Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Tolstoy Miniseries

The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories
by Leo Tolstoy

At the suggestion of L.B., a major Tolstoy fan, I read this small collection of stories as part of my "training" for the literary marathon of War and Peace, which I plan to read later this year, probably in the fall so I will not have to lug a huge tome around during summer travels.

These four "short stories" are really more like novellas - they range from 70-90 pages. This collection includes Family Happiness, The Death of Ivan Ilych, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Master and Man. E. and I have an ongoing conversation going on regarding what makes "classic" literature. I mean, who and what determines that something is a classic? How long does something have to stick around to achieve that label? I am not even sure that the designation is helpful, because I think that up to now I have largely avoided classics because they bring to mind the stressful part of college life. Remember pulling all-nighters, slogging through some book not for the joy of it but because the-prof-said-to-and-there-is-an-exam-tomorrow. It is fun now, at 40+, to read some of these things just because I want to. I can take my time doing it and discover that they really ARE good. So, this was my first Tolstoy and I loved it.

E. and I think that one of the possible marks of a classic is that they can be old but still deal with themes that are as relevant now as they were when written. I found this with these Tolstoy stories - the settings were different from what we are used to (these stories were written between the years of 1855 and 1895), but the emotions and issues could be anywhere and anytime. Each of these stories could be a separate posting, but that would take a long time and probably take some of the engagement out of reading these for yourself, so I will just give a little teaser about each of them.

Family Happiness - deals with the changing relationship in a marriage as the husband and wife cope with different interests and stages of life. Flirts with the possibility of adultery, but it does not actually happen. Has a "happy" ending in that the couple realizes that they cannot forever sustain the idyllic passion of new love, but that something more permanent and substantive and ultimately fulfilling can replace it.

The Death of Ivan Ilych - possibly my favorite of the four. Deals with humanity's fear of and denial of death. Ivan's isolation as he faces his own death and his family refuses to acknowledge it, discuss it, or be present with him in it is palpable and wrenching. The peasant servant Gerasim is Christ-like in his tender care of Ivan.

The Kreutzer Sonata - evidently at the time he wrote this, Tolstoy was quite the misogynist (he had lots of different stages and evolutions of thought). In this story, Tolstoy outlines his view of women and human sexuality through the voice of a disturbed man. The man tells the story of his own marital relationship to a sympathetic listener on an all-night train ride. This is a good story, but one that I would not have had the patience for when I was a college student. It is mostly monologue, and I could picture myself sitting up in the library trying to get through it for whatever purpose the professor had deemed it necessary. I know I would have been going "Just get ON with it!" Now, though, I could read it and, if not relate to it myself, at least understand how someones experiences could lead them to the same wacky notions that this guy has. This story also preaches a sermon on jealousy and its tragic consequences.

Master and Man - my other favorite. Again deals with death, but this time set against a backdrop of greed and skewed priorities and class-ism. The protagonist, Vasili Andreevich, experiences the most basic kind of transformation as he faces the reality of his own preventable death. He moves from treating one of his servants (Nikita) like an expendable piece of property, to sacrificing his own life to save Nikita's. Very moving.

Each of these stories at some level deals with issues of meaning and purpose - why are we here? who are we called to be? how are we expected to live in relationship with each other? There are no more important questions than these.

What do you think makes a classic? What are your favorites of the classics? DISCUSS.

Reverent Reader


At 3/27/08, 1:37 PM , Blogger reverendmother said...

We read The Death of Ivan Ilych in 12th grade and I loved it too. Should pick it up again.

Did you know it's pronounced like "Ivana Leach"? I remember our teacher told us that.

At 3/27/08, 2:29 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

I did not know that about the pronunciation. I was pronouncing it "Eevahn Eelitch." No doubt I am butchering these Russian names! I wonder if there is a pronunciation website for Tolstoy characters?

At 3/27/08, 10:02 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said... are inspiring me to crack some Tolstoy! I never have, and surely cannot commit to W&P, but these sound really good. Classics...let's see...I love Middlemarch; always enjoy Jane Austen, especially Pride and Prejudice; Little Women; Huck Finn. Dennis is lobbying for anything Dostoyevsky. We're both Steinbeck fans. I also LOVE Robertson Davies although I'm not sure if his work is old enough to be labeled "classic."


At 3/28/08, 10:06 AM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

E - I really do think you would like these stories. I was pleasantly surprised by how easy they were to get into and enjoy. You remind me of some good classics - love Jane Austen, and "Little Women" is one of THE books of our childhood and adolescence. Have never tried "Middlemarch," although I remember it was quite a time commitment when you read it. I also want to re-read "Jane Eyre" sometime this year. It has been about 25 years since I read it, but Ed read it for the first time a few months ago and was totally into it.

At 3/30/08, 11:35 AM , Blogger TET said...

My dad will appreciate this, but when I think of Classics, I think of Ernest Hemmingway . . . American classics all the way!

At 3/30/08, 11:20 PM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Hey TET - how could we forget Hemingway? Loved "A Farewell to Arms" - need to dust that off and read again! LAK

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