In the 1980s I wrote a short story called "The Death of Ivan Lvovich," based on an actual event: the visit of the then young writer Ivan Bunin to Tolstoy's home in Moscow in 1895, shortly after the death of another Ivan (Vanya, Vanechka), the last beloved son of Tolstoy. The story has obvious parallels with "The Death of Ivan Ilyich."
First published in a Russian miscellany, Ostanovit'sja Nel'zja (Vypusk No. 11, Great Novgorod, 2014, p. 181-188), the story was republished in my collection of short stories called Googlegogol (2016). Here it is in full.
The Death of Ivan Lvovich
Why am I telling it? This is a story that he could not tell, and he was the Master. I, Ivan Alekseevich Bunin, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1933, am his humble epigone. I’m sitting idle here in France, waiting out the Second Great War. With all the years of my Collected Works moribund on the shelves behind me, in a time long removed from that frosty March evening when Lev Tolstoy put his arm around my shoulders. Thinking of a dead son. First my Kolya had scarlet fever; a month later it was measles. Nothing that serious. Then he got endocarditis. It was all over on Jan. 16, 1905. Four years old.
But what I’m telling, the thing of the arm around the shoulders, happened in late winter of 1895. In Moscow. There was no “Soviet Union” yet, and Hitler, who was six, still had time to be an angel. I was a young writer, aged twenty-five, exulting in him, Tolstoy the Master. One day the ecstasies of youth summoned me up and transported me to that large white house in Khamovniki District, where the Tolstoy family spent its winters. I was writing bad poetry then, plus a few gushing, febrile stories. I hoped, somehow, that the mere presence of the Great One would rub off some glory on me.
I had been there once before; they knew me. The old man respected the Bunin family, the ancient noble stock. He had met my father once, during the Crimean War, when they both were serving in the army. His butler, a doddering creature in faded livery, received me, took my coat and overshoes. He crept off to announce my arrival, returned, led me up the staircase. A stuffed bear, killed by the Master on a hunt, stood in a welcoming pose at the top of the steps, holding out a tray for calling cards. Since I had nothing for him, I just followed the butler on down the murky hallway. The poor bear looked aggrieved, and a sense of guilty unease passed over me, as if I had just snubbed a beggar on the street.
The decrepit butler nodded toward a door on the right, bowed his bony shoulders, and hobbled away. My knuckles rapped softly, and that hoarse alto voice called out, “Come in.” When I entered the dimness of the cramped room, illumined by a candelabra, I saw a leather divan beside the table with two lit candles, and there he sat, white-bearded, old and small, a book in one hand: Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, the greatest writer in the history of the world.
Looking embarrassed, he hastily arose to greet me. When he tossed the book to the far end of the divan, I fixed rapacious eyes on its cover. He was reading his own work, recently published, “Landlord and Peasant.” In my exalted love for his art, I had the tactlessness to blurt out my delight.
His face flushed and he waved away the compliment.
--No, please. It’s such a bad excuse for a story. I’m ashamed to show my face on the streets! But then, of course, everything I’ve written is dreck; at least all the fiction is. No, don’t say anything, fresh-faced and inspired young writer, Ivan Alekseevich! You’ll learn that truth some day. Please, please, take a seat.
He was right, and he was wrong. I’ve learned it now, that truth. About my own writings, though. Of all that I’ve written how much will stand the test of time? As for Tolstoy, I can’t read his pamphleteering works any more, all the preachy moralizing. But no one has ever written better fiction.
He paced around the room, stretching out his arms behind him, his torso swallowed up by the loose-fitting peasant blouse. As he spoke, tiny bits of spittle accumulated in the wisps of the long beard and scintillated in the candlelight. I sat and listened to him lecture me, watching the scintillations, enraptured.
--So who are you reading then, Ivan Alekseevich? Pushkin, Lermontov?
--Good, good. What about Gogol? Do you like Gogol?
--Not so much.
--Good. That’s right! Don’t read Gogol; he’s a dangerous writer. Gogol was a man who thought he was seeking God, but he was really in the clutches of the devil.
He paused and glared at me, waiting for his words to take effect.
--What does God want (he went on)? God wants the scribblers of the world, if write they must, to write something significant. So what do I do? I write about how some bland officer gets the urge to fornicate with a married woman, and she spreads her legs, loses her head, and later on her life. Then the whole world reads this drivel, and some say, ‘Ooo! Ahh! What grace! What profundity!’ And I say, ‘What banal horseshit!’
