Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Wanted : Ivan Ilych, dead or alive

I've finally read the first book Yann Martel sent to our PM, Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych. It was quite a chore finding a copy. As I mentioned previously, the library and my favourite local bookstore were both out. In the vast personal collection of books in my household there was no Ivan Ilych. At the other stores I searched, no Ivan. I was actually reduced to, yes, reading it online. I actually found a full text version, but don't like reading off a screen, or sitting in my computer chair reading extensively, so I printed it off and read it, pen in hand, in my comfy reading chair. Much better.
And it is a good read. It is short, and to the point, plotwise; but Tolstoy is a master of characterization, and the elements of discomfort the people who know Ivan Ilych feel about his imminent death are brilliantly exposed. On hearing of his death, his coworkers' first thoughts are about how this will affect their various promotions and new positions. While he is suffering greatly, his daughter complains to her mother, "Is it our fault?...It's as if we were to blame! I feel sorry for papa, but why should we be tortured?" Everyone participates in a lie to make things easier, by pretending that Ivan is only ill, rather than clearly dying. They require Ivan to also participate in this lie in order to keep the peace. But Ivan sees through it, even as he acquieses.

The awful, terrible act of his dying was, he could see, reduced by those about him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident (as if someone entered a drawing room defusing an unpleasant odour) and this was done by that very decorum which he had served all his life long. He saw that no one felt for him, because no one even wished to grasp his position.

Death leads to a reexamination of his life. As Ivan suffers he realizes that death comes to us all; while recognizing this fact before, he now fully grasps its reality. What makes his dying more difficult is that he has time to reflect on his life, and he begins to wonder, "What if my whole life has been wrong?"

It occured to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. And his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.

When looking back on my life, I do not want to be similarly struck with the idea that my priorities were all wrong. I hope that in reading this book, we may all be startled into making that sort of evaluation while we still have time to change our habits and live to our uttermost ability. I also like to think I would not be as transparently self-interested in such a situation as Ivan's friends and family, but while reading there are certain mannerisms in many of the characters that you can see yourself in, rather unpleasantly at times. As Yann Martel himself put it in his letter to PM Stephen Harper:

"That is the greatness of literature, and its paradox, that in reading about fictional others we end up reading about ourselves. Sometimes this unwitting self-examination provokes smiles of recognition, while other times, as in the case of this book, it provokes shudders of worry and denial. Either way, we are the wiser, we are existentially thicker."

And is that the purpose of reading for all of us bibliophiles, is our quest really to become existentially thicker? I like that explanation, it values all the interior work we quiet readers do. I'm quite sure that I won't look back on my life on my deathbed wishing I'd worked more, or been more popular, or even made more money, but I am equally certain that I'll be wishing I had just a little more time to read all the books still waiting for me. Despite Tolstoy's emphasis on Ivan's dying alone, with no one but his servant Gerasim to truly recognize it and care, he did have me teary at one point, proving that great art can bridge that gap between self interest and empathy. A wonderful book, one I'm glad won't be on my eternal TBR list.

1 comment:

  1. "existentially thicker" I like that. I'm counting on not dying until I manage to read all my books. I know I'm living in denial, but I can't face the alternative. I must now add Ivan to my TBR list.


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