November 20th, 2010 marks one hundred year since the death of Leo Tolstoy at the age of eighty-two after leaving home in the middle of winter in the railroad stations in Astapovo, Riazan. A giant of the Russian Literature whom many consider to be the world’s greatest novelist and thinker, with its calls for nonviolence and its free interpretations of the Gospels, still provokes fierce debate. In 1901, the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated the writer; on the eve of this 100th anniversary of his death, the church declined appeals to reconsider.
There have been many people who have shaped my thoughts and approach to life, but to name one who stand above all of them, I would name Leo Tolstoy as the one who had most profound effect on me; his thoughts, his writing and his simple and philosophical approach to life resonate with me, even today. It was only after I read Tolsoy’s What is Art? did then I truly realized the true meaning of Art and my thoughts on Art and the nature of it took a whole new meaning and direction.
I clearly remember the first time I came upon the works of Tolstoy, I dived in reading his longest and perhaps best work, War and Peace, it took me two-week in Winter of 1996 to finish the book, and then another two-week to re-read it again, that was my first love for Tolstoy. Since then, I have read almost all of his fictional work and most of his no-fiction ones, made his short story How Much Land Does a Man Need? into a short film (Greed Eats the Soul) and now in the process of adopting my favorite of all his work into another short film, the short novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886). The book was made into a great film by Akira Kurosawa, Ikiru (1952).
I must have read The Death of Ivan Ilych at least nine or ten times, it is by far the only book that have read so many times and my thoughts constantly goes back to it, perhaps the reason is the stories’ theme, that of Death, a man’s struggle to escape one things that at the end defeat everyone. The writing of the took almost took two years of to be completed. The idea of the story came to Tolstoy on 1881 after the death of Ivan Ilych Mechnikov a public prosecutor of the Tulsa District Court. On April 27, 1884 Tolstoy write in his Diary “I want to begin and finish something new, either the death of a judge or the diary of a madman” then on April 30th “Began The Death of Ivan Ilych, it is good and I think I shall be able to do it”
The fist version of the story is very different from the final version in which we have today, instead of the story been told by a colleagues of Ivan, in the first version its is told by his wife who as a first person narrate the story from a diary left behind by Ilych. In 1885, for some reason Tolstoy gave up the idea of telling the story as a first person and as a form of a diary. On October 17, 1885 he wrote to his wife in a letter “I’m very well and in a good spirit, I don’t go out anywhere and I work hard both with my hands my head, get up early when it is till dark and go to bed early. I’m not despairing, I want terribly to write (the Death of Ivan Ilych). I have just been out for a ride and I thought about him, but I can’t tell you how much I’m now absorbed in the work that have been going on for several years and is now drawing to a close.” The work was finished on January, 1886 and it was published the same year in the twelfth volume of Tolstoy’s editions of his work.
The short novella is the story of the life and death of Ivan Ilych at the age of 45 from cancer. A slow and painful death, his painful thoughts and ideas about his own death and his inability to find a way to deal with it. Nothing can save him, no Doctor, no medicine, no wife or children or friends. Ivan spend his last three days in hallucinations and dreaming, reflect upon his life, especially the innocent part of his life, his childhood, he now live in his past live, all he have now is his dream and memory. Among the most memorable lines of all Tolsoy’s work and indeed of all literature is the last line of Ivan Ilych, as he is taking his last breath and is about to die, Tolstoy take the reader deep into the metaphysical word of Ilych’s mind and his soul:
“Yes, here it is. Well, what of it? Let the pain be.”
“And death . . . where is it?”
He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it.
“Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no
In place of death there was light.
“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”
To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that
instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for
another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body
twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.
“It is finished!” said someone near him.
He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.
“Death is finished,” he said to himself. “It is no more!”
He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and
For anybody who is not familiar with Tolstoy, I would highly recommend to start by reading The Death of Ivan Ilych and follow it with my top ten suggestions:
“Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly. It is the one thing we are interested in here.”
3. The Kreutzer Sonata (1891): Everything you want to know about love, jealousy, revenge and Man’s struggle and inability to overcome them.
“If one has no vanity in this life of ours, there is no sufficient reason for living.”
4. The Forged Coupon (1904): A small crime like forging a coupon lead to one crime after another, even a murder. Robert Bresson’s film, L’Argent is based on The Forget Coupon.
In the spiritual realm nothing is indifferent: what is not useful is harmful
5. How Much Land Does a Man Need? (1886): It was Ernest Hemingway who called it the “Greatest short story ever to be written”.
“Six feet of land was all that he needed”
6. What Is Art? (1897): If you ever thought about the true nature of Art then this book is for you.
“By words one transmits thoughts to another, by means of art, one transmits feelings”
7. A Confession (1882): Everybody must have searched for answers to the same questions, “What will come of my life?” and “What is the meaning of life?”, Tolstoy was no difference.
“Several times I asked myself, “Can it be that I have overlooked something, that there is something which I have failed to understand? Is it not possible that this state of despair is common to everyone?” And I searched for an answer to my questions in every area of knowledge acquired by man. For a long time I carried on my painstaking search; I did not search casually, out of mere curiosity, but painfully, persistently, day and night, like a dying man seeking salvation. I found nothing”
8. Hadji Murad (1902): Before Che Guvera there was Hadji Murad.
“This wound in his side was mortal and he felt that he was dying. One after another images and memories flashed through his mind. Now he saw the mighty Abununtsal Khan clasping to his face his severed, hanging cheek and rush ing at his enemies with dagger drawn; he saw Vorontsov, old, feeble and pale with his sly, white face and heard his soft voice; he saw his son Yusuf, Sofiat his wife, and the pale face, red beard and screwed up eyes of his enemy Shamil.”
9. What Is to Be Done? (1886) : Tolstoy’s existential dilemma about poverty, war. injustice and inequality in life.
“The happiness of men consists in life. And life is in labor”
10. A Calendar of Wisdom (1910): A favorite collection of the best quotes from around the world collected by Tolstoy from his Childhood to his death.
“Pure and complete sorrow is as impossible as pure and complete joy”