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Yann Martel is the prize-winning author of the internationally acclaimed Life of Pi, which won the 2002 Booker Prize, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, a collection of short stories, and Self, a novel. He lives in Saskatoon.
THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYCH
BY LEO TOLSTOY
April 16, 2007
To Stephen Harper,
Prime Minister of Canada,
From a Canadian writer,
With best wishes,
Dear Mr. Harper,
The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy, is the first book I am sending you. I thought at first I should send you a Canadian work—an appropriate symbol since we are both Canadians—but I don’t want to be directed by political considerations of any sort, and, more important, I can’t think of any other work of such brevity, hardly sixty pages, that shows so convincingly the power and depth of great literature. Ivan Ilych is an indubitable masterpiece. There is nothing showy here, no vulgarity, no pretence, no falseness, nothing that doesn’t work, not a moment of dullness, yet no cheap rush of plot either. It is the story, simple and utterly compelling, of one man and his ordinary end.
Tolstoy’s eye for detail, both physical and psychological, is unerring. Take Schwartz. He is in dead Ivan Ilych’s very home, has spoken to his widow, but he is mainly concerned with his game of cards that night. Or take Peter Ivanovich and his struggle with the low pouffe and its defective springs while he attempts to navigate an awkward conversation with Ivan Ilych’s widow. Or the widow herself, Praskovya Fedorovna, who weeps and laments before our eyes, yet without ever forgetting her self-interest, the details of her magistrate husband’s pension and the hope of getting perhaps more money from the government. Or look at Ivan Ilych’s dealings with his first doctor, who, Ivan Ilych notices, examines him with the same self-important airs and inner indifference that Ivan Ilych used to put on in court before an accused. Or look at the subtle delineation of the relations between Ivan Ilych and his wife—pure conjugal hell—or with his friends and colleagues, who, all of them, treat him as if they stood on a rock- solid bank while he had foolishly chosen to throw himself into a flowing river. Or look, lastly, at Ivan Ilych himself and his sad, lonely struggle.
How clearly and concisely our vain and callous ways are showed up. Effortlessly, Tolstoy examines life ’s shallow exteriors as well as its inner workings. And yet this pageant of folly and belated wisdom comes not like a dull moral lesson, but with all the weight, shine and freshness of real life. We see, vividly, Ivan Ilych’s errors—oh, they are so clear to us, we certainly aren’t making his mistakes—until one day we realize that someone is looking at us as if we were a character in The Death of Ivan Ilych.
That is the greatness of literature, and its paradox, that in reading about fictional others we end up reading about ourselves. Sometimes this unwitting self-examination provokes smiles of recognition, while other times, as in the case of this book, it provokes shudders of worry and denial. Either way, we are the wiser, we are existentially thicker.
One quality that you will no doubt notice is how despite the gulf of time between when the story is set—1882—and today, despite the vast cultural distance between provincial tsarist Russia and modern Canada, the story reaches us without the least awkwardness. In fact, I can’t think of a story that while completely set in its time, so very, very Russian, so leaps from the bounds of the local to achieve universal resonance. A peasant in China, a migrant worker in Kuwait, a shepherd in Africa, an engineer in Florida, a prime minister in Ottawa—I can imagine all of them reading The Death of Ivan Ilych and nodding their heads.
Above all else, I recommend the character Gerasim to you. I suspect he is the character in whom we recognize ourselves the least yet whom we yearn the most to be like. We hope one day, when the time comes, to have someone like Gerasim at our side.
I know you’re very busy, Mr. Harper. We ’re all busy. Meditating monks in their cells are busy. That’s adult life, filled to the ceiling with things that need doing. (It seems only children and the elderly aren’t plagued by lack of time—and notice how they enjoy their books, how their lives fill their eyes.) But every person has a space next to where they sleep, whether a patch of pavement or a fine bedside table. In that space, at night, a book can glow. And in those moments of docile wakefulness, when we begin to let go of the day, then is the perfect time to pick up a book and be someone else, somewhere else, for a few minutes, a few pages, before we fall asleep. And there are other possibilities, too. Sherwood Anderson, the American writer best known for his collection of stories Winesburg, Ohio, wrote his first stories while commuting by train to work. Stephen King apparently never goes to his beloved baseball games without a book that he reads during breaks. So it’s a question of choice.
And I suggest you choose, just for a few minutes every day, to read The Death of Ivan Ilych.
Reply: May 8, 2007
Dear Mr. Martel:
On behalf of the Prime Minister, I would like to thank you for your recent letter and the copy of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych. We appreciated reading your comments and suggestions regarding the novel.
Once again, thank you for taking the time to write.
Susan I. Ross
Assistant to the Prime Minister
Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) was a prolific author, essayist, dramatist, philosopher and educational reformist. Born into an aristocratic Russian family, he is best known for writing realist fiction, focusing particularly on life in Russia, and is considered one of the major contributors to nineteenth-century Russian literature. His marriage to Sophia Tolstaya (Tolstoy) produced thirteen children, eight of whom survived into adulthood. Tolstoy wrote fourteen novels (two of his most famous being Anna Karenina and War and Peace), several essays and works of non-fiction, three plays and over thirty short stories.