Monday, 30 September 2013

An Extract From Tolstoy Therapy: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy for a Fear of Death

This is an extract about The Death of Ivan Ilyich from the bibliotherapy book I'm working on, currently entitled Tolstoy Therapy (is this too predictable?)

I hope to give you more information about it soon, but I have a first draft written and I'm looking to publish it to begin with as a Kindle ebook in the upcoming weeks. It's been a really exciting project so far, and I've had so many great stories to write about!

It'll be wonderful to hear your opinion both on this extract - taken from the chapter on fearing death - and the book as a whole when it's complete. It will include stories (with all names changed and people consulted, including in the extract below) and book recommendations from both myself and others, tips for making the most out of your reading, and a celebration of the favourite hobby I share with most of you: reading!

Tolstoy and his wife, Sofia
Sofia and Leo Tolstoy. Image from The Guardian. 


“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” – Mark Twain


We will never find out what is to come after living, no matter how hard we try. We may decide to dedicate our lives to trying to find out, but I have a better suggestion: reading great books that help us to  make the most out of life and come to terms with the inevitability of death.

A keen reader from Sweden, Åsa, got in touch to tell me about the positive impact that reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy had on her after her grandmother’s death. Åsa told me that her grandmother’s death took her completely by surprise as, in her own words, her grandmother was an extraordinary woman: “strong in every way, smart, a born leader”. She had been diagnosed with a tumour, but had decided not to tell Åsa and her wider family. Åsa was left with a lot of unanswered questions in her mind, but reading Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich did much to console her and provide answers.

Åsa told me that while Ivan Ilyich is a book about death, it’s also about a man who overcame it. Reading Ivan Ilyich helped Åsa to think from her grandmother’s perspective and understand that she probably didn’t tell her family about her tumour for fear of burdening them. Although her grandmother could have lived a little bit longer with chemotherapy and medicines, Åsa realised that her grandmother didn’t want to choose this path, but rather accept death and its inevitability. Åsa concluded by saying, “Reading Ivan Ilyich opened my eyes, I understood something about my own life.”

Leo Tolstoy was a writer who frequently struggled with thoughts of death. During the autumn of 1869, when he made a trip to the Penza province in Russia to inspect some land he was thinking of buying, he found himself awake at two in the morning, exhausted but unable to sleep. Despite feeling physically well, Tolstoy was suddenly gripped by a fear of dying more intense than any he had experienced before, and this produced in him a state of existential anguish he found terrifying. He drew on this memory when he started writing an autobiographical story called Notes of a Madman, although this was never completed. However, a short story entitled The Death of Ivan Ilyich was finished and published, and allows us not only to understand better the author's thoughts towards death, but also consider our own.

Ivan Ilyich lives a carefree life that is "most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible." Like everyone in his social circle, he dedicates his life to climbing the social ladder and seeking the bliss that he believes is found at the top of this. Although he is in an unhappy marriage with a wife he finds too demanding, Ivan frequently ignores his family life and focuses his attentions on becoming a magistrate. He is primarily concerned with his own status and the influence of his friends, until he one day falls awkwardly upon hanging curtains for his new home. Being the workaholic that he is, Ivan does not think much of this at first. However, he begins to suffer a pain in his side, and his discomfort increases day by day. This is accompanied by great irritability, which culminates in his wife insisting that he see a physician. A diagnosis that is devoid of hope follows, and Ivan is forced to face his own mortality. 

Ivan’s main source of comfort becomes his servant Gerasim: the only person in his life who does not fear death, and the only one other than his own son who seems to show compassion for him. As Ivan's friendship with Gerasim becomes closer, Ivan begins to question whether he has, in fact, lived a good and moral life. Gerasim guides Ivan in his final days, and allows him to realise the difference between an artificial life and an authentic one. At the moment before his death Ivan has several realisations, and a highly moving, philosophical account of mortality is rendered.

This short story not only allows us to confront our own fear of death, but addresses an accompanying concern: the fear that we have not made the most of our life or found meaning in it. We realise that if we make changes now, if we check up on our neighbour or act kindly towards our spouse, we will grow old without the hefty fear of dying on our shoulders. Mindfulness is key in this respect. 