Don’t look at me like that. Have I shocked you, starry-eyed great writer-to-be? I apologize. Must break myself of that habit, using crude expressions. No. My advice to you is forget writing. The only task in any person’s life is to increase the love within his own soul, and, by so doing, to infect others, thereby increasing the love within them. How obstinate we are! Why do we deny such a truth?
Lev Nikolaevich paused again. After pacing back and forth a few more turns, he sat down. He stared beetle-browed into the light of the candles and said nothing.
We sat…his grey peasant eyes glazed over, steeped in dreamy sadness. The candlelight swam in the gloom of those eyes. Still we sat….Finally, he turned that gaunt prophet’s face toward me and said
--Have you heard of our recent sorrow, Ivan Alekseevich? We’ve lost Ivan, our Vanya, our Vanechka. He died of scarlet fever on February 23.
I nodded but made no reply. Callow as I was, I realized that there’s nothing to be said when a child dies. And, of course, what did I know of Vanechka? Very little then. A lot more now. He was born on March 31, 1888, when the Master was in his sixtieth year. He was the last and most beloved of the children. For his mother, Sofya Andreevna Tolstoy, he was the meaning of life.
--Yes, a dear little boy (the old man continued), full of love and charm. But what does that mean, when we say he died? He isn’t dead; there is no death. Not if we still love him and live our lives by the things he taught us.
The diaries, memoirs and letters of the Tolstoy family know nothing of the fate of Holy Rus, overwhelmed by the vicious war machine of Nazi Germany at the moment I write. Their pages sprawl indulgently, wallowing in nostalgia. I spread them out on my French escritoire, avert my gaze from the horrors of the twentieth century, and read about the Russia where I once lived. And about that beloved last son of Tolstoy: Ivan Lvovich.
“Sasha and Vanechka have been down on the floor looking at a map of the world, searching for Patagonia” (from a family letter). That’s a nice cozy scene: two bright-eyed children rustling through an atlas, its latitudes and longitudes specked with the sun-mist that flows through birch-tree foliage and into the room. And then this, from Sofya Andreevna’s reminiscences.
“Once, when I was combing his blonde curly hair in front of the mirror, little Vanechka turned to me and said, smiling: Mommy, I feel as if I really am just like my papa!
“Later he said: Mommy, is Alyosha [dead brother] an angel now?
‘Yes. Children who die before age seven are said to become angels.’
‘Well, maybe I ought to die now. Pretty soon I’ll have a birthday, but right now I still have a chance to be an angel!’”
And even this:
“A few days before his death Vanya stuck labels on his toys and belongings: ‘To Masha from Vanya, to Sasha from Vanya; to our chef, Semyon Nikolaevich, from Vanya.’ He took down all the framed pictures from the walls of his room and put them up in the room of his brother Misha.”
What is the problem with citing these passages? The problem is sentimentality. If you want to write with artistic effect, you have to keep the tears at bay, the pages dry. So said Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. But the Tolstoy memoirs are weeping and keening. Especially Sofya Andreevna’s. No. Better let the Master talk, as I recall him telling it to me in the dim candlelight of 1895.
--He was a harbinger swallow, bringing tidings of a warm spring. That’s what he was (said Lev Nikolaevich, in that same glazed tone). Then his voice abruptly came alive, his eyes flashed, and he added with no transition: I love this part of Moscow. Maybe you and I could take a little walk out in the snow. How does that sound? I like to wander the empty paths, down by the barracks of the Sumskoy Regiment, out through the Devichie Fields, to the river on the other side. Sometimes I’d take Vanechka with me on my rambles. A strange and marvelous mind. He could talk to you about the most serious things.
The loss was painful for me, of course, but much worse for Sofya Andreevna. Because I had another life, a spiritual one. All Sonya had was that animal love for her last child; now she has nothing to fall back on. It’s a terrible, terrible loss, though. No, I can’t say that. It’s a wondrous spiritual event. I thank Thee for letting me have this in my life. I thank Thee, O Father.
Why do children die? The way I look at it is that Nature tries to give forth her best, but when she sees that the world is not ready for them, she takes them back again. It’s an experiment. Well, they’re like migratory birds that fly home too early and die in the frost. But they must fly back home all the same. So it was with Vanechka.
