Tuesday, March 03, 2009

'The Death of Ivan Ilyich'

by Leo Tolstoy
Fiction/Classic, 1887 (The Death of Ivan Ilyich), 1890 (The Devil), 2005 (Hesperus Press edition)
Hesperus Press, trade pb, 122 p.
Translated from the Russian by Hugh Aplin, and shortlisted for the Rossica Translation Award, 2007
On learning of Ivan Ilyich’s sudden demise and death, his former colleagues begin vying for promotion; it seems neither in life nor in death has Ivan Ilyich made any lasting impression. And, as Tolstoy takes us back to Ivan Ilyich’s early days, it is a life of futility, of emptiness and primarily of spiritual barrenness that is revealed. Yet Tolstoy also reveals how, in the face of serious illness, Ivan Ilyich had made a final resolute gesture to come to terms with his mortality.
Presented here alongside The Devil, a further work exploring the powerful and destructive nature of obsession.
I realized while reading this that it had been quite some time since I’d read anything translated from Russian, and it was nice to revisit that part of the world through this book. The only other Tolstoy that I’ve read, many years ago but which made a big impression on me at the time, is Anna Karenina, so it was very interesting to read a couple of his much shorter stories.

In the foreward, Nadine Gordimer sums up the book perfectly:
The story is usually regarded as an amazing narrative of the experience of dying, a search for the meaning of death. It is all that, and more: it’s a great questioning of what is and what ought to be, in a human life.
I’m pretty sure this was the first time I’ve ever read a story entirely about a man coming to terms with his own impending death, but Tolstoy took me right into his thoughts. So even though I didn’t personally like the character of Ivan Ilyich, by the end I felt sorry for him and the delusion that he had lived his life by. And it made me think about how we are all alone at death. Not a cheerful, happy story, by any means, but it was an interesting study of human nature, which essentially hasn’t really changed from when this was written over 100 years ago.

Interestingly enough, this was also the very first book that Yann Martel, the author of Life of Pi, sent to the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. (For the story behind why he’s doing this, and the titles of the other books he’s sent, visit whatisstephenharperreading.ca). Along with each book he sends a letter discussing his choice. His letter accompanying The Death of Ivan Ilyich starts like this:
Dear Mr. Harper,

The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy, is the first book I am sending you. I thought at first I should send you a Canadian work—an appropriate symbol since we are both Canadians—but I don’t want to be directed by political considerations of any sort, and, more importantly, I can’t think of a work of such brevity, hardly 60 pages, that shows so convincingly the power and depth of great literature. Ivan Ilych is an indubitable masterpiece. There is nothing showy here, no vulgarity, no pretence, no falseness, nothing that doesn’t work, not a moment of dullness, yet no cheap rush of plot either. It is the story, simple and utterly compelling, of one man and his ordinary end.
Read the rest of the letter here.

This edition also contained the story, The Devil, and I have to admit that I actually preferred it to the title story. It’s about the internal struggle of a young man between lust and propriety. Again, Tolstoy did a fabulous job portraying his character’s innermost thoughts, and how he was driven to commit the desperate act that concludes the story. A tragic, but compelling read.

First sentence: In the large building of the Courts of Law during a break in the hearing of the Melvinskys’ case the members of the court and the Public Prosecutor gathered in Ivan Egorovich Shebek’s office and the conversation turned to the famous Krasovsky case.

My Rating: 3.5/5
(#10 for 2009, 1% Well-Read Challenge, Lost in Translation Challenge, What's in a Name Challenge (Medical Condition))

Also reviewed at:
Stuff As Dreams Are Made On
Have you read and reviewed this title? Let me know and I'll link to it here.


  1. Like you, I've only read "Anna Karenina." From a few things I've read (including your review), I think I might prefer his shorter works. I'll have to dig out all the Tolstoy's I own and haven't read!

  2. Definitely doesn't sound cheerful, but I'd like to read it sometime. Today I finished Fudoki, which is a lovely book (and set in old Japan!), but the protagonist is an old woman writing her story because she knows she won't live much longer...it left me sad for the rest of the day.

  3. Yann Martel's site is amazing. I'm sitting down right now and going through his fifty letters.

    I can just see some kind of Yann Martel/Stephen Harper reading challenge.

  4. I haven't joined any classic challenges or such so I might read this book for myself, seems interesting and shorter than WAR AND PEACE. i am trying to finish THE LIFE OF EDGAR SAWTELLE, been distracted lately, but the book is 600 pages.
    I think I will pick a shorter book for my next read...I still have met my 3 books a month, or 60 pages a day considering the length of this book :)
    Thank-you for your in debth reviews

  5. I have only read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, although I did begin War and Peace last year, only to set it aside for a later time. I will have to look these stories up. I think it would be interesting to read about Ivan Ilyich.

    Great review, Nat!

  6. I loved this book! I still don't really know what it is about it exactly that just kept me enthralled but I just thought it was so well written and interesting. I really need to read more Tolstoy!

  7. I haven't read much Russian literature although funny enough I'm reading something by Chekhov now. Anyway, I really liked your review and am liking that edition you picked. Aren't those Hesperus Press books pretty.

  8. Terri B. - I wouldn't mind trying some of his other short works now too.

    Nymeth - No it wasn't a cheerful story but it was really well-written. I'm very interested in Fudoki and have added it to my wishlist.

    saveophelia - I haven't read all the letters but it's such a great idea! I'm not sure if anyone has taken it over but Dewey had started a Martel/Harper Reading Challenge.

    Sylvie - It's MUCH shorter than War and Peace. Only about 60 pages! All the books I read last month were short ones. I can definitely understand you wanting a break after you finish that chunkster.

    Wendy - Thanks. Someday I'd like to read War and Peace, but I'm not quite there yet. It was good to read these two shorter stories though.

    Chris - It was fascinating how he got right into Ivan's thoughts as he tried to come to terms with his life and death. I'm not ready for W&P but I'd like to read more of Tolstoy's shorter stuff.

    Iliana - I really should read some Chekhov one of these days. I think I might actually have one of my mom's old books of his stories. The Hesperus Press books are so pretty, makes me want all of them! :P

  9. I read this one in college. Don't really remember much about it. I found out I wasn't a big fan of classic Russian literature when Serena and I tried to read Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamozov. I got 60 pages into it and realized I was doing more dozing than reading!

    Diary of an Eccentric

  10. Anna - LOL. They can be quite wordy, those Russians! I really liked Anna Karenina when I read it many years ago, but haven't tackled much else in terms of Russian literature. Someday.

  11. I have to admit that I am incredibly intimidated by this book (and most Russian lit). I have this one on the shelf, and you have given me a little courage to at least pick it up and brush off the dust. Read it? Ha! I'll have to muster up just a little more courage. :) Anyway, great review--very compelling.

  12. Trish - Russian lit can be pretty dense. At least that's my impression from the little bit that I've read. A short story like this is at least a bit easier than trying to tackle War and Peace! LOL. Good luck, if you decide you have the courage to give it a try. :)


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