Leo Tolstoy died from pneumonia at the age of eighty-two years old, at Astapovo train station in Russia. His death came only days after he had finally gathered the nerve to secretly leave home and to separate from his wife, renouncing his aristocratic lifestyle in the process. The police tried to limit access to his funeral procession, but thousands of peasants lined the streets at his funeral. 

By reading Ivan Ilyich, we can learn to make the most of our present, understand death's inevitability and our powerlessness over it, and accept the attitudes of others towards dying.

My Top 5 Books for a Fear of Death:
1. The Death of Ivan Ilyich - Leo Tolstoy
2. The Fault in Our Stars - John Green
3. The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
4. Life After Life - Kate Atkinson
5. The Rain Before it Falls - Jonathan Coe

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Philosophical Healing: Life Lessons from Kierkegaard by Robert Ferguson

In my last post  I mentioned a lovely new 'Life Lessons From Great Thinkers' series from The School of Life, consisting of a selection of books that outline the teachings of various philosophers and consider how we can apply these to our own lives.

While I somehow stopped myself from buying Life Lessons From Kierkegaard by Robert Ferguson on my recent visit to the Waterstones in Liverpool, I soon gave in and bought it on my Kindle. I keep telling myself that it's only a little book, and £3.99 is a much more reasonable price than £6.99 for the paperback, but the truth of the matter is that I really want the book on my shelves.... This could easily get dangerous and I'll not only end up buying the paperback copy of the Kierkegaard, but also the rest of the series.

Life Lessons by The School of Life
The series features 'Life Lessons" from Bergson, Byron, Freud, Hobbes, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.
Image from The School of Life.

But anyway, I really love the concept of applying philosophy to your own life: most blog readers will know how much I go on and on about Marcus Aurelius's teachings on anxiety and Michel de Montaigne's meditations on low self-esteem. Kierkegaard, however, I knew much less about. I'd read The Seducer's Diary, and found it really quite odd yet compelling, but I'd never explored Kierkegaard's philosophy itself much.

Life Lessons From Kierkegaard aims to be an accessible introduction to the philosopher as well as a guide to how his teachings apply to modern life, and I certainly found myself learning more about Søren himself. He was the youngest of seven children, and before he reached the age of twenty-two all but he and one older brother had died, leaving a certain expectation in his mind that he too wouldn't last long.

Søren's father Michael was from the lowest peasant class, but at the age of twenty-one he was released from service and ended up making a fortune from importing textiles; a fortune that would later allow for Søren's comfortable life as a thinker and writer. Robert Ferguson introduces us to so many more stories about the philosopher's early life and its influence of his later work, but this would require a separate post!

The 'life lessons' of Kierkegaard discussed in Ferguson's text are as followed:


  • How to Wake Up
  • How to See through Things
  • How to Avoid Living in the Past
  • Why We Should Cultivate Dissatisfaction
  • On Not Thinking Too Much
  • When to Say Nothing
  • How to Deal with Despair
  • How to Think about Death
  • Choosing to Choose

There's a wonderful selection of themes covered really, and it's a really interesting philosophical approach to self-help (although does classifying it as 'self-help' ruin the concept here slightly?) Some of my favourite quotes are as follow:

"[One of Kierkegaard's main teachings is] to the effect that life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards. I still think of it every time I sit facing the wrong way on a train." Ferguson
"[Kierkegaard] suggests that there are very good reasons why we don't want to open our eyes, not the least of which is how frightening and disorientating it might be to wake up one day to the true confusion and despair from which sleep has shielded us." Ferguson
"One does not enjoy the immediate object of one's pleasure but something else, another element which one has arbitrarily introduced. One sees the middle of a play, one reads the third part of a book. In this fashion one derives a quite different enjoyment than that which the author has so kindly intended for us." Kierkegaard, Either/Or
"Ours is essentially a common-sense, reflective age, passionless, briefly flaring up in moments of enthusiasm and then wisely reverting to indolence." Kierkegaard, Two Ages: A Literary Review, 1846

Robert Ferguson's writing could have been polished a little more in this book, and at times it got quite confusing and complex (even for a discussion of Kierkegaard), but it was worth reading. All in all, I'm really enjoying this series by The School of Life so far and I'd love to read more.

