Bringing him down | Daily News


Bringing him down

Leo Tolstoy’s art, ideas and lived life

Each of these three little books on one of the world’s biggest writers startles in its own way. To begin with the immortal portion, the fiction. What is an “essential” Tolstoy story? Boris Dralyuk has two criteria: that the theme be equally vital to early and late Tolstoy, and that it deal with what makes a good death. Each of these four stories has the same plot, and two of them end on the same physical gesture: “he stretched out, and died”.

In the first, the massively famous “Death of Ivan Ilyich” (1886), the plot is played out as a conflict between outside and inside, between everyone else and me. It begins outside (Ivan Ilyich is dead, talked about and gazed upon by others). The dead man’s story is then revealed to the reader, but Tolstoy is careful to reconstruct it as a fabric of external opinions, judgements, outright lies: an “I” composed wholly of what others want and admire.

Moral compass

Only slowly does a trustworthy inside voice emerge, with access to some higher wisdom. But this voice won’t tell us what that wisdom is; it is content merely to question everything Ivan Ilyich has lived by. Here and in his translations of the subsequent stories, Dralyuk renders this inner voice, our moral compass or movement of conscience, in italics – a nice discrimination since, for Tolstoy, spoken words, like outer appearances, are fallen matter.

There are other deft solutions to the challenge of rendering Tolstoy’s moral register. One is to translate sudno, the chamber pot or commode that the dying Ivan Ilyich becomes too weak to manage alone, literally as “vessel”, its generic meaning. The slightly elevated and archaic flavour of this word in English imparts to this humble procedure the feel of a healing ritual (which in the peasant Gerasim’s hands, it is). Gerasim is the intermediary between dishonest humans and honest nature. His ministrations lay bare one of Tolstoy’s maxims: a bad life is always an obstacle to dying well. Although Ivan Ilyich’s past was not bad by any measure available to him, and perhaps not bad at all, he manages to reject it just in time to reap a good death.

This transition is less conflicted in the second essential story, “Pace-setter” (more familiar in English as “Strider”) from 1885, subtitled “The Story of a Horse” (or, to be perfectly clear who the author is, “A Horse’s Story”): less conflicted, because horses don’t talk. An outside, omniscient narrator does all the thinking and experiencing for them. Of course, humans are the losers here, because humans, we learn, live by words, whereas horses live by deeds. But Tolstoy’s satire is not Jonathan Swift and his Houyhnhnms, nor is it the virtuous drayhorse Boxer of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Those are parables. Tolstoy’s herd has all the diversity and caprice of the human herd – and it is the cruelty of the young fillies that prompts the old, infirm gelding Pace-setter to tell his life story.

Corrupted corpse

Among the gratifying and timely aspects of this animal narrative – apart from Tolstoy’s intimate, hands-on knowledge of horses, clear from every detail – is its understanding of death as an ecology: the body of a horse can be recycled as nourishment, as clothing and bone-meal, whereas the corrupted corpse of a human creature uselessly rots. The last two stories, ecological in the same way, are far shorter: “Three Deaths” (1858: of a noblewoman, a peasant coachman, and a tree) and “Alyosha the Pot” (1905), the brief life of a hard-working peasant. Crucial to virtuous dying in both tales is wordlessness, acquiescence rather than resistance, and fitting in rather than standing out.

What startles us in Dralyuk’s essential stories is how unlovingly, and overall how little, Tolstoy respects the potential of personality or consciousness as he knew it, that is, in adults of his own educated upper class.

He respects this potential in the Russian peasant, whom he did not and could not know on the inside, although he did idealize aspects of peasant life and worked hard to imitate them on the outside. And he daringly projects it onto animals and plants. But Ivan Ilyich, a decent and successful judge, as well as the dying noblewoman (together with their families, doctors and associates), being types that Tolstoy actually knows, are slandered at every turn. Entirely because of their social class (Karl Marx would have been kinder), and prefaced by the cruel, untrue phrase “as is always the case” resounding in Tolstoy’s own voice, they are everywhere portrayed as indifferent, callous, selfish, greedy, in denial of death. Horses and trees fare better.

Practical skills

Tolstoyan peasants are somewhere in between on the moral scale. Alyosha the Pot is the ideal, a manual labourer ever since he could walk.

Although “there was a school in the village”, he “didn’t take to learning” and besides, being always ready to “take up the chore that needed doing”, he “didn’t have much time for it”.

The core virtues of Alyosha are practical skills, self-sufficiency, living cheerfully in the present and serving the person he is with right now.

This would become Tolstoy’s personal ethics. All accounts of Tolstoy’s life – to move to the biographies, the mortal portion – must grapple with his protracted struggle towards this goal, so devoid of the familiar needy markers of interpersonal love.

Liza Knapp and Andrei Zorin configure this struggle differently but with roughly the same trajectory, and both are strong readings.

- Times Literary Supplement

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