Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Well, that's one way to react...

Guy de Maupassant, the French writer, read Death of Ivan Ilych shortly before he died, and remarked, apparently with no irony:

“I realize that everything I have done now was to no purpose, and that my ten volumes are worthless.”

Do you think he liked it?

(A tip of the hat to Tony Briggs, who sent me his forthcoming Introduction to The Death of Ivan Ilych and other Stories. Briggs is a well-regarded translator of Tolstoy, and an excellent researcher. I hold his Landmarks essay on Eugene Onegin to be among the smartest things about that book to have ever written.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Another great read...

David Kippen's blog on the Big Read project is great fun, full of reportage from the field. (Kippen is the NEA Director of Literature... cool title for the business card!)

It's very interesting for me, as a professor of literature, to read someone whose charge is both so similar and so unlike my own. I mean, this guy is out beating the pavement, networking, writing, speaking, glad handing and wheedling to get people to read. In theory, I suppose, I ought to be doing the same thing -- but universities are very reactive. Reading through his posts and reports, I realize how much more we academics should be doing. I also read a couple of his posts about Ivan. He's got some thoughtful and measured things to say about Tolstoy. Give the blog a read!

Some new links...

I encourage you to join the Champaign-Urbana Big Read Facebook page! You can even pay your regards (mind the nasty smell and meddlesome widow!) to Ivan himself...

Friday, February 8, 2008

Tolstoy's definition of society

Probably the most famous line in Ivan is the one that runs, in the most literal translation:
The past history of Ivan Ilyich’s life had been the most simple and ordinary, and most dreadful.
What a dreadful sentiment, no?

Most translations stray from the literal translation and editorialize a bit: They add "and therefore the most dreadful." I'm more of a literalist in such matters, but surely they hear the pitch correctly: Ivan's life is terrible in direct proportion to its "ordinariness" and "simplicity." (We understand, quickly, that for Tolstoy the "real" world we live in is, in fact, a world of topsy-turviness, where we valorize the grotesque as ordinary and the distorted as simple.)

I'm rereading Tolstoy's On Life, a work that I believe (well, lots of people believe) illuminates much of Ivan. I came across this passage (Hapgood translation, edited pretty heavily by me), that really struck a chord for me with that "most simple and ordinary = most dreadful" sentiment. Anyone who knows Tolstoy's works well -- be it Anna Karenina or War and Peace or Death of Ivan Il'ich -- will immediately recognize this passage as a summary of Tolstoy's model of society. It also "rhymes" so well with Ivan, particularly the first chapter's discussion of the "social inconvenience of death" and the story of Ivan's "simple and ordinary" life.

This passage comes at the point in On Life where Tolstoy, seeking an answer to the question "What in my life is not destroyed by the knowledge of my death," looks to not only his own contemporary society, but also to the history of mankind's communal existence. What is life, in the sense of the life of society? What guidance does the behavior of people in society offer that might help us to find happiness in the face of anguish-before-death?

This guidance has no rational explanation but it directs the vast majority of the actions of all men... This guidance cannot be accurately expressed because it is composed of facts and actions the most varied as to place and time. It is lights upon the boards of their ancestors for the Chinese pilgrimages to famous places for the Mahometan a certain amount of prayer words for the Indian it consists of fidelity to his flag and honor to his uniform for the warrior the duel for the man of the world blood vengeance for the mountaineer; it means certain sorts of food on specified days a particular mode of education for one's children; it means visits, a certain decoration of one's dwelling, specified manners of celebrating funerals, births and deaths. It signifies an interminable number of facts and actions filling the whole of life. It means what is called propriety, custom, and, most frequently of all, duty.

Man beholds everywhere about him from his very childhood men going about their business with full assurance and solemnity… [And so] that man not only begins to do the same things but even attempts to ascribe a rational meaning to these deeds. He wishes to believe that the men who do these things possess an explanation of the reasons for which they do what they do. And he begins to be convinced that these deeds have a rational meaning if not wholly known to him known to these at least.

