Posts Tagged ‘Leo Tolstoy’

On death in literature (cont’d)

September 4, 2017

By way of contrast, I shall look at more recent encounters with death that have struck me in my reading, which I know is quite particular and in some ways obscure.

Two novellas focus on death itself, Victor Hugo‘s Last Day of a Condemned Man, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Illich. This latter I found interesting both because of the hero’s perplexity as a seemingly trivial affliction turns out to be fatal, and also the strange withdrawal of his family and friends as they realised that he was terminally ill. I can understand both of these reactions, and yet it was quite unnerving actually to see them unfold as the story progressed. The idea that we do not know what do do about death or how to react it, is clear.

A play I studied at school for A Level, Eugene Ionesco‘s Le Roi Se Meurt, has never left me. The king learns that he must die – as must all mortals – but will not accept this; he is the king, after all. It’s an absurdist drama which nevertheless brings home real truths to all of us. He has two queens, one of whom insists he prepare himself for the inevitable, and the other who assists his refusal to accept it. Meanwhile, the kingdom physically disintegrates around him, ready for his disappearance. And he eventually realises that nobody can help him, because ‘tout le monde est le premier à mourir‘.

In Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, I have always found the suicide of the Jewish toyseller Sigismund Markus, because of the growing power of the Nazis and their anti-semitism, profoundly moving, precisely because it is presented through the eyes of the hero who is and who is not, a three year-old child. He describes calmly, almost lyrically, the dead body of the toy seller who has taken poison, and then proceeds to steal another of his beloved tin drums…

Umberto Eco leads us almost to love his young narrator Adso of Melk, the novice who accompanies William of Baskerville during his adventures in The Name of The Rose, who comes to know sexual love once, briefly, before a lifetime of chastity, and who says farewell to us in his dying days, having chronicled those events of his youth. He doesn’t die but we are saddened knowing the end is almost upon him.

Harper Lee teaches the children an important lesson about courage in To Kill A Mockingbird through the slow death of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, who determinedly breaks her morphine addiction with their help before she dies. And Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, makes his readers think very deeply about life, death and the soul through his use of daemons in Lyra’s world, and the visit that Will and Lyra make to the world of the dead. To be sure, that isn’t our world, but there is much to lead us to reflect on the significance of our own eventual passing.

Readers will be aware of my interest in the Great War. The telephone numbers of casualties can only chill us so much; it takes the death of individuals to really move us, as great poets like Owen and Sassoon surely realised, in such poems as A Working Party and Dulce et Decorum Est. And the first time I read it I was shocked: in the finally volume of her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker imagines Owen’s death. It comes along quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, and is over in a couple of paragraphs before we realise what is really happening – just like so many pointless deaths in war. A masterstroke of writing, though.

Literature allows us to experience things we would otherwise perhaps never experience, to think about things we might not otherwise consider. Some writers help us to confront the great unknown.

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A Westerner tries to understand Russian literature

September 19, 2015

As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed the impression that Russia is so very different from anywhere I know and am familiar with. I’ve read its history and followed the ins and outs of communist politics for many years, and I’ve read a good deal of Russian literature, and explored a lot of the country as an armchair traveller, through many and varied travel writers. And the place seems vast and unknowable, the more I read and try to understand.

Partly this must be through the sheer size of the country, which defies the imagination. Many years ago, I was given a Soviet road atlas of the USSR. It’s a very slim volume, with very small-scale maps, and vast areas simply do not feature, not because the Russians had anything to hide, just because there are no roads. And the places where a single road goes on for five or six hundred kilometres, through a handful of small towns and then just stops…well. And then there’s the Russian idea of government: autocracy is as far as it seems to get – one all-powerful ruler, whether a tsar or a First Secretary of the CPSU or V Putin. It seems that only such a ruler can hold such a country together. Democracy they don’t do. When you get to religion, that is also alien to us in the West. Yes, it’s Christianity, but they think that theirs is the one and only true and original version, rather like the Church of Rome does. Which came first? Their services are obscure, in a mediaeval language, last for hours…

And yet I have been more than curiously fascinated by all this for many years; I am drawn to the unusual, the strange and inexplicable. Dostoevsky is hard work: The Idiot – what is it all about? and The Brothers Karamazov? at least Crime and Punishment is approachable, and frightening in its convincing psychology and paranoia. But I still find the ending, redemption through love and forced labour, hard to take, sentimental. It is a brilliant novel, though. Tolstoy is actually likeable, perhaps the closest a Russian gets to ‘the Western novel’ for me, even though they are vast tomes that make even Dickens look manageable… War and Peace I really like (I’ve read it three times so far) and am in awe of its vast scope, the sweep of its action, and the author’s direction of and dialogue with his readers. I like the ideas of Anna Kerenina and find the character of Levin fascinating, sometimes comprehensible and sometimes alien. Just as in France, the nineteenth century novel reached great heights in Russia.

