I’ve just left behind the chapters about the final illness and death of Nikolai Dmitrich, Levin’s wild, willful, radical half-brother. They were difficult to read; I imagine that anyone who has sat at the bedside of a relative, simply being present with him or her as death approaches, retreats, and advances once again, would agree. Levin and Nikolai are both helpless and in agony, but for very different reasons, and Tolstoy spares no details in describing their ordeals.
Here, Tolstoy captures Nikolai’s final hours:
“There was no position in which he was not in pain, there was not a minute in which he was unconscious of it, not a limb, not a part of his body that did not ache and cause him agony. Even the memories, the impressions, the thoughts of this body awakened in him now the same aversion as the body itself. The sight of other people, their remarks, his own reminiscences, everything was for him a source of agony. Those about him felt this, and instinctively did not allow themselves to move freely, to talk, to express their wishes before him. All his life was merged in the one feeling of suffering and desire to be rid of it.”
After seeing his brother through this ultimate tribulation, Levin realizes, to his surprise, that despair has not overwhelmed him. His marriage to Kitty has connected him to other, brighter emotional states.
“In spite of death, he felt the need of life and love. He felt that love saved him from despair, and that this love, under the menace of despair, had become still stronger and purer. The one mystery of death, still unsolved, had scarcely passed before his eyes, when another mystery had arisen, as insoluble, urging him to love and to life.”
I am amazed at how much life experience Tolstoy has packed into this novel, how carefully he must have observed life—and observed himself observing life. He never seems to take the easy way out, finds just the right words to set a scene, analyze an emotion, illuminate a character. He has created a work of art that is so many things at once (just like life itself): charming, romantic, clever, funny; visceral, intellectual, heartless, depressing; thrilling, compelling, encouraging, inspiring. Although I’m not sure I’ll become one of them, I can now understand why some devoted fans re-visit Anna Karenina on a regular basis.