The Death Of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

This is another one that has sat on my shelves for awhile, but finally got read thanks to the Classics Challenge. I really enjoyed The Death of Ivan Ilyich…well, I don’t know if “enjoyed” is the write word, but it is a remarkable novella. There’s a wonderful intro written by Ronald Blythe. In the intro Blythe writes about Tolstoy’s great fear of death that eventually turned into an obsession with death that lead to the creation of The Death of Ivan Ilyich, his meditation on the subject.

The book opens immediately after the death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan was a judge and when his co-workers find out about his death, the first thing they begin to talk about is who will take his place. This scenes is followed by his funeral where we meet his wife who is in mourning. The book then goes on to introduce us to Ivan and his wife in the early days of their marriage and paints a picture of a marriage that was all bright colors on the outside, but rather dark behind closed doors. Ivan soon finds out that he has a “floating kidney” and his health slowly deteriorates over the next few months eventually leading to his death.

The beauty of this book is that the plot is given away in the title. Ivan dies…you know the book ends with his death. Tolstoy’s masterpiece lies not so much in the actual storyline, but in the thought process, the philosophy, and the atmosphere behind it. The only way I can describe the feel of this book is claustrophobic. From the minute that Ivan learns and recognizes that he is dying, the feel of the story is one of collapsing, closing in. It becomes a story of seeing the world fly by so fast that you can’t grasp on to anything to stay in it. It’s quite sad actually, but so wonderfully told by Tolstoy and becomes one of the most haunting stories I’ve ever read in it’s final pages.

I’m glad that I’ve finally gotten around to this one and look forward to revisiting Tolstoy in the future, most probably with Anna Karenina based on comments from yesterdays post! This one’s a quick read, but a poignant one…highly recommended.

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  1. DesLily #

    as an older person I can say that your statement about the “world flying by so fast…” is one you don’t realize when young. But it’s “time” that flies by so fast that you find yourself feeling you’ve missed an awful lot.

  2. Chris #

    Deslily, I think that Tolstoy captures that feeling perfectly in this book…it’s part of what makes it so frightening. I’ve experienced the feeling of time moving too fast for the first time recently…and it’s when I got out of school.I’ve always been a student, and of course, it’s scary now to go out into the real world. But when you’re a student, it feels like that last day of school will never’ll always be a student. But sure enough, it came. And now, those days are done, and my days as a professional are starting. But I know I still have plenty of “time” ahead of me, so it’s silly to think about it moving to fast…but I think there comes a time when it pops into everyone’s head.

  3. Nymeth #

    Reading your review, I kept thinking that the book sounded familiar. It took me a while to figure out why, but then I did: it sounds a lot like “Everyman” by Philip Roth, and I read Dewey’s Review of it just the other day. I wonder if Roth was inspired by Tolstoy. It sounds likely.

    This sounds like an unsettling book, but one I’d like to read.

  4. Chris #

    It is quite unsettling Nymeth, particularly towards the end, but it was amazing. Nancy (bookfool) just wrote a review of Everyman as well. Didn’t sound like something I would like too much, but I can see what you mean…sounds similar to this. I think you’d like this one alot. Give it a go!

  5. Stephanie #

    As much as I love Russian history, I’m totally lacking on reading Russian lit of any kind. I tried to read War and Peace a few years ago, but got really bogged down with it. One of these days, I liked to read Tolstoy, Doestevsky, and maybe some Gogol.

  6. Chris #

    Stephanie, War and Peace just looks so damn intimidating! I think it would bog me down too, but I’m going to tackle it one of these days. Russian literature is a totally new genre to me!

  7. Rhinoa #

    I really want to get a copy of this and read it. I read Anna Karenina earlier this year and really enjoyed it (apart fro mthe very last section which felt out of place). Again reading Anna Karenina most people known the ending, but that doesn’t stop you enjoying the ride to get there.

  8. Chris #

    I don’t even know the ending Rhinoa, so it should be a new Tolstoy experience for me!

  9. tanabata #

    I recently got the Hesperus Press edition of this. I’m not sure when I’ll get around to reading it but your review makes me intrigued. I loved Anna Karenina when I read it several years ago so I really should read more Tolstoy.

  10. Chris #

    Tanabata, This really was a great book. It’s stuck with me for the past few days…I’ve found it entering my mind again and again. I’m sure I’ll revisit it again sometime. I’m looking forward to eventually reading Anna Karenina

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