Sunday, June 07, 2009

Tolstoy's Shorter Fiction

A couple of years ago I read Anna Karenina twice. There was the usual hoot of “Are you reading that again?” - very common in our household. Yet, despite my love for Tolstoy's novels, somehow I’ve never taken to his shorter fiction, as after the intense experience of his leisurely masterpieces it’s almost like reading sketches. But this weekend I settled down to read two of his stories: Family Happiness, an 80-page novella, published in 1859, identified by John Bayley as a predecessor of some of the marriage scenes in War and Peace; and The Death of Ivan Ilych, a classic published in 1886, a 53-page long short story about the illness and tragic death of a successful civil servant who has lived for status in work and social life, while keeping his wife and family at a distance.

First, the early, less accomplished story: in Family Happiness, Tolstoy delineates the philosophical adjustment of the definition of happiness in the marriage of an 18-year-old girl and a 36-year-old man, where happiness begins with “wild ecstasy." But a husband and children do not a happy marriage make, as we learn from the narrator, Masha - and it is quite interesting to read about this from a female point of view. In the introduction to Tolstoy’s Collected Shorter Fiction (Everyman) John Bayley writes, “(Tolstoy) became interested in various girls, and with his usual wish to get everything settled in his own mind he began to plan a sort of experimental nouvelle, setting out what he conceived a marriage in its early stages should be like.” It’s a fascinating experiment - though not entirely successful - and though the story is realistic, the ending is abrupt.

The romance is an unlikely one. After her mother’s death, during a stay in the country with her ex-governess and sister, Masha falls in love with a friend of her father, Sergey Michaylych. He coaxes her out of her depression, entertains her, and urges her to work at music . Their love affair is charming, though untraditional: Masha takes the initiative, as Sergey resists her. Sergey sensibly has reservations about marrying a younger woman, realizing that though he loves her, she has no life experience. Eventually, due to Masha’s persistence, they marry happily, but after several blissful months in the country they spend a disastrous winter in Petersburg, during which the couple become alienated. Masha becomes more and more absorbed in society, and he misunderstands her happiness, thinking it comes from flirtations with men. The ending is somewhat abrupt - Masha returns to the country after a dangerous flirtation in Baden - and, after she insists on talking about their problems, she accepts Sergey’s philosophy - which also comes as a surprise to the reader.

it’s an uneven story - but at least it’s Tolstoy.

On the other hand, The Death of Ivan Ilych is a masterpiece. It begins with the ending, with a group of Ivan’s friends talking about his death and privately calculating how the opening of his job might affect their own situations. (Yet they are not horrible - Tolstoy is ironic, but he stresses the inevitablity of man's ambition.)

Ivan Ilych had been a colleague of the gentlemen present and was liked by them all. He had been ill for some weeks with an illness said to be incurable. His post had been kept open for him, but there had been conjectures that in case of his death Alexeev might receive his appointment, and that either Vinnikove or Shtabel would succeed Alexeev. So on receiving the news of Ivan Ilych’s death the first thought of each of the gentlemen in that private room was of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances.

When Ivan's friend Peter Ivanovich pays his respects at the house, he is very uncomfortable, repulsed by the presence of the corpse, and wants to go off to play cards. But he is cornered by Ivan’s wife, who like everyone else is concerned about the monetary consequences of Ivan’s death. And then Peter is stuck at a service, which strikes him as false.

The rest of the story focuses on Ivan’s life. Here’s the brilliant opening of Chapter 2: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”

His death is solitary, long and drawn-out - and somewhat boring for his family. We see that Ivan has to die alone, because his family cannot cope. His illness interferes with dinners and balls - they seem shallow, but Tolstoy empathizes and emphasizes the realism. But it is impossible till the end for Ivan to realize he is dying.

A great short story!

My edition translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude - excellent - but other translators are also superb, as I know from reading the novels. Usually Constance Garnett is considered fusty, but I love her, too! And Richard Pevar and his wife Larissa Somebody-or-Other are award-winning translators, though I don't know if they've translated the shorter works.

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