The next "Life Lesson" I'm planning to read and review? Almost certainly that of Nietzsche or Byron.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

A Bibliotherapy Review: The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin

The Novel Cure by Berthoud and Elderkin
The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin:
a lighthearted and readable approach to bibliotherapy.
"May we massage you with Murakami? Ease your pain with Wolf or Wodehouse? Do you require the Very Book to lessen your Loneliness? May we revive your Spirit with a Literary Tonic?"

For almost a year, I've been keenly awaiting the release of The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. It confesses itself to be an "A-Z of Literary Remedies", and is a book deeply rooted in The School of Life, a London-based philosophical and cultural centre through which Berthoud and Elderkin work their magic as bibliotherapists.

I've been looking forward to The Novel Cure not only because I love the concept of using literature as a healing and guiding tool, but also because I've been working on my own Tolstoy Therapy book project this year. To check that my ideas are unique and distinct from The Novel Cure, I needed to give this a read!

First of all, the hardback edition is beautiful. It seems destined to be the ultimate coffee table book: it's sturdy, eye-catching and clearly quite intellectual. Inside the book, the pages are alphabetically structured in a way that makes it so easy to flick through without feeling overwhelmed by text, and the 464 pages do not seem at all dense or crowded.

Now, time for the important stuff. Firstly, I didn't expect The Novel Cure to be lighthearted. It's not that I imagined the authors to be boring - in fact, quite the opposite - but I've always approached bibliotherapy in quite a serious way here on the blog. For me, bibliotherapy is closely bound to more serious mental health problems, largely because of my personal use of books over the years. To Berthoud and Elderkin, literature can be a remedy for all manner of things. Stubbed your toe? Can't function without coffee? The Novel Cure says it can help you with this.

A favourite quote on bibliotherapy
"A little reading is all the therapy" I need.
Image from Pinterest.
In their review of the book last Saturday, The Guardian neatly summarised one of my concerns. Whimsical entries such as "egg on your tie" are placed so close to seriously challenging problems (for instance, eating disorders), and it's quite difficult to read the book in a linear manner as a result. However, many readers are sure to find this approach to bibliotherapy to be a refreshing and cheery decision.

At the end of the book (which is more like a guide or handbook, really) is an index of the ailments and lists featured in the book, which is handy. It would have been good if Berthoud and Elderkin had included a list rather like my own "Bibliotherapy Recommendations" at the end of The Novel Cure, for sometimes I found that the section for each "ailment" was rather limited.

It's common for there to be one book mentioned per ailment, so if you've had an unhappy relationship with that single book listed, you'll be left to fend for yourself. Also, it was quite odd to see the book recommending ways to get over excessive book buying - shouldn't such a book encourage its readers to read everything and everything? Maybe I'm just reluctant to overcome my own literary addictions, though.

Quite typically, I loved the lists that were included in The Novel Cure. "The Ten Best Big Fat Tomes" was a particular favourite, while "The Ten Best Novels to Read on your Gap Year" is very appropriate to my life in Spain right now!

Overall, The Novel Cure is a fun book to have around. Booklovers are sure to receive it as Christmas presents and give copies to friends, while it will probably be recommended to less literary folk as a way of finding great fiction.

I think that my own book project is quite different to The Novel Cure (my approach is a lot more personal, for one), and I really enjoyed seeing bibliotherapy represented in an unfamiliar way. If you want to see literature depicted as a healing tool for both physical and psychological issues, definitely try The Novel Cure. Let me know what you think if you do!

Thursday, 12 September 2013

What Bibliotherapy Means to Me

Another amazing vintage library ad from
Brain Pickings!
Bibliotherapy is a word I use a lot here on Tolstoy Therapy. However, it's important to note that I didn't even know the word existed when I first started the blog in June 2012. My blog originated primarily as a way for me to share my thoughts on books, but I also wanted to use it as a way to gather my thoughts on how literature has affected me.


    I wrote my first post shortly after finishing my first year of university, which in itself had been a difficult time for me. I was coming to terms with my PTSD, and I wasn't quite sure what direction I was going in. Keeping this blog, and connecting with all of you lovely enough to read it, made such a difference on my attitude towards myself, my past, and my goals.

    "Tolstoy Therapy" meant the same to me back then as I'd define "bibliotherapy" now: the use of literature, in this case Tolstoy's, to help me through difficult situations, feelings and thought-processes and to allow me to appreciate the beauty of words and skilled writing.

