Yann-Mail: The Death of Ivan Ilych


Dear Mr. Martel,

I’ve decided to take on the reading list that you sent our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, between 2007 and 2011.  I’ve read your book, The Life of Pi, numerous times and have thoroughly enjoyed it each time. It’s one of the few books that I’ve re-read, but it’s also provided me with a familiar landscape to base my high school and university papers on.  At present, I also own a copy of your novel Beatrice and Virgil but have yet to read it; I will, and I’ll let you know what I think.

I’m not sure how I am going to get this letter to you, but for now I will post these letters on my blog and hope that one day you stumble across them.  I found your website at an opportune time; I’ve realized the importance of letter-writing as a writer/aspiring-novelist, as writers of the past have all held correspondence with their peers all over the world. In this day in age, I’ve yet to write a truly meaningful letter in my adulthood.  I believe this imaginary correspondence may be the type of exercise I need to cement my status as a writer.  Or at the very least, I’ll leave a trail of letters to be published posthumously for future aspirers to pore over in search for clues.

In this first week, I read The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy.  I’m sure you know that, but for anyone reading our correspondence, it would be nice to know.  I’ve never had much of an interest in Russian writers; it’s something about what I believe Russia to be like, which I will admit right now, is almost certainly misinformed.  I feel like Russia is cold and desolate, and that Russian hearts are prepared for such climates.  I do know that they deal with emotions and philosophy in a fascinating way, but one that I’ve yet been able to fully embrace.

The novella is a good starting point for me as it’s short and is set mainly indoors.  At its core, it’s a novel about regret. Ivan Ilych spends his dying days fearing death whole-heartedly, and contemplating every misstep he made is his life.  Although not unsuccessful, he’s chosen to become what is expected of him rather than his own person. Thus, in dying, he is bitter and irritated by the life he’s made, and by his loved ones who have come to represent a life not fulfilled.

There’s a lot of unhappiness in the modern man, it’s not always in the guise of fear of death, but all unhappiness is kind of a fear of death.  There are things we’d like to be and to do before we die, and the older we get the less time we have to get them or become them.

I see in myself Ilych’s temperament.  I’m not where I’d like to be in my career, I’m not as smart as I’d like to be, I’m not as fit, and I make decisions occasionally that seem to only contribute to my impending demise.  I may have 50 years, but I may only have 25 more years left to live.  Ilych’s annoyance with his family and friends is due not to the unlived life, but the unfulfilled life.  He’s spent his time living a life that he does not want, but rather thinks is expected of him.  This is the sign of a man who fails to make decisions and plan ahead.  He marries a wife that he doesn’t feel passionate about, and her mannerisms and dress constantly annoy him.  If this isn’t translatable into modern day, I don’t know what is.

As men, we develop this aloofness and annoyance with the world. The things we once found charming in a lover become the absolute most irritating aspect of their being. But Ivan has set out on a stubborn path.  Had he been with anyone, he’d be annoyed and infuriated by another as he is with Praskovya. The problem isn’t his wife, but Ilych’s outlook.  He will not accept that it was his own hands that chose her, that chose his career, his home. He is perpetually unhappy by his own decisions because he always chooses to do what is expected and not what is right.

I see it in men today. It seems that all humour about marriage is connected to this feeling and that as the humour is spread, we fall into these patterns of acceptance that loving someone means being annoyed by someone. Why is it that every sitcom on television involves an oafish slob and a nagging wife? This is the cosmic unhappiness in North America at least. I’m trying to be specific because I can’t vouch for how other countries view marriage.

Could things have been different for Ivan Ilych? I’m not so sure, his personality type is cemented early on, and in that way, that’s the kind of Russian philosophical sentiment that I think I avoid. But perhaps it is near impossible to change and we have to just make the best of the facilities we are given. We live in a world where these things go unchecked by the majority of people, anyone who can change their ways isn’t publicized. Why would they?  If they attain true happiness there’d be no need to advertise it.

Thank you, Mr. Martel, for your letter to Stephen Harper, I look forward to reading your next selection and hearing your response.

Your friend,
Curious about the list inspiring these letters? Read on here.
Featured Image sourced on Google.

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