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.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.
Presented here alongside The Devil, a further work exploring the powerful and destructive nature of obsession.
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,Read the rest of the letter here.
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.
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
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