Context: Started this at the Mapang Guesthouse in Port Moresby before heading back to the UK.
This is more of a short story than even a novella, but what a short story. If anyone’s wanting to get into Tolstoy but is put off by the remarkable length of some of the more famous novels, this is a good place to start.
Whereas in other Tolstoy I’ve read (Anna Karenina, War & Peace), there are painstaking descriptions of the physical environment, here I felt Tolstoy turned his focus more on a description of the inner turmoil of a man facing a terminal illness. And it was a very good insight. It starts with the beginnings of his funeral and then backtracks to his beginnings, his rise in society and wealth and then the last half focusses on his demise and failing health. It ends with his last breath. All along the way, you feel his pain and the pointlessness of it all.
It was particularly poignant for me as I was reading it on a flight back to the UK to deal with the aftermath of the death of my father-in-law. So, death was kind of on my mind. What I appreciated most from this story was how death and illness bring things into focus so much more clearly.
When life is pain-free, death seems an impossibility. During such times, it’s easy to find ourselves focussed on things that, when faced with death, will seem futile and profligate. Death and illness filter out the mediocre and leave us with a determination to make the most of our time. Without such a focus, it’s easy to think we have all the time in the world.
Thus, what I most appreciated was this focus on our fleetingness and the meaninglessness of trying to build memorials to ourselves on this earth. It seems morbid to most people but I actually think about death pretty much every day. I enjoy it. It keeps me sane knowing that there is rest around the corner. Even if that corner is yet 40 years away for me, that is merely a flash in the pan of eternity.
And so Death was a comforting reminder that even if I don’t have position and career,wealth and status, I can still say that in my death, whenever it comes, I will not face the fear and psychological torments that Ivan Ilych was subject to. And that, for me, is something worth living for.