Tag Archives: Tillie Olsen

Of love in death

The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but it certainly didn’t apply to himself.
-Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych from The Riddle of Life and Death

DSCI0012The other day, a very slow day at work, I was diverted in a blogversation about love, while at the same time I was reading a very interesting book called The Riddle of Life and Death. Love, death, love, death, love.

“You are the one who always used to say: better mankind born without mouths and stomachs than always to worry about money to buy, to shop, to fix, to cook, to wash, to clean.”
“How cleverly you hid that you heard.” (107) – Tillie Olsen , Tell Me A Riddle

I found this book on the stacks as I was re-shelving, although there was only one it is, I think, a series of books whereby two writers are juxtaposed together. The editors, as I understand it, choose writers writing about similar subjects but from different parts of the world and/or different times. The most interesting aspect is that one writer is a man and the other a woman. It is a brilliant construct. In this book the writers and stories are Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and Tillie Olsen’s Tell me a Riddle. 

That had been the most beguiling of all the “don’t read, put your book away” her life had been. Chekov indeed! (109) – Tell Me A Riddle

Both writers explore the unpopular subject of facing death, particularly death which comes to an empty life lived.

It was all done with clean hands, in clean linen, with French phrases. (32) – The Death of Ivan Ilych

Tolstoy approaches the question through a man that has lead a bloodless meaningless life. The realization is painful. After all of the faux pressing troubles of a bourgeoisie bureaucrat Ivan lacks the imagination to even consider his own mortality. And once he finally comes to terms with the fact, the meaning of his life is laid bare.

It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might be true after all. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. His professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and family, all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend. (94)

The way in which Tolstoy colors the lens of Ivan’s life through Ivan’s identity as a lawyer is beautifully done. You are what you do. By the time I got to the end of this sad tale, I was so thoroughly gripped that when I came to the famous words “Death is finished,” I could not help reading them again out loud. The story is quite phenomenal.

“The music,” she said, “still it is there and we do not hear; knocks, and our poor human ears to weak. What else, what else we do not hear?” (147) – Tell Me A Riddle

Like Ivan, Eva painfully disengages herself from a warped life. Ivan became a mindless drone of a lawyer who then experienced his world and all the people in it as being as condescendingly dismissive as he had been (excelling) in his job. But Eva is a woman, all her frustration turns mute. After a lifetime of financial strain her husband wants to move to a retirement complex, but she will no longer oblige his priorities. There is so much acrimony between the spouses in both books it is horrendously sad. But, when people are empty, the void is filled with a poisonous  rancor and the seep follows the generations.

She would not exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others. (110) Tell Me a Riddle

I was deeply moved by the profundity of the above quote. Subjugation is a slow death. Eva’s journey toward a quicker death is the opposite and therefore the same as Ivan’s. While Ivan’s life was sucked out of him by his strict maintenance of his lifestyle and position of power over others, Eva’s life was sucked out of her by her position of submission. Everything that was truly her, she hid. From opposite directions both suppress their very life force. The results are heart-wrenching.

“I was here and now I’m going there! Where?” A chill came over him, his breathing ceased, and he felt only the throbbing of his heart. (64) -The Death of Ivan Ilych

I am willing to admit, but wouldn’t believe, that it is just me: but I found both of these stories incredibly life affirming. Both Ivan and Eva track back to a point in their lives when they were happy, before the time that for whatever reason real or imagined they smothered themselves. These stories say – don’t do that. Not just for ourselves, but for all the lives we touch as well. Love and passion are never regretted.

* Tillie Olsen’s story Tell me a Riddle was first published in America in 1961, Leo Toltoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych was a 1991 Norton Press reprint of the story first published in Russia in 1886