Monday, August 22, 2011

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

"The dreadful, terrible act of his dying, he saw, was reduced by all those around him to the level of an accidental unpleasantness, partly an indecency (something like dealing with a man who comes into a drawing room spreading a bad smell), in the name of that very "decency" he had served all his life; he saw that no one would feel sorry for him, because no one even wanted to understand his situation."

Written eight years after the publication of Anna Karenina—a time during which, despite the global success of his novels, Leo Tolstoy renounced fiction in favor of religious and philosophical tracts—The Death of Ivan Ilyich represents perhaps the most keenly realized melding of Tolstoy’s spirituality with his artistic skills.

Here in a vibrant new translation, the tale of a judge who slowly comes to understand that his illness is fatal was inspired by Tolstoy’s observation at his local train station of hundreds of shackled prisoners being sent off to Siberia, many for petty crimes. When he learned that the sentencing judge had died, Tolstoy was roused to consider the judge’s thoughts during his final days—a study on the acceptance of mortality only deepened by the death, during its writing, of one of Tolstoy’s own young children.

The final result is a magisterial story, both chilling and beguiling in the fullness of its empathy, its quotidian detail, and the beauty of its prose, and is, as many have claimed it to be, one of the most moving novellas ever written. (from Melville House)

My thoughts:
This is such an interestingly structured novella. It begins with the announcement of Ivan Ilyich's death, and then goes back in time to re-examine his life - marriage, career, and the months leading up to his death. During this journey, we are privy to Ivan Ilyich's innermost thoughts and struggles.
"...the most important thing for Ivan Ilyich was that no one pitied him as he wanted to be pitied: there were moments after prolonged suffering, when Ivan Ilyich wanted most of all,  however embarrassed he would have been to admit it, to be pitied by someone like a sick child. He wanted to be caressed, kissed, wept  over, as children are caressed and comforted. He knew that he was an important judge, that he had a graying beard, and that therefore it was impossible; but he wanted it all the same."
This is a stunningly beautiful portrait of suffering and death. I found myself marveling at Tolstoy's writing (and Pevear and Volokhonsky's translation) in passage after passage. He is obviously one deep thinker! Although I really liked Anna Karenina and several of his short stories, I wouldn't exactly classify myself as a fan. However, The Death of Ivan Ilyich makes me long to conquer War & Peace. Perhaps I should settle for The Devil first.

My rating:

Final Word:
Translation is key. If it weren't for Pevear and Volokhonsky, I might never read the Russians.


  1. A good translation is so important when reading works originally written in another language. Glad you found trustworthy translators... War & Peace is waiting for you!

  2. The Devil was very different--less refined/philosophical--but still personal & enjoyable. I'm glad you enjoyed Tolstoy's writing and thoughts in this one. The translator can make such a big difference. I've been thinking of that quite a bit with these novellas.

  3. I especially enjoyed the last quote. Such beautiful and thoughtful writing. I'm reading a Steinbeck novella right now and thoroughly enjoying it. Novellas are new to me but now I want to read more. Good luck with your challenge.

  4. having just finished anna karenina, i'd really love to try this one! i didn't know that it was also pevear and volokhonsky that translated it.

    it's a little disappointing that he moved to such spiritual and philosophical themes (and shorter works) after anna karenina since his long novels are amazing to read through.

  5. Julie - I WILL get to W&P one of these days...and you can be certain it will be Pevear & Volokhonsky's translation.

    Melody - I do have The Devil on my shelf, but not sure I'll get to it before the end of the month. I may continue this challenge into the fall...

    Margot - Steinbeck is one of my absolute favorites! So glad you are enjoying his novella. I need to reread The Pearl soon.

    luxehours - The philosophical/spiritual can put me off if I'm not in the right mood... we'll see how W&P goes. It seems like more of a 'winter book' to me.

  6. Tolstoy is such a good writer, he's so perceptive about human nature.

    I should read this one :)

  7. You tempt me. This books tempts me because it is short. I just can't get through AK; I get so freaking bored!

  8. I read this one for school and I remember that it gave me a lot to think about and it elicited a good discussion.

  9. Sam - There will definitely be more Tolstoy in my future.

    Care - This might be a better intro than those long books... safer, too, with less time invested. Give it a try.

    Reviewsbylola - There sure is a lot to think about. Now that you mention it, it might be a good book club selection for a busy month like December.

  10. Great post-I just completed last week his novella Ivan The Fool-great, funny wise story-maybe a bit pushing a social agenda but that it OK from the world's greatest novelists

  11. Mel u - We will definitely make allowances for one of the world's greatest novelists ;-)


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