Those writers had to grapple with the censorship and controls of Tsarist times; writers in the twentieth century didn’t have it anywhere near as easy, as the Soviets wanted to control everything, and literature was meant to serve the party and the revolution. I gather it produced a great deal of grim hack-work known as Socialist Realism, which I am sure was (badly) translated into English but probably never reached many bookshops here.

And those times also produced great writers and great literature. Stalin’s purges and the Great Patriotic War provide the background for Vassily Grossman‘s epic Life and Fate, and Anatoly Rybakov‘s astonishing Arbat trilogy. Grossman’s work has finally begun to achieve some of the recognition it merits – it really is a twentieth-century War and Peace – but Rybakov attracted a brief, post-Soviet flurry of interest with his first volume and then no further notice, which is a great pity. One can read historical accounts of the madness and paranoia that was the 1930s in the Soviet Union, but you can only begin to feel what it could have been like through a cast of convincing characters living through those times.

I still fail to understand how Mikhail Bulgakov survived, having written The Master and Margarita, but I have read that he was perhaps protected by Stalin. The devil appears in Moscow and creates scenes of utter mayhem; Pontius Pilate and his wife attempt to make sense of Jesus and his message; magic and anarchy reign. It’s a marvellous novel, a tour-de-force, but Socialist Realism it ain’t…

I’ve waxed lyrical about the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek‘s hero Svejk, an anarchic anti-hero who creates chaos in the Austro-Hungarian war effort wherever he goes; he has his Soviet era equal in Ivan Chonkin, in a couple of novels by Vladimir Voinovich, where Soviet bureaucracy and managerial ineptitude are satirised quite mercilessly.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s earlier works made a great impression on me at school. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is a powerful read (the film is utterly unmemorable) as a political prisoner in the gulag shares his work, thoughts, hopes and fears, knowing that it’s back to the start every night for twenty years; Cancer Ward explores (as I recall) the vulnerabilities of the powerful and the weak, reduced to the same equality by the dread disease, its treatment and consequences, and The First Circle, which I think is probably the best, explores Stalin’s paranoid world, urge to spy on and control people through the eyes of prisoners and ‘free’ men involved in a research project that will allow the regime to identify people from recorded voices alone. Solzhenitsyn, like other Soviet era writers, tries hard to create Stalin as a fictional character, and thereby come to some understanding of his psychology and power.

I have yet to read anything written since the fall of the Soviet Union that is worth the eyeball time.

Umberto Eco: Confessions of a Young Novelist

April 28, 2015

9780674058699Eco knows how to get you thinking: his first question asks what we actually mean by creative writing, and we’re off…

What he has to say about the genesis of The Name of the Rose, which has been one of my top three novels ever since I first read it, was very interesting: he added both to my understanding of, and pleasure in the book by explaining the origins of certain moments and episodes. I like it when an author colludes with his readers like this. There were also some fascinating insights into Baudolino, which I love almost as much; I was less interested in Foucault’s Pendulum and The Island of the Day Before, though I’ve read these too.

When an intelligent writer enters into dialogue or conversation with readers like this, we gain greater understanding of their work; we can also tune in to Eco’s evident enjoyment of his art and his craft. He’s clear that his readers have a certain amount of work to do: I like this honesty, having long felt that a good novel is more than mere diversion or entertainment. Eco I love because he has a brain that joys in questioning, thinking, annoying, finding connections.

He moves on to some very interesting and thought-provoking reflections on our relationships with various fictional characters: why are novels, and some of the characters in them, able to have such a powerful effect on the reader? His prime example, which he explores in some depth, is the reader’s response to the heroine’s suicide in Tolstoy’s Anna Kerenina. He recognises that we are capable of being influenced by fictional characters, and explores the nature of their ‘existence’ in ways which had never occurred to me… and Eco is at the same time anchored in that idea which we so often lose sight of, that fiction, and characters, are deliberate constructs.

In the second half of the book, Eco becomes a little more self-indulgent as he rides one of his favourite hobby-horses, the list and how it has been used in literature by himself and other writers. It is interesting, and clearly a rider to his full-length, fascinating tome The Infinity of Lists.

There’s rarely a dull moment in any book from a writer of such erudition; there were pointers for me in lots of new directions, as well as reminders to get on and re-read certain books as well.

Leo Tolstoy: Hadji Murat

December 4, 2014

41AtezQcGSL._AA160_To most people, the name Tolstoy suggests door-stoppers; if War & Peace or Anna Kerenina are all you’ve come across, then it’s true. But there are novellas, that look almost like afterthoughts in the face of the greats – The Death of Ivan Illich, that I wrote about a couple of months ago, Hadji Murat, which I’ve just finished reading for the next meeting of our Russian literature group, and Resurrection, which is next on my list, and which apparently brought about Tolstoy’s excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church.

I don’t think Tolstoy’s methods of writing are any different, just the scale. In Hadji Murat, apart from the eponymous hero who is present or backgrounded throughout the book, the story is populated by strongly but quite briefly delineated characters, sketched in as they move through Hadji Murat’s story in various ways. So, at various times, we get Russian military men, the Tsar himself, various Chechen companions, and his deadly enemy Shamil.

The novella is very strong on what would have been called ‘couleur locale‘ in its day, and which surely would have been extremely exotic to Tolstoy’s readers. There are the local landscapes of Chechnya, the Muslim tribes of the region with their customs, feuds, villages and religious practices, all deftly sketched in, along with the mutual incomprehension between the Russians and the local people.

Feuding and warfare are at the heart of the tragedy in this story; Hadji Murat is caught between a rock and a hard place, between the Russians to whom he surrenders in an attempt to save his family and honour from Shamil, and the tribal feuding which has given Shamil the upper hand in the region; Murat is the better soldier and campaigner and would be the ideal ally against the Russian invaders, but honour is at stake. The ending is brutal.

It is clear that nothing has changed in a century and a half: the Russians are still pursuing their attempts to overpower and control the fierce and independent Chechens; there is still senseless carnage on both sides, and Tolstoy is surely suggesting that warfare is utterly senseless, through this microcosm of the conflict. And I could make exactly the same observation about what the British have been up to in Afghanistan. Hadji Murat is a small masterpiece from a great writer.

Tolstoy: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

October 12, 2014

9780099541066A change from what I usually think of when I think of Tolstoy: not the door-stopper tomes of Anna Kerenina or War & Peace, but a novella: sixty scant pages, but a very powerful story. I wonder what the Russian literature group will make of this…

In a modernist way, Tolstoy begins at the end, with the awkward, elusive and rather bored reactions of Ivan Ilyich’s work colleagues to news of his demise. From this point, I think we know we are in for a challenging read: a nineteenth century writer not presenting the standard, respectful clichés and responses to death. Furthermore, Tolstoy takes us in close, inside the unspoken thoughts of his characters, revealing the more unpleasant sides to their souls.

Having established death, Tolstoy backtracks to Ivan Ilyich’s rather dull, routine and unsatisfactory life, his lack of continued success in his profession and his empty marriage. It takes a while before we realise just how cleverly Tolstoy is manipulating his readers: he has deliberately chosen to have his hero nondescript, ultimately a sad failure in our , and eventually his own, eyes: the movement towards death of a more contented, well-balanced and likeable person would have perhaps had an altogether different effect. I also realised that calling his hero Ivan Ilyich has an immediate significance for Russian readers which might escape us: the name is the equivalent of John Smith in England, and thus Tolstoy invests him with the potential to be almost an Everyman figure: this is what it will be like for all of us, this suffering and emptiness is a much more widespread lot that we may care to think.

Medically, the premise behind the ‘accident’ which causes Ivan Ilyich’s fatal illness is nonsensical, but that’s hardly the point: his death is a consequence of his striving for material success and conspicuous consumption; the illness is drawn out over enough time for the effects on the hero and his family to be clear.

Again we are manipulated by the nature of the narrative, which focuses solely on the death through the hero’s point of view, thoughts and consciousness: we are given hardly any response from the perspective of his wife, daughter and son, which underlines his isolation and suggests their total lack of love for him.

So he must come to terms with his unsatisfactory life, and his inevitable death, all on his own; yes, the family are there, on the periphery of things, but he seems to feel they resent him, and he has the picture of them getting on with living whilst he must get on with dying: this is true, and what else can one do? But Tolstoy makes us realise the pain and torment this can add to the physical process of death. And Ivan Ilyich comes to hate his family for it…

‘Tout le monde est le premier à mourir’ says the king in Ionesco’s Le Roi Se Meurt. ‘Jeder stirbt für sich allein’ as Hans Fallada called his powerful novel. And this is something that we all must come to realise one day. Sorry if I’ve depressed you; it is a very good read.

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