But the majority of the rest of mankind, not being possessed of a rational explanation of life, find themselves in precisely the same situation as himself. They do these things only because others who, it seems to them, have an explanation of these deeds demand that they do same. And thus involuntarily deceiving each other, people become ever more and more accustomed not only to do these things without possessing a rational explanation: They become accustomed to ascribing to these deeds some mysterious sense, incomprehensible even to themselves. And the less they understand the meaning of what they do the more doubtful to themselves these acts become the more importance do they attach to them and with all the greater solemnity do they fulfil them. And the rich man and the poor man do what others do about them, and they designate these acts as their duty, their sacred duty, reassuring themselves by the thought that what has been done so long by so many people and is so highly prized by them cannot but be the real business of life. life And men live on to hoar old age to death striving to believe that if they themselves do not know why they live others do know this the very people who know precisely as little about it as those who depend upon them New people come into existence are born grow up and looking upon this whirlpool of existence called life in which old gray respected men surrounded by the reverence of the people assert that this senseless commotion is life and that there is no other go away after being jostled at its doors.

It's here maybe most clearly that we discover that the card playing that goes on throughout the novel (it is, after all, Ivan's greatest pleasure -- and Schwartz and Pyotr Ivanovich sneak out of Ivan's service to play cards) -- that the card playing is nothing but a metaphor for society. Or maybe more exactly that society is but card playing writ large, with its arbitrary rules and values that govern our actions and, despite their absurdity, define the ordinary.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

My favorite passage...

The beauty and ingenuity of this passage, which comes in the middle of Chapter X of Ivan, surpasses, I think, anything else that Tolstoy ever wrote.
In this recent days of loneliness in which he found himself lying with his face towards the back of the couch, of a loneliness in the midst of a populous city among his numerous acquaintances and family, of a loneliness more complete than there could be anywhere else—not at the bottom of the ocean nor on the earth—in the recent days of that awful loneliness Ivan Ilich lived only in his imagining of the past. One after another, scenes of his past appeared to him. It always started with the most recent and then went to the most distant, to childhood, and with that they stopped. When he thought of the stewed prunes that had been offered to him today, he thought of the dry, wrinkled French prune of childhood, its special flavor and the saliva that would flow when it got down to the pit, and along with this reminiscence of the taste arose a whole series of reminiscences of that time: Nanny, brother, toys. “Don’t bother about that… it’s too painful,” he’d say to himself and again he’d be transported into the present. The buttons on the back of the sofa and the wrinkles of the Morocco leather. “The leather was expensive and doesn’t wear well; we had an argument because of it. But it was a different leather, and a different argument, when we ripped Father’s briefcase, and they punished us, but Mother brought us pastries.” And again it ended in childhood, and again Ivan Ilich felt pain, and he tried to banish the thought and thing of something different. And at the very same time, along with the series of memories, in his soul another series of memories passed—how his illness had grown and gotten stronger. Again, the further back the more life there was. And there was more good in life, and more of life itself. And the one and the other merged together. Just as the torment got worse and worse, so did life get worse and worse, he thought. There was one bright point there, in the back, at the beginning of life, and then everything got blacker and blacker and everything got faster and faster. “Inversely proportional to the square of the distance from death,” thought Ivan Ilich. And that image of a rock, flying downwards with increasing velocity, sank deep into his soul. Life, a series of increasing suffering, flies faster and faster towards its end, towards worse suffering. “I’m flying…”He shuddered, stirred, and wanted to resist, but he knew already that resistance was impossible, and again, tired of looking, but unable not to look what was before him, with his eyes he stared at the back of the couch and waited, waited for that awful fall, the shock, and the destruction. (My translation)

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Caesar is mortal...

Probably the most famous, most quoted extended passage from Ivan. And probably the most powerful. My translation maintains the parallel constructions better than the Maudes', and it also preserves Ivan's inner dialog's almost petulant, certainly childish, tone -- the "it's not fair" attitude.