    I would define bibliotherapy as...


    • A sure-fire way to get to know yourself
    • One of the easiest ways to relate to others when you feel isolated
    • Something that allows you to be inspired by others...
    • Yet to also learn from their mistakes
    • The result of reclining on a sun lounger with a trashy novel
    • Or, sitting in a well-supported reading chair and learning from history's finest minds
    • A process highly linked to that incredible feeling of reading the last paragraph of a great book
    • The simple way you can be changed by words next to words on paper
    • The consequence of challenging, beautiful or iconic lives documented in text
    • A perpetual legacy that authors can share long after their passing
    • Something that must be accompanied by a good cup of tea
    • Not always a relaxing or welcome process, but one that is sometimes harsh and uncomfortable
    • A way to get your thinking back on track when you feel anxious or upset
    • Often born in a good bookshop
    • A lifelong companion and provider of guidance to all those who welcome it
    • Open entirely to interpretation.

    For me, a book can be therapeutic if you want it to be. If you need it to be, a book can guide you
    through any number of situations. Bibliotherapy is all about the relationship between reader and author, and I don't believe it's necessarily something that needs to be classified or named. 

    You know when you've found it, as you'll want to read everything else by the author, create the perfect reading nook, and spend all your money on novels. If you tailor-fit your reading material to your situation in life, your literary tastes and your feelings, you'll also find yourself changing far more than you thought possible. You may attribute this to more time spent in the gym or a blossoming relationship, but it might just be that amazing book you read on the train.

    “There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.” Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale


    Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe.

    Saturday, 7 September 2013

    Living in Barcelona, Part I: Settling in, Sightseeing & Reading

    Parc Guell lizard
    The lizard in Gaudi's Parc Güell
    As some of you will know, I've recently moved from South East England to sunny Barcelona! It's only for eight months as part of my university degree, but it's quite a big step nonetheless.

    I'm living by myself in a quiet area called Eixample, on a street that's really close to the Avinguda Diagonal. This brilliantly wide street has great shops and space to walk, and it literally cuts the city in half.

    I'm pleased to say that culture shock hasn't yet kicked in and I'm really enjoying how vibrant and exciting Barcelona is. I absolutely adored my visit to Montjuïc, home to the amazing Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya and some beautiful gardens, and Antoni Gaudi's Parc Guëll was even better than I expected.

    I'm looking forward to seeing some of the places where the film version of Patrick Süskind's Perfume was set, alongside visiting Montserrat mountain, from which the views seem incredible. As my boyfriend's staying with me for eight days from Sunday, I'll have somebody to join me on my adventures! I really need to persuade him to read Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind so we can go on a literary walk around the roads and areas mentioned.

    El Poble Espanyol, as seen in Perfume
    El Poble Espanyol, as seen in Perfume. Image source.

    Most of my time at the moment is being taken up by work, hence the lack of blogging and tweeting lately! I have a Copywriting & Social Media Marketing role at a really lovely startup that specialises in group travel, and so far I'm really enjoying my work. My colleagues are great, and I get to spend a lot of time writing articles and reading all about travel... I must say it suits me well! In the next week or so I'll mention the blog and Twitter account that I update for work - just in case you want to keep an eye on what I'm up to.

    The view from Montserrat (San Jeroni peak)

    In other news...


    I am still reading War and Peace. Yes, still! After my speedy reread in August 2012, this year is proving to balance the annual average out a bit. To avoid lugging my enormous paperback edition of Anthony Briggs's fantastic translation to Spain, I decided to download the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation onto my Kindle. I've heard so many good things about this, but I just can't get into it like the Briggs text. A post on W&P translations can definitely be expected when I finally finish it!

    Last night I also started reading The Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment by Isabel Losada, a choice that was entirely inspired by Angeliki's recent post on finding purpose through literature. It's a wry memoir of getting to know yourself, finding your way out of the most enormous ruts, and understanding what life's all about. It's a relaxing novel and a bit of a guilty pleasure, but my reading standards lean excessively towards the classic and difficult-to-read!

    It's the perfect book to relax with during my lunch breaks and evenings, although, of course, I should really be reading in Spanish...


    Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya