Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886)

Impressions:
Tolstoy’s brief novella describes the rise and fall of Ivan Ilyich, a high-court judge in 19th century Russia, who develops an increasingly serious and debilitating illness that prompts in him an existential examination of his own life. Another precursor (along with Dostoyevsky) to the slew of existentialist fiction that would arrive in the 20th century, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is an accomplished short, late work from an acknowledged master. The novel opens with Ilyich’s death and the apparent unconcern of those who know him. Those in his bourgeois social circle are more concerned with the ramifications Ilyich’s death will have for their hopes of promotion and their chances of making a card game, than for the loss of the man himself. Tolstoy proceeds to take us on a rapid tour of Ilyich’s life, which is devoted above all to the maintainence of an easy, pleasant lifestyle. Despite a few hiccups, Ilyich is largely successful. But when, upon receipt of another promotion, he moves his family into a luxurious apartment he insists on decorating himself, Ilyich slips and bangs his side, and this seemingly inconsequential moment begins the end. As Ilyich’s injury develops into an unspecified but terminal illness, Tolstoy slows the rapid pace of the novella to a crawl. Bedridden and increasingly self-scrutinising, Ilyich grapples with the raw reality of his impending death and its metaphysical implications. Why has God seen fit to deal him this blow? As the novella, and Ilyich’s life, draw to a close, Ilyich begins to suspect that his carefree and decadent lifestyle have been his undoing. In his increasing agony Ilyich can take solace only in the care of his peasant servant Gerasim, who represents a sort of Marxist vision of the idealised lower class. The novel embodies Tolstoy’s ethical beliefs: that a sinful life is a moral death. The rapid pace and artful construction of the novella, as well as its perennial central conflict, makes it a brisk and yet powerful read, and Tolstoy’s newly developed anarcho-Christian values find here an eloquent and forceful expression.

Info:
Country: Russia
Genre: Philosophical Novel
Ism: Existentialism, Realism
Influences: Nikolai Gogol, Charles Dickens, Stendhal
Influenced: Contemporaries: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekhov, Gustave Flaubert. Successors: Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabakov

From Peter Kropotkin’s entry ‘Anarchism’ in the 1911 Encyclop√¶dia Britannica:
Without naming himself an anarchist, Leo Tolstoy, like his predecessors in the popular religious movements of the 15th and 16th centuries, Chojecki, Denk and many others, took the anarchist position as regards the state and property rights, deducing his conclusions from the general spirit of the teachings of Jesus and from the necessary dictates of reason. With all the might of his talent, Tolstoy made (especially in The Kingdom of God Is Within You) a powerful criticism of the church, the state and law altogether, and especially of the present property laws. He describes the state as the domination of the wicked ones, supported by brutal force. Robbers, he says, are far less dangerous than a well-organized government. He makes a searching criticism of the prejudices which are current now concerning the benefits conferred upon men by the church, the state, and the existing distribution of property, and from the teachings of Jesus he deduces the rule of non-resistance and the absolute condemnation of all wars. His religious arguments are, however, so well combined with arguments borrowed from a dispassionate observation of the present evils, that the anarchist portions of his works appeal to the religious and the non-religious reader alike.

Further Reading:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Death_of_Ivan_Ilyich
http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/facing-death-with-tolstoy
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/book-of-a-lifetime-the-death-of-ivan-ilyich-by-leo-tolstoy-2369981.html

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Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground (1864)

Impressions:
Dostoyevsky’s novella is widely considered to be one of the first works of existentialist literature, credited as the precursor to everything from Kafka’s Metamorphosis to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The book is narrated by an anonymous and unreliable voice hailing from the underbelly of 19th century St. Petersburg, a city in the midst of mechanisation and scientific revolution. In the first part of the novel, the narrator leads the reader on a twisted, convoluted journey through his own personal philosophy: he rails against au curant¬†theories of determinism, materialism, socialism and utopianism in a fractured, layered monologue constantly threatening to collapse in on itself. This Underground Man offers an account of his apathetic existence based in his belief that, contrary to the rationalist ideas of his contemporaries, socialist utopia is an impossible dream fatally reliant on a vision of man as an inherently rational creature driven to act in his own self-interest. For the Underground Man, though, ‘people are stupid.’ That is, they will often act against their self-interests for inscrutable reasons: whether out of petty revenge or simply to assert their own individuality. Man is a fundamentally self-destructive beast, the Underground Man argues, and therefore any hope of a collective utopia is doomed, and furthermore, any claim for an intrinisc meaning in human existence is unfounded.

In the second half of the novel the narrator reminisces about several scenes from his past which are illustrative of his beliefs, including an attempt at petty face-saving, a spiteful disruption of a farewell dinner, and the emotional abuse of a young prostitute. In this final episode, Dostoyevsky tantalises the reader with the possibility of some shared sense of repentence and resolution for the two characters. But as we know from the opening, set several decades later, the Underground Man will achieve no such salvation. Instead the novel is an exultation of human perversity without end, and indeed, the novel ends arbitrarily, with Dostoyevsky’s interjection: ‘one might as well just stop here.’ Despite the neurotic narrator and his dense, circular style, the book fairly hums along, and the theories it espouses–and the influence they have enjoyed–have lost none of their urgent appeal in the intervening years.

Info:
Country: Russia
Genre: Philosophical Novel
Ism: Existentialism
Influences: Nikolai Gogol, Honore de Balzac, Edgar Allen Poe
Influenced: Albert Camus, Anton Chekhov, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka

From Andrew R. MacAndrew’s Afterword to the Signet Classic edition of Notes from Underground (1961):
‘[Dostoyevsky’s] early writings placed him politically and were greeted enthusiastically by Russian liberals. […] His humanitarian feelings led Dostoyevsky to join a liberal circle of enthusiastic young men who met to discuss socialism. […] During one such meeting of the Petrashevsky group, Dostoyevsky and his companions were surprised by the police. They were imprisoned and sentenced to death. This sentence, however, was nothing but a gruesome farce, devised by the tsarist authorities for the edification of subversives. […] The effect on Dostoyevsky was shattering. […] He was sentenced to eight years in the Omsk penitentiary in Siberia, a sentence which, again thanks to the tsar’s magnanimity, was reduced to four years, followed by a stretch in the army as an enlisted man. [Afterwards] all liberalism had left him; he was no longer a revolutionary, nor even a would-be reformer. […] Having renounced any attempt to alleviate the human condition through practical, man-made measures (he had tried and the tsarist authorities had taught him that there was nothing to be done in that direction), Dostoyevsky preaches submission and the acceptance of suffering, recommending it as a way to redemption and salvation. As he does so, however, he is still trying to convince himself of the existence of God.’

Further Reading:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Notes_from_Underground
http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/can-dostoevsky-still-kick-you-in-the-gut
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/09/notes-underground-dostoevsky-review-pierre