That example of a syllogism that he’d learned in Kiesewetter’s Logic: Caesar is a man, people are mortal, therefore Caesar is mortal—had seemed to him his entire life to be correct only in relation to Caesar, but not at all to him. That was Caesar-man, general man, but Ivan had always been a being quite, quite distinctive from all others: He was Vanya with mommy and daddy, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, the coachman, the nanny, then with little Katya, with all the happiness, adversities, and delights of childhood, boyhood and youth. Could it have been for Caesar, the smell of the leather striped ball that Vanya had so loved? Could Caesar have kissed his mother’s hand that way, and could the silk of the folds of mother’s dress have rustled so for Caesar? Could he have rioted about the pastries at Law School? Could Caesar have been so in love? Could Caesar conduct a session that way?

And Caesar is certainly mortal, and it’s all right for him to die, but for Vanya, for Ivan Ilych, with all of my emotions and feelings, for me it’s an entirely different thing. And could not be that that I ought to die. That would be too awful.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Four translations...

Tolstoy's style is really inimitable. It is deceptively simple, not relying on eloquence but instead on very carefully chosen words. His similes are often long and awkward. His metaphors (as in this passage below) rely less on similarity and more on emotive impact. (Dying is like being thrust in a dark sack, and death is like breaking through the bottom of the sack into a new place. This passage is one of my favorites because it so effectively conveys terror before death.)

Tolstoy hardly ever writes "poetically" -- he's repetitious, for instance, intentionally using the same word or derivatives over and over again in the same sentence and paragraph. Most translators "dress him up," substituting synonyms for repeated words, or by making his sentences more complex than they are in the original. Sometimes Tolstoy is just plain awkward or blunt or even rude, and one must resist the temptation to bowdlerize him or smooth the rough edges.

Since all translations are approximations and capitulations, it's easy to pick apart others' work. The ones I give below (Maudes, Solotaroff, Wiener) are all fine, but they contain (in my view) errors major and minor: They all fail, for instance, to preserve the tense shift (from past to present and back to past). None (save Wiener's) captures the full meaning of the verb просунуть, a highly specific verb that means thrust through to the other side (совать насквозь: он с трудом просунул руку в отверстие). Solotaroff gets it really wrong: It's not the bag he fears and desires, but ripping through the bag into... into whatever is on the other side of the bag. None of the translations convey very effectively Ivan's reaction, upon awakening, to the fact that things haven't changed, that his being-near-to-death has had no effect on the world.

I've given the Russian, followed by my translation, and then others'.
Original Russian: Часов до трех он был в мучительном забытьи. Ему казалось, что его с болью суют куда-то в узкий черный мешок и глубокий, и все дальше просовывают, и не могут просунуть. И это ужасное для него дело совершается с страданием. И он и боится, и хочет провалиться туда, и борется, и помогает. И вот вдруг он оборвался и упал, и очнулся. Все тот же Герасим сидит в ногах на постели, дремлет спокойно, терпеливо. А он лежит, подняв ему на плечи исхудалые ноги в чулках; свеча та же с абажуром, и та же непрекращающаяся боль.

- Уйди, Герасим, - прошептал он.

- Ничего, посижу-с.

- Нет. Уйди.

Он снял ноги, лег боком на руку, и ему стало жалко себя. Он подождал только того, чтоб Герасим вышел в соседнюю комнату, и не стал больше удерживаться и заплакал, как дитя. Он плакал о беспомощности своей, о своем ужасном одиночестве, о жестокости людей, о жестокости Бога, об отсутствии Бога.

My translation: Until three o’clock he was in tortuous oblivion. It seemed to him that something is thrusting him and his pain somewhere into a narrow black bag, a deep one, and no matter how deeply it pushes, it cannot push all the way through. And this situation, awful for him, is accompanied by agony. And he both fears and desires falling through to there, he both struggles and helps. And suddenly he recoiled, fell, and awoke. And still Gerasim sits at the foot of the bed, dozing peacefully and patiently, while he lies with his emaciated legs in stockings resting upon Gerasim’s shoulders. And still the same candle with a shade and still the same unceasing pain.