The old man suddenly jumped to his feet and turned upon his own words.
--What nonsense I’m babbling! Migratory birds! Forget this entire conversation, Ivan Alekseevich. Posterity wants the brilliant insights of the ‘Great Artist’! When you write this scene some day be generous. Leave out the balderdash!
The Master has been dead for what? Thirty years? I’m an old man myself now. I’m in the South of France, it’s 1941. I’ve lost my country; the Soviets ran me out. I hate them, despise them, but now I find myself on their side, because they’re defending Russia against a German invasion. Here I sit, no homeland, no income. Have I nothing better to do than to quote Sofya Andreevna’s teary memoirs? Right. I have nothing better to do.
“We had decided that he, the youngest son, would inherit the Yasnaya estate. One day we were strolling out near the old oak tree that was seared by lightning, the one Kitty and Levin so loved. I gazed across the rye fields and said, ‘Look there, Vanechka—all of this will be yours some day!’ And he replied in that earnest little boy’s voice, echoing his father’s teachings: ‘Oh, no! Don’t say that, Mommy. Everything is everyone’s!’”
Again: “He was so slender, bodiless; he was all soul. On the days when my nerves were at their worst, he would turn his bright blue eyes upon me and say, ‘You’re not quite your real everyday self today, Mommy. Is something wrong?’”
Or, worst of all, this mawkish detail, which simply cannot be used in a work of artistic prose: “The Christmas before Vanya died he finally got the wagon he had always wanted, but he gave it away that same day to little Igor, a five-year-old hunchback, son of a local peasant.”
Back in the Master’s study, he’s on his feet again, pacing. He goes on talking, talking, talking, while I sit mesmerized by the words, the dark lined face, the glistening moisture in the beard, the murky ripples of candlelight in the grey eyes.
--You might even say it was a blessing for Sofya Andreevna, the pain of bereavement. In spite of herself she ascended into a spiritual realm, a new experience for her. But then the sordid pettiness, so typical of women, reasserted itself, and she went back to railing against the ways of the Lord.
As for me, I’ve made my peace with the ephemeral nature of earthly existence, but even I was weak. At first I sat and wept, yes, despaired. But soon I came to comprehend that this was not a sad and painful thing. It was joyous. Vanechka was a restorer of souls; he did the work of God on earth, promoting the Kingdom of the Lord through the increase of love—more so than many who live for half a century or even longer. ‘Every man is mortal. Caius is a man. Therefore, Caius is mortal!’ How wonderfully and simply put! So why do people refuse to accept it?
He fell silent for a moment, and once again the puerile ecstasy foamed up and ran out my mouth: It’s wonderful, you know, that story.
--Where you use the quote about Caius, Julius Caesar. ‘The Death of Ivan Ilich.’ Nowhere in world literature is it better described: the horrible, slow process of dying. I mean… I’m sorry, excuse me for speaking of this now.
--There’s nothing horrible about dying, young man! And as for that story, what a miserable piece of slop! Crude and useless! Why write about the death of a man who never lived? Ivan Ilich was dead all along! And then, the bit about how, in his final throes, he screamed for days and nights on end: ‘I don’t want to-oo-oo-oo-ooo!’ No dying man would have the strength to scream that long. You know how Vanechka died? He got ready for bed one evening, and they finished reading Dickens’ Great Expectations to him. His bedtime story. When Sofya Andreevna came in to kiss him good night he said, ‘It’s sad, Mommy. Just imagine. Estella didn’t marry Pip after all.’ When she touched his forehead with her lips and felt the fever, she burst into tears, and he said, ‘No, Mommy, don’t. It’s the will of God.’ Misha came in to him later, and Vanya said, ‘Yes, this time I know I’ll die.’ And in his calm and simple way that’s what he proceeded to do. That very night. There’s the story I’d like to write. But I know I can’t.
I know I can’t either. Corporal Schicklgruber and his storm troopers are invading my country, and I, the so-called Great Russian Writer, I’m stagnating in Grasse, France, subsisting on a few stunted potatoes and soup brewed out of weeds. What does the Nobel Prize mean now, Ivan Alekseevich Bunin? What is my shriveled glory compared to his, the Master’s? He never won the Nobel Prize. Now I’ve lost the inclination to slather more ink into useless fiction, so I amuse myself by reading diaries and reminiscing about the lost past. And, let’s face it, I’m wallowing in self-pity, senile sentimentality. Galya’s gone, left me, and, years later, I’m still grieving over my own lost son. That bitch of a wife, Anna. How could she expose him to the fever? Why didn’t she protect him? Lev Nikolaevich had thirteen children! I had only Kolya.
