Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book Review: Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Short Stories

The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories, Leo Tolstoy
2.23.11 - 3.16.11

Art is "that human activity which consists in one man's consciously conveying to others, by certain external signs, the feelings he has experienced, an din others being infection by those feelings and also experiencing them"

-The Prisoner of the Caucasus
Tolstoy claims this is his only (fiction/short story?) that fit in the definition of Good Art, as the second type: "universal art, which conveys the simplest everyday feelings of life, such as are accessible to everyone in the world". It seems like one of the plainer, parred-down even "boring" pieces he's done--the beauty of art is in the superfluous details, the artistic embellishments and interpretation, I think.

-The Diary of a Madman
I like that th etitle was almost The Diary of a Non-Madman, to make clear the point was his sanity--courts even ruled him sane, he said in the beginning. But because he didn't share what he felt was the truth. Which was?

-The Death of Ivan Ilyich
I really think Tolstoy is just so purely, simply genius. His prose has that simple cadence, it just captures small details in very intentional, or at least purposeful, ways to build a picture.

-The Kreutzer Sonata
This story struck me by its similarity to the relationship between Gary & Caroline in Franzen's The Corrections. It's really depressing, especially considering that means the relationship dynamics that make people that unhappy have persisted through the decades.

-The Devil
Also in line with the theme of hopelessness and crushing inevitability that seems to be the theme of all the books I've read lately. I like the two alternate endings, especially that Tolstoy made clear that regardless of who the character shoots, the point is that he isn't insane--his struggles are the same struggles as anyone's, that he is tormented less by what he does and feels, but more by his awareness of its larger impacts. In the end, his morality and repugnance at the situation is what gets misconstrued as insane. Which is a very strong, very sad social commentary.

-Master & Man
This one I'll have to think about some more. I feel like there are some very topical metaphors present, but also probably deeper ones buried in the text that I'll have to go hunting for. Most of this short story, as well as in his others, I feel like Tolstoy doesn't like people--that he doesn't find them, by and large, to be redeemable creatures. But I think, maybe he feels like societal influences--namely, wealth accumulation, is the root cause--that when faced with the bare bones, with mortality, they can be the best of themselves.

This story also confirms the suspicious I had in Anna Karenina, that Tolstoy uses muzhiks as symbols for inner peace and morality. He respects them so much more than the upper class.

-Father Sergius
Tolstoy's opinions of people baffle and elude me. The main character's biggest sine was awareness of his sins. Self-awareness is painful, and yet, he was punished for it. I understand the morality tale, but I disagree with the price of his sin. It's too high--it's as if he gets no credit for trying.

-After The Ball
Men (people) have more in them that is bad than is good, and it is the self-aware who suffer the most from this.

-The Forged Coupon
Felt more like a writing exercise than a short story, but it was interesting to read where Tolstoy deviates from his norm. I enjoyed it. Very moral-filled, though. Also, this was the first time I think I've ever read Tolstoy refer to muzhiks in a negative context.

-Alyosha the Pot
Annnnnd back to idealizing the poor. Good ol' Tolstoy

-Hadig Murat
This felt so very different from his other short stories. I feel like if I went and read War & Peace again, they would be in similar veins. What struck me the most was that throughout the story, Tolstoy waxed lyrical and he deviated from his normally dry descriptive prose. He might not consider it art, but I certainly do.

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