“Go, Gerasim,” he whispered.

“It’s no trouble. I’ll sit for a while, sir.”

“No, go.”

He removed his legs, lay on his side, and began to pity himself. He waited until Gerasim had left into the next room, and then lost restraint and cried like a babe. He cried about his helplessness, about his terrible loneliness, about the cruelty of people, about the cruelty of God, about the absence of God.

Louise and Aylmer Maude: Till about three in the morning he was in a state of stupefied misery. It seemed to him that he and his pain were being thrust into a narrow, deep black sack, but though they were pushed further and further in they could not be pushed to the bottom. And this, terrible enough in itself, was accompanied by suffering. He was frightened yet wanted to fall through the sack, he struggled but yet co-operated. And suddenly he recoiled, fell, and regained consciousness. Gerasim was sitting at the foot of the bed dozing quietly and patiently, while he himself lay with his emaciated stockinged legs resting on Gerasim’s shoulders; the same shaded candle was there and the same unceasing pain.

“Go away, Gerasim,” he whispered.

“It’s all right, sir. I’ll stay a while.”

“No. Go away.”

He removed his legs from Gerasim’s shoulders, turned sideways onto his arm, and felt sorry for himself. He only waited till Gerasim had gone into the next room and then restrained himself no longer but wept like a child. He wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God.


Lynee Solotaroff: Until about three in the morning he was in an agonizing delirium. It seemed to him that he and his pain were being thrust into a narrow black sack—a deep one—were thrust farther and farther in but could not be pushed to the bottom. And this dreadful business was causing him suffering. He was afraid of that sack, yet wanted to fall through; struggled, yet cooperated. And then suddenly he lost his grip and fell—and regained consciousness. Gerasim was still sitting at the foot of the bed, dozing quietly, patiently, while Ivan Ilyich lay with his emaciated, stockinged feet on his shoulders. The same shaded candle was there and the same incessant pain.

“Go, Gerasim,” he whispered.

“It’s all right, sir. I’ll stay awhile.”

“No, go.”

He lowered his legs, turned sideways with his arm nestled under his cheek, and began to feel terribly sorry for himself. He waited until Gerasim had gone into the next room, and then, no longer able to restrain himself, cried like a baby. He cried about his helplessness, about his terrible loneliness, about the cruelty of people, about the cruelty of God, about the absence of God.

Wiener: Until about three o’clock he was in agonizing oblivion It seemed to him that he with his pain was being shoved somewhere into a narrow, black, and deep bag, and shoved farther and farther, without coming out of it. And this terrible act was accompanied by suffering. And he was afraid, and wanted to go through the bag, and fought, and helped along. And suddenly he tore away, and fell, and woke up. The same Geráaim was sitting at his feet on the bed, drowsing calmly and patiently. But Ivan Ilich was lying his emaciated, stockinged feet resting on Gerásim’s shoulders, and there was the same candle with the shade, and the same uninterrupted pain.

“Go away, Gersim,” he whispered.

“Never mind, sir, I will sit up.”

No, go.”

He took off his feet, and lay down sidewise on his arm and began to feel pity for himself. He just waited for Gerasim to go to the adjoining room, and no longer restrained himself, but burst out into tears, like a child.

He wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of men, the cruelty of God, the absence of God.

Friday, November 30, 2007

From "On Life"

"On Life" is probably Tolstoy's more rigorously argued, most philosophical essay. Tolstoy worked on the essay in 1887, so not long after finishing The Death of Ivan Il'ich (1885-March 1886). It reflects his interest and education in contemporary philosophy, an interest that began about twenty years earlier. As my colleague James Scanlan has pointed out, "On Life" is nothing more or less than an attempt to answer the question Tolstoy posed first and best in his A Confession: "Does life have a meaning that is not destroyed by the inevitable death that awaits me?"

