Wednesday, October 25, 2006

writers I love: Tolstoy

I reread "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" for the 10th or 12th time today, because I'd assigned it to my intro fiction students. Just as every other time, I was swept away, overwhelmed, seduced. It's such a wonderful story, although story is a misnomer--it's at least as long as a novella. But who cares what it's called--it's a juggernaut.
If you haven't read it, the plot is that Ivan dies. It begins with his funeral and after looping back at the end of the service, ends with his death. Nothing else--just Ivan dying for ever so many pages, and yet it's suspenseful and tender and amazing. It reminded this time of a story by Margaret Atwood, "Happy Endings," which isn't so much a story as an essay, where she deconstructs the ur-plot of the story--the thing that lies behind every story.
She begins
John and Mary meet.
What happens next?
If you want a happy ending, try A.

There's an A, which is a happy story; then a B, which introduces some complications. Then C, which introduces Madge, Fred, and James, and adultery. D features a tidal wave, and so on. At the end of the story:
You'll have to face it, the endings are the same however you slice it. Don't be deluded by any other endings, they're all fake, either deliberately fake, with malicious intent to deceive, or just motivated by excessive optimism if not by downright sentimentality.
The only authentic ending is the one provided here:
John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.

Ivan Ilyich dies. But in between the funeral and the last breath is a world of piercing and beautiful prose, a story that uses irony but is not ironic. It says some witty things, and some wise things, and some horrible things that people do and say, but don't want to admit. It made me cry, not for the first time; and think, not for the first time, that yes, Tolstoy is amazing, that if there was a Religion of Writing, he'd be one of the gods we ought to pray to.
Here's the full text.


Blogger Sean Santa said...

that is actually the one single piece of atwoods writing that i like, and i like it a lot

good post-



10/27/2006 2:13 PM  
Blogger lucette said...

It's not the only Atwood I like, but I do like it--it has effective snarkiness.

10/27/2006 8:02 PM  

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