Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi

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Rainer Maria Rilke commented on Tolstoy's profound and helpless fear, on his conviction that "death in the pure state" exists, and that we must drink, from the hateful cup, the bitterness of "undiluted death. Tolstoy knew that fear and trembling remain supremely personal, that the discovery of death is made in utter solitude. Yet the sense of dereliction also comes with the awareness of a common destiny and a common humanity.

Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi

Ivan Ilych is not a tragic figure. He is no King Lear; but in his illness, like Lear driven mad, he discovers that he too is not "ague-proof," that the hand his courtiers used to kiss smells of mortality. The crucial question for Tolstoy is how we face this revelation, what it tells us about the way we have lived. Ivan Ilych learns—the lesson may come too late—that emptiness, self-deception, and false values have been at the core of his life, that in the process of living we all deny the truth of our human condition, that we lie to ourselves when we pretend to forget about death, and that this lie is intimately bound up with all the other lies that vitiate our moral being.


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It is a denunciation of a spiritual void. Tolstoy first intended to narrate the progression of the terminal illness in the first person, in the form of a diary. He changed his mind and wrote his story as a third-person narrative, which allowed him to complicate the narrative process, to stand both inside and outside his character, to blend the objective and the subjective, and to universalize what was essentially an intense private experience.

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Had Tolstoy described the months of suffering from the exclusive point of view of the dying man, he would have isolated the case, limiting the range and impact of an experience that the reader could then all too easily attribute to one sick man's fear and bitterness. The third-person narrative made it possible to transcend the individual experience, to translate it into a universal reality, to abolish all lines of demarcation between object and subject, and to link the disturbed reader and writer to Ivan Ilych's distress. For The Death of Ivan Ilych is not limited to an individual case.

It comes at the precise moment of Prince Andrey's death in War and Peace , at the end of his long agony after being wounded at the Battle of Borodino: "Behind the door stood It Once more It was pressing on the door from without It comes in and it is death. And Prince Andrey died. Only in The Death of Ivan Ilych the grim vision is artfully related to the temporal structure of the narrative. The story ends with death.

Musings on Mortality

It also begins with it: the newspaper announcement, the gossip in the law courts, the presence of the corpse in the house of mourning, the trivial and hypocritical decorum of the assembled mourners. Tolstoy could have proceeded chronologically, telling us about Ivan Ilych's childhood, adolescent pranks, early career moves, and settling into what was quickly to become a stale marriage. Instead, he begins his story just after Ivan Ilych's death. This posthumous perspective creates an open-ended structure.

It points to a future, if not for the protagonist, then at least for those who survive him in the story as well as for the reader. But first Tolstoy trivializes the immediate postmortem events, exposing the survivors' sham. It is a judgment on the living, on the gossiping judges, on the assembled mourners at the funeral service.

This judgment begins on a comic note: the rituals in the house of mourning, the empty words and gestures, the irritation and impatience of visitors who would rather be at their evening card game than listening to the church reader, looking at the reproachful expression on the dead man's face, and having to smell the faint odor of carbolic acid. Even objects have a way of interfering with the comfort of visitors. A rebellious spring in the ottoman keeps poking at the posterior of a family friend offering his condolences, while a supercilious dandy named Schwartz keeps toying nervously with his top hat, resentful not to be at his club or at some entertaining party.

As for the widow, filled with affectations she resorts to French to express her self-pity , her main concern is the cost of the plot in the cemetery and whether there is any way of persuading the government to increase the pension to which she is entitled. In lonely contrast to these characters, Tolstoy offers us the refreshing peasant figure of Gerasim, the butler's young assistant who served as a sick nurse to Ivan Ilych during his long illness, never flinching from the most distasteful chores, attending to the most repelling ministrations willingly and cheerfully.


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  • One of the visitors is struck by the simplicity of his words as he refers to death in tones quite different from the stilted speech of the assembled mourners: "It's God's will. We shall all come to it some day.

    Book Review: 'Musings on Mortality' by Victor Brombert - WSJ

    Tolstoy lays stress on Gerasim's strong hands and on his sturdy teeth—"the even white teeth of a healthy peasant. Ultimately, he reveals that by understanding how these authors wrote about mortality, we can grasp the full scope of their literary achievement and vision. Table of Contents. Thomas Harrison, author of The Emancipation of Dissonance. To treat such tragic and inconsolable subject matter with such clarity and respect, with such equanimity and understanding, is to levitate above it, in stoic courage and willed serenity.

    It is hard to imagine such thematic criticism being done better than here. What a beautiful book.

    Thomas Laqueur, author of Solitary Sex. Full of life, it is self-consciously the musings of old age, of a man who has spent decades with the consolations and discomforts of literature as it engages with death.

    From Tolstoy to Primo Levi

    The moments when Brombert engages in autobiographical reminiscence or tells anecdotes about his students are delightful and instructive. After the war, Brombert studied at Yale University, where he received a B. As a graduate student, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship —51 to study in Rome, adding Italian to the languages in which he has native fluency. The Bromberts have two children, Lauren and Marc. He was appointed Benjamin F. Barge Professor in and was chair of his Department from to He entered emeritus status in Brombert has been a visiting professor at many universities in the U.

    Brombert has held fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and from the Guggenheim Foundation —55;