That question is pertinent to our exploration of Death of Ivan Il'ich, and the following quote synthesizes, in very simple terms, Tolstoy's best response to it. The language of the essay strikes me as highly idiomatic and conversational, as though Tolstoy were talking through the problem with a friend. I've tried to preserve his tone.

One trouble with my translation is coping with Tolstoy's frequent use of the word zhalko (something like twenty times in the passage), a conversational but very powerful word which most often means "this makes me feel sorrow and regret," but also has overtones of shame (Kak tebe ne zhalko!), pity towards, contempt for, and begrudging something. It is directly related to the words "to complain" and "to sting."
I imagine that I will die, and with that my life will end, and this idea torments and terrifies me, because I feel sorry for myself. But what dies? What is it that I regret? What am I, from the most ordinary point of view? I am first and foremost flesh. Well, and so what? That is why I am afraid? I mourn for that? No, it turns out that is not it: A body, a substance can never disappear, nowhere, not even the tiniest bit of it. So it turns out that that part of me has been taken care of, there is no reason for me to fear for that part. Everything will remain unharmed.

But no, not for that do I grieve.
What I pity is myself, Lev Nikolaevich [Tolstoy's full name], or Ivan Semyonovich... Yes, but isn't it true that each of us is not who we were twenty years ago, and that every day we become someone different? So what is it again that I pity, what am I sorry for? What I mourn, what I feel sorry for, is my consciousness of myself, my "I."

Yes, but even this consciousness of yours wasn't ever one thing, but it was instead various things: It was something different a year ago, and even more different ten years ago and entirely different before that. For as long as you remember, it has forever gone on changing. So, why then is it that you like your present consciousness, why is it that you mourn losing it? Had it always been one and the same thing, then it would make sense. But it has never done anything but change. You cannot see nor discover its beginning, and yet here you are suddenly wanting it never to end, wishing that this consciousness that is now within you would never ever change. For as long as you can remember yourself, you've been on the move. You came into this life, not knowing how; but you know that you came in this special "I" which you are, then off you went, going on, going on, until you have reached the middle. And suddenly, not quite rejoicing and not quite fearing, you balk, and you do not want to budge, you don't want to continue further because you cannot see what lies ahead. And yet you didn't see the place from which you've just come, and yet you made it. You entered through the entrance, yet you don't want to exit from the exit.

Your entire life has been a journey through physical existence. Onward you've gone, hurrying along your way, and suddenly you start regretting that what you have always been doing, continues to happen.

What seems terrible to you is a significant change in your situation that occurs with carnal, physical death. But isn't it true that the same kind of change happened to you at your birth, and nothing bad came of that; on the contrary, what happened was so good that you don't want to part with it.

What can scare you? You say that you will miss that you, with its current feelings, thoughts, with a certain way of looking at the world, with its present relationship with the world. You fear losing your relationship with the world? What exactly is this relationship? What does it consist of? If it's that you who drinks, eats, reproduces, builds your home, gets dressed -- the particular way that you relate to other people and creatures. Well, all of that is really just the relationship of each human, as a rationalizing creature, to life, and this relationship in no way can disappear. There are, have been, and will be millions of such relationships, and their species will be preserved, probably just as doubtlessly as each and every atom will be preserved. The instinct for preservation of the species is instilled in animals so strongly, and is therefore so durable, that there is no reason to worry about it. If you are an animal, then there is nothing for you to fear; if you are physical matter, then you are even more guaranteed in your eternalness.

But if what you afraid of losing is not something animal, then you are afraid of losing your personal, rational [spiritual] relationship to the world — that with which you entered into existence. But you know that that thing arose not with your birth. It existed independent of your being born as animal, and therefore it cannot be dependent on the death of your animal nature. (My fairly loose translation, from the beginning of Chapter XXXII)

More from Pascal...

