose, which makes appearances here and there wearing a uniform and attempts to establish its existence in its own right. This is wonderfully absurdist nonsense which shows up the prejudices of the class system and civil service in Russia as well as being very, very funny. “The Carriage” is a cautionary tale about what happens when you get drunk and boast too much. The protagonist, Chertokutsky, lives in a small town which goes from dull to lively when the army is posted nearby, and is foolish enough to brag about the wonderful carriage he possesses; unfortunately, owing to imbibing just a little too much he oversleeps and forgets to warn his wife that there will be officers calling on them the next day to have a look! Gogol was a satirical genius and these tales display his talents brilliantly!

Gooseberries – Anton Chekhov

Chekhov needs no introduction on the Ramblings, and this volume collects three tales, “The Kiss”, “The Two Volodyas” and “Gooseberries”. Basically, the man could write short stories like no-one else… “The Kiss” is a poignant tale of a man haunted by a mistaken embrace; “The Two Volodyas” about the choices we make in love; and “Gooseberries” about the choices we make in life. Read Chekhov – just read him! 🙂

Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands – Ivan Turgenev

Turgenev is possibly best known for his novels (and his famous dispute with Dostoyevsky) but he was also great at the shorter form. There are two stories in this volume, the title one and “District Doctor”. The latter is very moving, the tale of a provincial doctor and a lost love. The title story portrays serfs living on the land, the hardships they endured and the strangeness of some of their beliefs. Turgenev’s tales apparently helped with the campaign to abolish serfdom, and they’re also excellent reading.

ruskies 2

How Much Land Does A Man Need? – Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy also needs no introduction; the giant of Russian literature produces works that were as short as “War and Peace” were long! The two stories here (the title one and “What Men Live By” are suffused by Tolstoy’s faith and “How Much Land….” (a parable of a peasant’s bargain with the Devil) is apparently considered by James Joyce to be the world’s greatest story. I don’t know about that, but it’s very powerful and thought-provoking!

The Steel Flea – Nikolay Leskov

I was particularly delighted that Leskov was included in the LBCs, as he’s a Russian author that often doesn’t get as much attention as the others. Also, he’s suffered a lot at the hands of translators as his particular style of vernacular speech and punning is apparently very hard to translate. The version of one of his most famous stories (also known as “Lefty”) is in the translation by William Edgerton, which comes highly recommended by ace translator Robert Chandler (for his thoughts about working on Leskov, see here). This is a fabulous and fantastic little story about the rivalry between craftsmen of different nations (and thus the nations themselves), rendered with verve and lots of punning!

The Meek One – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Last, but most definitely not least – the wonderful Dostoevsky. I’ve read many of his longer works but less of his short ones. This is a magnificent piece of writing, 57 pages of pure genius. The style recalls that of “Notes from Underground” in that it’s in the form of a monologue by an unreliable narrator. He’s a pawnbroker and he’s telling us the story of marriage, leading up to his wife’s story. Initially we’re unsure of the facts, but as the story unfolds it becomes clear that the pawnbroker has a somewhat disreputable past and much of what happens is due to his obsessive love of his wife, his inability to express his emotions and his stifling of any natural relations with his wife. As the story builds to a climax, the tension is almost unbearable and the powerful narrative is totally absorbing. At the end it’s not even clear which of the two is the meek one of the title, but the tragic story is brilliantly told. Dostoyevsky is a writer of genius and if you were only going to read one of the Russian LBCs then I would really say that this is the one!

So a wonderful reading experience with these little books. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of reading the Russians and fortunately there are still plenty I haven’t tackled yet!

(As an aside, I’ve reproduced the author names exactly as they are on the books – and isn’t it interesting how the names can be transliterated with different spellings depending on the translator – languages are fascinating!)

A birthday thought….

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Leo Tolstoy

“All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.”

Today is the birthday of the great Russian author, Leo Tolstoy (9 September 1828 – 20 November 1910). Google has produced a rather nice doodle for the event and it’s worth searching out. Tolstoy was an amazing writer and also a compassionate man in many ways.

“A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite.”

Reading his “Anna Karenina” last year was an intense and wonderful experience – maybe soon I’ll be able to make my way through “War and Peace”!

*whispers* (Just one new one this weekend…)

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tolstoy

(… and it’s a Tolstoy I don’t have and it’s a Penguin Classic and they’re always reliable!)

Olympian Writers

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I don’t like sport.

I don’t like totalitarian regimes.

I’m not particularly keen on modern politics….

So is it wrong that I’m still emotionally falling to bits after seeing a huge chunk of my favourite authors appearing in the Sochi closing ceremony?? Particularly seeing Mayakovsky, Bulgakov and Tsvetaeva up there, having spent much of their lives fighting the authorities. And the actors performing as Tolstoy and Akhmatova were pretty spot on.

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky

 

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Closing Ceremony

Gogol and Lermontov

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Closing CeremonyMayakovsky!!!!!!!

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Closing CeremonyNabokov, Bulgakov and Tsvetaeva

Basically – I just *love* Russian authors!!

The ceremony is still on the UK BBC iPlayer if you want to see this bit – about 1hr 20 mins in – just ignore the totally stupid and insulting commentary which really was reprehensible….

(photos mainly from examiner.com)

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