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