Another thought from Pascal that resonates very strongly with Ivan:
21. We are fools to depend upon the society of our fellow-men. Wretched as we are, powerless as we are, they will not aid us; we shall die alone. We should therefore act as if we were alone, and in that case should we build fine houses, etc. We should seek the truth without hesitation; and, if we refuse it, we show that we value the esteem of men more than the search for truth. ( Pensées)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The "social inconvenience" of death

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger has a reference to "Death of Ivan Il'ich" towards the beginning of the second part of Heidegger's magnum opus, Being and Time. The reference to Tolstoy comes right after a discussion of the ways in which we, all of us, "flee" in the face of death. Specifically, it is attached to the sentence: "Indeed, the dying of Others is seen often enough as social inconvenience, if not even a downright tactlessness, against which the public is to be guarded." Heidegger's footnote to this sentence reads: "In his story 'The Death of Ivan Il'ich" Leo Tolstoi has presented the phenomenon of the disruption and breakdown of having 'someone die.'"

Heidegger's right. No other literary account so pitilessly exposes the inconvenience of death, the fact that death disrupts the flow of public life. Everyone near Ivan is bummed out, but not because Ivan has died: Instead, now "the public" has to go through all the hassle involved in dealing with the tactlessness of death.

But death does not inconvenience the public in any but the most superficial way. We flee the knowledge that "I will die," and instead focus on the fact that "he has died." Here's Tolstoy's mordant, caustic recounting of society's reaction to death:
Besides considerations as to the possible transfers and promotions likely to result from Ivan Ilych's death, the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who hard of it the complacent feel that, 'it is he who is dead and not I.' Each one thought or felt, 'Well, he's dead but I'm alive!' But the more intimate of Ivan Ilych's acquaintances, his so-called friends, could not help thinking also that they would now have to fulfill the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolences to the widow.
Lenin, who after his fashion loved and respected Tolstoy the artist and social critic, wrote that Tolstoy's greatest talent was the "ripping off of masks," exposing the tawdry and low that hides behind civility and tradition and good manners. He might have had this passage in mind.

Ivan has "made a mess of things," as Schwartz's wink conveys to Peter Ivanovich when they meet on the stairs before the funeral service. But this mess of things extends beyond the social -- Tolstoy indiscreetly reminds us, when describing how Gerasim is strewing something (carbolic acid) on the floor, that dead people (especially before the advent of modern mortuary care) stink.

If we think that our death will matter to society, that our death will disrupt the flow of life around us, the "happiness" of others, we are wrong:
[Schwartz's] look said that this incident of a church service for Ivan could not be a sufficient reason for infringing on the order of the session, that it would certainly not prevent his unwrapping of a new pack of cards and shuffling them that evening.
Tolstoy's point here, in the first few pages of the story, is not only to reveal the cruel indifference of society to an individual's death. (You can buy Tolstoy's analysis of the hypocrisy of society, or not.) But he surely has a point: We all know that we're mortal, that "one dies," but it is an entirely different realization that "I die." When Peter Ivanovich learns that Ivan spent three days screaming incessantly ("Oh, what I have suffered!" his wife remarks in telling of Ivan's awful death!), it occurs to Peter that "this might suddenly, at any time, happen to me." And for a moment he is terrified:
Buthe did not himself know how—the customary reflection at once occurred to him that this had happened to Ivan Ilych and not to him, and that it should not an could not happen to him, and that to think that it could would be yielding to depression which he ought not to do, as Schwartz's expression plainly showed.
What would it mean to live with the real, unflinching understanding of what it means to say, "I will die?"

Let me end with one of many excellent observations on this point from the French philosopher Pascal's Pensées:
Picture a number of men in chains, and all condemned to death; each day some are strangled in the sight of the rest; those who remain see their own condition in that of their fellows, looking at one another with sorrow and without hope, each awaiting his turn. This is the picture of the condition of man.
A full accounting of our lives (say Heidegger, Tolstoy and Pascal) must begin (and of course end) with the realization that we are condemned to death.

