Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Way of All Flesh: On Tolstoy and Mortality

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

The Way of All Flesh: On Tolstoy and Mortality

Article excerpt

Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi. By Victor Brombert. University of Chicago Press, 2013. 200p. HB, $24.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confession. By Leo Tolstoy; Peter Carson, translator; introduction by Mary Beard. Liveright, 2013. 224p. HB, $23.95.

YOU PROBABLY WON'T BE AROUND FOR YOUR death, and it's probably all right that you miss it. In Middlemarch, Edward Casaubon's death is another of life's myriad experiences, albeit a "commonplace" one that becomes both an abomination and an act of imagination- one's mind plays tricks, including spiritual tricks, as the mind and body die. In Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, doctor Hofrat Behrens tries to comfort the mother of noble young officer Joachim Ziemssen, who lies dying in a sanatorium: "We come out of the dark and go into the dark again, and in between lie the experiences of our life. But the beginning and the end, birth and death, we do not experience; they have no subjective character." Samuel Johnson told James Boswell, in typical Johnsonian fashion, that it simply doesn't matter how a man dies, only how he lives, because dying doesn't last that long. Unless, of course, it does, and for Leo Tolstoy's character Ivan Ilyich, dying is a protracted process that assumes just as much importance as living-a process that indeed takes meaning away from or gives it to the life lived.

Who but Vladimir Nabokov, in his peerless Lectures on Russian Literature, could have noticed that "Ilyich" is pronounced ill-itch-"the ills and itches of mortal life." Nabokov was clear in pointing out that Tolstoy's famous novella is not about Ivan's death, but about his life (despite the fact that less than a quarter of the novella is devoted to Ivan's life). Nabokov dubs the story Tolstoy's "most artistic, most perfect, and most sophisticated achievement," and that, ladies and gentlemen, is saying quite a lot. The esteemed Tolstoy biographer Henri Troyat called The Death of Ivan Ilyich a "double story of the decomposing body and awakening soul." This double quality, this wedding of an- tithetical forces, is part of what contributes to the immortal force of Ivan Ilyich. The binary of the soul's ascension and the body's decline works only if, as Nabokov asserts, the story becomes about proper living instead of inevitable dying. Johnson meant that dying wasn't important because there was nothing that could be learned from it, nowhere to go after it: As an experience it's worthless, which is exactly what Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested when he wrote in his Tractatus, "Death is not an event of life. Death is not lived through."

Peter Carson's new translation of The Death of Ivan Ilyich-for the first time paired with Tolstoy's devastating spiritual memoir Confession-has its own double story: As Ilyich was dying on the page, Carson was dying at his desk, besieged by the late-stage cancer that would kill him. A revered English publisher, editor-in-chief of Penguin and then Profile Books, Carson was also the translator of Ivan Turgenev's imperishable novel Fathers and Sons. Classicist Mary Beard, in her touching introduction to this volume, writes that Carson was "one of the finest translators there has ever been of nineteenth century Russian literature." After his cancer death sentence in 2012, he left Profile and toiled full time on Tolstoy's two classics, and it's impossible not to imagine that this urgent task served as Carson's own spiritual bulwark against the despair of his fate. How determined he must have been to complete this task-his final life's work- even as he felt himself corroding daily from the disease. Carson isn't the only scholar who chose to spend his last mile working on the complexities of Count Tolstoy: The historian William Shirer-author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich-died in 1993 just after he completed Love and Hatred: The Stormy Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy.

Peter Carson has composed translations so nuanced and potent they are sure to be the benchmark for decades to come. …

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