First off, just to note that I'm mildly disappointed not to have been raptured as a part of Friday's I'm-not-kidding-this-time-and-I'm-absolutely-sure-about-this-one end of the world as prophesied by the inimitable Harold Camping.
But, in that spirit, I've recently been thinking, as I'm sure you have, about Tolstoy and Chekhov.
Not--don't get me wrong--to the point of actually reading War and Peace or Anna Karenina or finding some local production of "The Cherry Orchard." I'm not made of available time. But I'm flipping through (or scrolling through--my Kindle broke, so I'm guessing I'm now one of three people worldwide reading Tolstoy on my iPhone) their short stories, starting with perhaps Tolstoy's most famous novella, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" (sometimes rendered "Ivan Il'ich" or--God love the Russians--eliminating the final vowel as "Ivan Ilych"). I'm told for those not reading it on three-inch screens that it clocks in at about 100 pages. (It's in the public domain so, for instance, you can read it for free here.)
Tolstoy is regarded in literary circles as perhaps the greatest novelist on spiritual themes. He'd compete with Tolkien (and maybe Lewis, though Lewis would lose that fight) from the 20th Century and with his contemporary Dostoevsky in the 19th. Hugo might pop his head up and ask why he's not getting any love. But lately it's been seeming to me that my dream of living centered-set in a secular world would only be enhanced by seeing what Tolstoy would say about it.
And "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" turns out to be one profound place to start. It sneaks up on you. It's got all those Russian names, for starters, all those Peter Ivanoviches fading into the Fyodor Ivankoviches (as it were). It has almost no dialogue. It's got endless domestic observations. You wonder where exactly it's heading. And then, once you finally see where it's heading, it's got an "oh my God" wrapup that more than delivers the goods. Amazon's reviews (4 1/2 stars, if memory serves) include more than a few "this brought me to God" testimonials.
It all seems run of the mill until you realize it's among the most-ambitious things you've ever read--trying to summarize how all of us spend our lives, how we miss the point and how death crystallizes the stakes of life.
So, all to say, if you're in a (brief!) Russian lit mood, take a look. (Or perhaps you already have.) I'd love your take on what this teaches us about centered-set living, if anything. I think it has as much to say as anything I've run across recently.
Or perhaps you all were raptured and I'm on my own on this one.