But here, I think, is a glimmer of hope in Tolstoy: Must we look "with sorrow and without hope" at one another, at our fellows? Is there some way out, or no exit?

Monday, November 26, 2007

A pleasant and proper man...

We learn in the fourth paragraph of the second chapter of Death that Ivan was the second son of Privy Councilor (a fairly low-grade bureaucrat) "an unnecessary member of an various unnecessary institutions." Ivan was le phеnix de la famille -- not as "cold and formal" as his elder brother, and not a loser ("неудачник") like his little brother. He was "an intelligent, lively, pleasant and proper person."

Those last couple of adjectives, "pleasant and proper" ("приятный и прличный", priYATny i priLICHny) get repeated, as a unit, sixteen times in the course of the novella, in one form or another. It is the "chorus" of the novel: Ivan is "pleasant and proper" which means, in Tolstoy's topsy-turvy world, "unpleasant and improper."

The first word, приятный is tightly connected with the word "friend", приятель, priYATel'. (All the characters at the funeral viewing from the first chapter are repeatedly described as Ivan's "friends.") In fact, the word приятно is etymologically directly related to the German freund and the English "friend." (P's get switched with f's all the time in the history of languages -- think of the word philosophy.) So, one could translate the first word in that repeated phrase as "friendly."

The word "proper" (прилично) is formed directly from the Russian word for "face," лицо. The idea here is that you always put forth the right, appropriate appearance. Of course, the "problem" with Ivan (the secret to his "success" in life) is that he has so many faces, a new one for each new occasion...

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

About Ivan Il'ich Golovin

We know from the obituary announcement that the hero of our tale is named Ivan Il'ich Golovin (Иван Ильич Головин). I'm not at all an expert in the history and meaning of names, but some Googling and browsing in my reference works reveals the following:
  • Iván: Ivan's first-name (Christian name, given name -- in Russian, imya имя) is the Russian variant of our Anglo-American John. Both names derive from the Greek Ἰωάννης, Iōannēs. (That "v" in Ivan isn't so strange when you think of the Italian version of John, Giovanni.) We in the English-speaking world got the name through the Romans (Johanne) who got it from the Greeks, but the Russians get it (and their religion) from the Greek (Byzantine) tradition. The name originates in Hebrew, Yôḥānān, "God is Gracious" or "God takes pity." As in English, Ivan is one of the more popular names in the Russian tradition. Russian, which has a very strong and elaborate nicknaming tradition, derives a number of variants from Ivan, some of which appear in the novel: Vanechka, Vaniusha, Vanyok, and Vanya (Ванечка, Ванёк, Ванюша, Ваня) being but a few. It's fairly important to point out, without in any way exaggerating the point, that Ivan is the stereotypical Russian first name -- like Tom for an Englishman or Fritz for a German of Pedro for a Mexican.
  • Il'ích or Ilých: Russian patronymics (отчества) derive, fairly obviously, from the child's father's first name. Ivan's father's name was Il'ia (we could write it Il'ya, too) (Илья), or the name of the prophet Elijah, or Eliyahu, which means (probably) "my God is Yahu" (Yahu being one way to write the "unpronounceable name of God, aka Yahweh, aka the Judeo-Christian God"). Il'ya was and remains a very popular name for males.
  • Golovín: Ivan's last name (family name, фамилия) is Golovín (Головин). Golova (голова) is "head" in Russian. Believe it or not, it was fairly common in Old Russian (say, seventh to the ninth century, in the area that now includes Belarus, Ukraine and Russia) to name your kids after parts of the body. There were names like Glaz (глаз eye), Ruka (рука arm), and Golova (голова head). Those first names eventually gave rise (like in English, with the name John) to family names, Golovin, Rukin, Glazov, (Головин, Рукин, Глазов), etc.
Now, Tolstoy wasn't one of those authors (like Dostoevsky) who gave his heroes representative names, names that indicated some essential quality. (Karamazov, for instance, means "stained" or "black" (карий, from Greek for black/brown) -- thus Dostoevsky's family is etymologically marked as sinners.) Nonetheless, at least in this case, Tolstoy's hero is aptly named -- he is the Russian Everyman (or just the Everyman). His challenge, like Elijah's, is bold and direct: "You have done evil in the sight of the Lord." And we get in his head, we gain access to his inner thoughts at that most intimate and personal, and universal and common, moment: Death.