And yet, for the way she told it, Sofya Andreevna might have had only Vanechka.
“After they dressed him in his white jacket and combed his long blonde hair, we went back into the nursery, and I put an icon on his chest. Somebody else lit a candle and placed it near his head. . . .
“The day of the funeral was beautiful, full of bright sunshine and frost. We put the open coffin on the sledge and drove out to Nikolskoe Cemetery. I sat beside him, cradled his cold face and kissed him all the way there. It was a Sunday, and schoolboys were ambling about the grounds, radiant faces shining, admiring the wreaths and flowers.
“As the coffin was lowered into the ground, next to Alyosha’s grave, I could hear the joyful cries of the peasant children, whom our nanny had given sweets and gingerbread biscuits. I turned and watched them as they raced after one another, laughing and shouting, dropping pieces of the biscuits, pausing to pick them up and put them in their mouths, then skipping off again.”
The old man’s eyes were misty in the candlelight, as if he had just read, as I am reading forty-six years later, Sofya Andreevna’s description of the burial. We sat, once more, in silence. For a long time. Then he breathed out that ineffable sadness over my young, exalted soul and said
--He was a vegetarian; he wanted to do good on earth. He looked like me; he thought like me. I assumed that Vanechka would be the one to carry on my work.
But there’s nothing sorrowful about it (he went on, with a vehemence in his voice). He’s with God now, and I had the joy of knowing him. I thank Thee, O Father, for that.
I thank Thee, Father! (he suddenly screamed out the words), and the two dim candles flinched, blinking their eyes in amazement. Immediately he composed himself.
--No, I’m not like my wife. She has no faith, she dares to repine against the Lord. On the night he died she went shrieking through the house: ‘No, he’s not dead; I won’t accept it!’ She banged her head against the walls, hysterical woman that she is; she raged around for hours on end, she tore out her own hair.
The Master took my arm and squeezed it hard.
--Enough (he said)! Come then, Ivan Alekseevich, writer, future glory of Holy Russia. Let’s you and I go out for a stroll in the snow!
The savage joy in his voice cut right through me. Recalling it now, I still feel the exhilaration of the wound. We stood up and walked out into the corridor. Now I know. I know why I’m writing this down. For the ending of the story. There are things in your life that you go back to and relive again and again. Why? Because the feeling is so marvelous that you want to savor it repeatedly. The taste of one glorious moment, in the mouth of your mind.
We went downstairs, passing the bear. I turned and looked back at him as we descended. He stood there grinning his fixed obsequious grin, holding out his tray to beg eternal alms, walking, in my imagination, his eternally motionless plantigrade walk along the icy edges of nullity. Try as I might, my words on this page, and all the words on all pages are powerless to provide what those glassy ursine eyes pleaded for: a return to the grievous bliss of life in flesh and blood.
We found our coats and galoshes in the anteroom; we put them on and stepped out together, into the brisk frost. It was twilight, grading into darkness, a somber March evening. The wind, smelling somehow of spring, was blowing in our faces, making the streetlights flicker. There were no stars. He put his arm, like a father, around my shoulders. I’ll never forget that; not to the end of my days on earth.
There we stood, Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, the greatest writer in the history of the world, and I, young and vacuous Vanya Bunin. Then we slowly walked, by a slippery footpath, out into the snow-laden Devichie Fields. I could just make out the frozen lake by the nunnery in the distance. We walked in silence. I breathed frosty mist, but my shoulders were warm in his grasp. As we approached the banks of the lake three swallows darted up from out of nowhere, made a few swoops above the ice, and disappeared in the gloaming.
The Master took his arm from my shoulders and plunged, almost dived, off the path and into the high snowbanks. He broke into a run and went ploughing through the snow. Then he shouted back to me joyously: Come on! Follow me, Ivan, great hope of the Russian land!
I dashed off after the old man, waded into the knee-deep snow, but I couldn’t overtake him. He was swinging his arms in a frenzy, churning his legs, leaping across ditches, and shouting out the same words, over and over, in a voice full of tears and rage: Smerti netu (Death is not)!
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