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Leo Tolstoy: The Death Of Ivan Ilyich

Beginning, as it does, with the death of Ivan Ilyich, you wouldn’t think there was much left to say but Leo Tolstoy’s novella, The Death Of Ivan Ilyich, then winds the narrative back to an earlier part of the character’s life and lets it unravel from there.

Ivan Ilyich is a high court judge with a wife and family who takes a fall one day whilst hanging curtains, and from there a curious illness befalls him that no amount of doctors can properly diagnose. All they are in mutual agreement of is that his condition is terminal, although they prefer not to tell him this and insist that their treatments will one day have him walking again. The diagnosis forces Ilyich to consider his own mortality and to understand why he should die:

In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it.

The novella, after the announcement of Ilyich’s death, returns to his earlier years and follows him from his youth to deathbed as he appraises all that he has done and who he has become – a man for whom his family plays second fiddle to his career, a man who believes himself always to be right.

After a time, the novella spends more time looking at Ilyich’s malady and its effect on his life. He goes from being an active man to one reduced to lying on a sofa, soothed only by the imbibing of opium and the purity of his servant, Gerasim, who seems to be the only one that truly cares for him. And from their he wonders what he has done in his life to deserve such suffering, why he should die. His understanding of mortality is severely misunderstood:

All his life the syllogism he had learned from Kiesewetter’s logic – Julius Caesar is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caesar is mortal – had always seemed to him to be true only when it applied to Caesar.

Tolstoy’s prose (at least in translation) is quick paced; the philosophical statements are made, but not dwelled on more than need be. The narrative, however, did feel too light for me in that it was more a catalogue of events which never truly allowed me into the scene, to get to know the characters better. That said, it felt like the characters were secondary to the ultimate point of the novella: a meditation on death. On the nature of death.

The Death Of Ivan Ilyich bears much in common with Philip Roth’s latest novel, Everyman, in that it’s a study of ailments leading to death for the main character. I much preferred Roth’s treatment (perhaps because it lingered more the characters) but can appreciate Tolstoy’s obvious inspiration, and wish I’d now read them in reverse order. But overall, a worthwhile read, which leaves you, like Ivan Ilyich, asking questions you can’t answer.

May 31, 2007

3 responses to Leo Tolstoy: The Death Of Ivan Ilyich

  1. “The narrative, however, did feel too light for me in that it was more a catalogue of events which never truly allowed me into the scene, to get to know the characters better.”

    I get the feeling that Ivan Ilyich felt exactly that way about his own life. This is one of my very favorite books… simply heart-rending. (I think it’s time to read it again!)

    And thanks for the mention of “Everyman”. I’m woefully behind on my contemporary fiction.

  2. For me, this is Tolstoy’s “Christmas Carol”. It is less whimsical than Dickens’ work- that’s because Tolstoy was less whimsical as a person. But in both books, an elderly man is forced to look back upon his life, and take stock of how, over the years, moral corruption had set in, and how the innocence with which we all start life (a Rousseau-esque theme) has become corrupted. (This basic storyline has been much used: we see it, for instance, even in Ingmar Bergman’s film “Wild Strawberries”.)

    The opening scene of “The Death of Ivan Illych” shows us a group of men speaking in a detached and uninterested manner of a colleague of theirs who has recently died. I think it no coincidence that this scene is straight out of “A Christmas Carol”: near the start of the chapter with the Spirit of Christmas yet to come, we are shown an identical scene, as a group of people from the Stock Exchange speak in bored and indifferent terms about the death of someone they had known

    I find this novella of Tolstoy’s (and, indeed, the earlier novella of Dickens) tremendously moving. As it is a novella rather than a full-length novel, Tolstoy gives us pencil sketches rather than detailed paintings in oil, but the lines of the sketches are so surely and precisely placed, we get, I think, a very vivid impression of the course of Ivan Illych’s life. And, of course, his death. I don’t think any other writer thought as deeply as Tolstoy what it is like to die: on several occasions, he explored what goes on in a character’s mind right up to (and possibly beyond) the moment of death itself. To come to terms with his death, Ivan Illych must first of all come to terms with his life. He spends his final few days howling in an agony that is both physical and moral. I find it almost unbearable to read, but for all that, I keep getting drawn back to it.

  3. Pingback: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die | anything goes for the supermom

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3 responses to Leo Tolstoy: The Death Of Ivan Ilyich

  1. “The narrative, however, did feel too light for me in that it was more a catalogue of events which never truly allowed me into the scene, to get to know the characters better.”

    I get the feeling that Ivan Ilyich felt exactly that way about his own life. This is one of my very favorite books… simply heart-rending. (I think it’s time to read it again!)

    And thanks for the mention of “Everyman”. I’m woefully behind on my contemporary fiction.

  2. For me, this is Tolstoy’s “Christmas Carol”. It is less whimsical than Dickens’ work- that’s because Tolstoy was less whimsical as a person. But in both books, an elderly man is forced to look back upon his life, and take stock of how, over the years, moral corruption had set in, and how the innocence with which we all start life (a Rousseau-esque theme) has become corrupted. (This basic storyline has been much used: we see it, for instance, even in Ingmar Bergman’s film “Wild Strawberries”.)

    The opening scene of “The Death of Ivan Illych” shows us a group of men speaking in a detached and uninterested manner of a colleague of theirs who has recently died. I think it no coincidence that this scene is straight out of “A Christmas Carol”: near the start of the chapter with the Spirit of Christmas yet to come, we are shown an identical scene, as a group of people from the Stock Exchange speak in bored and indifferent terms about the death of someone they had known

    I find this novella of Tolstoy’s (and, indeed, the earlier novella of Dickens) tremendously moving. As it is a novella rather than a full-length novel, Tolstoy gives us pencil sketches rather than detailed paintings in oil, but the lines of the sketches are so surely and precisely placed, we get, I think, a very vivid impression of the course of Ivan Illych’s life. And, of course, his death. I don’t think any other writer thought as deeply as Tolstoy what it is like to die: on several occasions, he explored what goes on in a character’s mind right up to (and possibly beyond) the moment of death itself. To come to terms with his death, Ivan Illych must first of all come to terms with his life. He spends his final few days howling in an agony that is both physical and moral. I find it almost unbearable to read, but for all that, I keep getting drawn back to it.

  3. Pingback: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die | anything goes for the supermom

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Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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