Soviet Commentary to "Ivan"

I thought I'd share with readers a few things from the commentary in the back of the Jubilee Edition of Tolstoy's collected works. Trivia about a very untrivial book:
  • Tolstoy began the novel in the fall of 1885.
  • The novel was based, very loosely, on a real person, Ivan Il'ich Mechnikov (Иван Ильич Мечников), a lawyer from Tula (not far from Tolstoy's estate), whom Tolstoy apparently met and admired in the 1860s. Mechnikov died on the second of July, 1881. Tolstoy's sister-in-law, Tatiana Kuzminskaya, passed on to Tolstoy details of Mechnikov's death, which she learned from Mechnikov's wife. Very soon afterwards, Tolstoy began work on a story "The Death of a Judge," which eventually became Death of Ivan Il'ich.
  • The story began originally as a first-person narrative, perhaps Ivan's own diary or letters from him, during the time leading up to his death. Tolstoy eventually abandoned the idea as too difficult, and switched over to the omniscient (all-knowing) third-person narrative device used in the story we are reading.
  • Tolstoy wanted to tell the story of "a simple man who dies a simple death," though it's difficult to reconcile this initial plan with the book we are reading -- simple is one of Tolstoy's synonyms for "good," and Ivan Il'ich's life was anything but good or simple.
  • He finished the novel on March 25, 1886, and presented it to his wife as a birthday present! ("Happy Birthday, Honey!") Sof'ia Andreyevna (his wife) was working on a "collected works" of her husband, in part because Tolstoy had, in 1886, more or less abandoned his literary endeavors (he returns to them, of course, and Ivan is the first of many masterful works from the last three decades of his life), more or less taken a vow of poverty, and more or less decided that everything and everyone around him was corrupt and immoral, including his wife... But more on this phase in Tolstoy's life in a later post.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Gentlemen... Ivan Il'ich has died!

I teach Tolstoy's masterful work, Death of Ivan Il'ich, at least once a year: At the conclusion of the fall semester in a small, intimate course in the Honors Program here at Stetson University. It's included at the end of a a very fine, thoughtful collection of essays about life's choices, Leading Lives that Matter. I also teach it in a larger course, a seminar "Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?" that I teach every couple of years in the Russian Studies program here at Stetson.

Besides my pedagogical relationship with Tolstoy's story, it's personally important to me: The Death of Ivan Il'ich, along with Tolstoy's A Confession, were formative influences in college. I cannot remember if I read them as an assignment, or if I just happened across them, but ultimately, in a complicated and not always coherent way, these stories led me to study Russian (at Indiana University), then to live in Russia (where I worked and taught in the 1990s), then to study Russian literature (at Northwestern, where I completed my PhD in 2001), then to teach Russian (at Stetson since 2000). My engagement with Tolstoy (it's a love-hate relationship, to be sure) led me to write my dissertation on Tolstoy's "non-resistance to evil," and I guess ultimately to my being appointed (anointed? condemned?) Editor of the Tolstoy Studies Journal.

Since I teach the work to non-Russian speakers, it's been a while since I've read it in Russian. In preparation for my presentation in April at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, I've decided to start by rereading the piece in Russian... And there's no better place to read it than volume 26 in the Jubilee Complete Collected Works of Tolstoy, a monumental edition of Tolstoy's literary works, articles, diaries and letters (ninety volumes, each about nine-hundred pages!!!!) which was begun in 1928, one-hundred years after Tolstoy's birth (thus the "Jubilee"). The Yasnaya Polyana Museum (the museum on Tolstoy's ancestral estate) has digitized all the volumes of the Collected Works and made them available online.