Time isn’t real, and for someone very much caught up in trying to spend his time productively this is a bothersome axiom. It makes no difference whether I use my day writing novels or saving the lives of innocent children, since both activities, no matter how useful or good, mean nothing in the face of death, which undoes all. Nevertheless some foolishness drives me to live and find joy in my own way, even if, due to the nonexistence of time, my death—“In fight, in travel, or in waves?”—has already occurred, and I have been completely destroyed. In this fact is a certain freedom expressed in the murderous everything is permitted, a certain proof that we need fear nothing—but enough muddled sentences, enough meandering. To the point!
The question that confronts us is this: we seem to have some time, regardless of the fact that we actually don’t, so how should we spend it?
Tolstoy’s booming voice resounds in reply: “Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” Lightning strikes the earth, thunder shatters the mountains! Poor Mr. Ilyich lived the wrong way, and don’t you dare live like him!—chasing after money and only dwelling comfortably and decorously, dwelling as decorously as other people thought he should, so decorously, in fact, that while hanging his drapes he took a little tumble and gave himself a mean case of floating kidneys, which very unpleasantly ate him up.
His kidney was the price he paid for chasing after money all his life—skip to 7:05.
The cover featured on the wikipedia page likewise features a quote from Zadie Smith—“Every time I read it, I find my world put under an intense, unforgiving microscope”—as if Zadie Smith is really going to persuade her readers to read Tolstoy! They should have quoted Nabokov, who writes in his Lectures on Russian Literature that this short story is Tolstoy’s “most artistic, most perfect, and most sophisticated achievement.”
Nevermind the how or the why—you won’t find much of either in the short lecture, and his lack of textual support for this opinion also raises all kinds of questions about his supposed hatred of Dostoevsky, which returns me to Samuel Johnson (“Nothing has more retarded the advancement of learning than the disposition of vulgar minds to ridicule and vilify what they cannot comprehend”), but I must touch upon all these subjects lightly as a pirouetting ballerina lest I lose your flagging attention.
So I’ll vulgarly say to hell with both of their opinions: The Death of Ivan Ilyich does certainly put you under a microscope and it does certainly accuse, but it also encourages you to live an open life of love, to do good to the people around you, and not to waste your brief existence (which is actually so brief that it doesn’t even exist, as I have deftly proven) chasing after “the almighty dollah”–words you can hear in an infuriating bourgeois conversation at 5:24, here, which would have had Flaubert foaming at the lips, despite the distinct possibility that everyone in the room is acting.
Tolstoy shows you the miserable world of Ivan Ilyich, which I, as a clever little reader, do not in any way want to imitate, and that’s enough to convince me; forget the caricature of Gerasim, the idealized and sentimentalized peasant, whom Tolstoy presents as the answer to the question of—“So you don’t want us to live like Ivan Ilyich—then how, Mr. Tolstoy, should we live?”
But don’t get me wrong. For his handful of appearances in the story Gerasim is more alive than nearly every other character in literature—his cool skin smells like a snowy forest of pines, his broad height dominates any room he occupies, and he stands right next to you as you read about him—he’s a good man, he selflessly lets you put your legs up on his shoulders! The miracle of Tolstoy is that the people in his works are actually there.
Tolstoy’s style is beautiful not because of its plainness and its accessibility (which some readers mistake for simplicity, surely forcing a few hairs out of Nabokov’s bald, fuming head) but because the storyteller always knows exactly what he’s doing. I can’t put it any other way, but whenever I read Tolstoy I always have the sense, no matter where I am, that I’m being guided somewhere by a virtuoso performer who is completely confident in himself, someone who will not lead me astray: “My eyes float upon a running river / that neither shakes, nor shears, nor shimmers.”
You’re guaranteed a good Tol-story and a wider mind after you read The Death of Ivan Ilyich—and the best reason to read it, I think, is its brevity. Tolstoy’s bricks often break people’s backs, but kidneys float in the company of Ivan Ilyich—forever!