The book that Boris should give to all seniors, along with their Freedom Passes

Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich shows we don't think about life until death looms — and the newest translation, by the late Peter Carson, has an intriguing back story

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Confession Leo Tolstoy, translated by Peter Carson

W.W. Norton, pp.224, £16.99, ISBN: 9780871404268

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a story for the older reader. One might go so far as to suggest that local authorities should give ‘seniors’ a copy free with their euphemistically named ‘Freedom Pass’ as a reminder of the longest journey they will ever take. Boris’s memento mori.

Perversely, because it is short and by a writer whose name is better known than his work is read, The Death of Ivan Ilyich routinely appears on ‘Great Books’ courses for the young — to whom the story manifestly does not speak, since the young know they will never die.

The narrative opens with the announcement of the death of a senior public prosecutor, Ivan Ilyich, to his assembled colleagues. Their faces are properly grave on receiving the sad news. But privately

the first thought of each of the gentlemen meeting in the room was of the significance the death might have for the promotion of the members themselves or their friends.

After a vivid description of the corpse the narrative proceeds as a jaundiced obituary, beginning: ‘Ivan Ilyich’s past life had been very simple and ordinary and very awful.’ He was a child of the time — a careerist and wholly happy in the groove that history had carved out for him. He was professionally lucky because, with the abolition of serfdom, ‘new men were needed’. Ivan Ilyich is just such a new man. Life is good. As an investigating magistrate in the provinces he meets his future wife, Praskovya.

She ‘was from a good noble family, was not bad-looking and had a bit of money’, and so he marries her. It starts well but continues less well: ‘Married life, with its conjugal caresses, new furniture, new china and new linen, were very pleasant until his wife’s pregnancy’. She loses her ‘gaieté de coeur’, her prettiness, and turns shrewish.

Ivan Ilyich finds consolation in his official work which, over the next two decades, goes swimmingly, climaxing, when he is 45, in the lusted-after senior post in Petersburg. With it comes a ‘delightful apartment.’  Ivan Ilyich ‘set about arranging it himself: he chose wallpaper, he bought more furniture (antiques, in particular, whose style he found particularly comme il faut)’. Count Leo Tolstoy allows himself a flicker of aristocratic scorn:

In actual fact it was the same as the houses of all people who are not so rich but want to be like the rich and so are only like one another.

The house kills Ivan Ilyich. He falls from a ladder, seeing to the new curtains, and bruises his side. It turns cancerous. The first symptom is ‘an odd taste in his mouth’. Doctors are vague, mendacious and unhelpful. It gets worse as the months pass and Ivan Ilyich confronts the awful fact. He is ‘alone with It. Face to face with It, but nothing could be done with It. Just look at It and turn cold’. And die. But before that release comes unbearable humiliation:

Special contrivances had to be made for excretion, and every time this was a torment for him. A torment because of the uncleanliness, the loss of decorum, and the odour, from the consciousness that another person had to take part in this.

In his extremity he faces the question he has been able to avoid all his life: ‘Why have you done all this?’, he asks God, ‘Why have you brought me here? Why, why do you torment me so horribly?’ Horrible his dying most certainly is. He screams in torment for three days and nights. His last words are: ‘It is no more.’ Then, ‘He breathed in, stopped halfway, stretched himself, and died’. Has he gone into the light or the dark? The story is enigmatic on the point.

Tolstoy was in his hale late fifties when he wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich. He himself died aged 82. His last words were, reportedly: ‘But the peasants, how do they die?’ On the face of it a strange question. He knew all about peasants — he had (in the days of serfdom) owned them and ravished any number of the more comely of their women. Death was something else. The only person who shows ‘humanity’ to Ivan Ilyich in his long dying is a young man of the peasant class, Gerasim. His view of death is simple and proverbial: ‘We’ll die. So why not take a little trouble’. Help the dying on their way, that is. He doesn’t bother his head about it.

But ‘people like us’, as Tolstoy snobbishly puts it, do think about death, its humiliations and its finalities. The power of reason is a torment and a privilege. Tolstoy believed that it is only when death looms that one thinks entirely rationally. All life before that point is waste — at best a voyage towards what must be thought about. In Confession (his apologia for just such a wasted life) he quotes Socrates: ‘We will come near truth only inasmuch as we depart from life.’ Everything else, before that point of departure, is distraction.

This translation has a poignant story attached to it, described by Mary Beard in her introduction. The work was undertaken by Peter Carson, a distinguished Russianist and (as most who knew him would concur) one of the last of the gentleman publishers. He took it on, as his wife Eleo confided at the book’s launch party, because he thought existing translations too ‘soft-edged’. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confession are works which demand the hardest of linguistic edges.

Half way through the project Carson discovered he had terminal lung cancer (he had, one gathers, always smoked unrestrainedly, like the Russian he half was). He carried on and the manuscript was delivered the day before he died, in January this year. He was too ill to supply his own introduction.

His achievement, as a translator in this last work, is saluted in an afterword by Rosamund Bartlett (Tolstoy’s most recent biographer). I knew Peter Carson, latterly, as a senior editor at Profile Books. Mary Beard and Rosamund Bartlett knew him both as their publisher and long-time friend. Their comments dovetail beautifully,with this volume which, for all its sombreness of subject, is a vindication of the human spirit.

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