Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | January 14, 2020

Book Review: Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych

I bought this book because I got a good deal at the Brooklyn Book Festival (2019)—three novellas by classic, “canonized” authors for $10, sold at the booth of the publisher, Melville Press of Brooklyn. I picked novellas by George Eliot (The Lifted Veil), Melville (Bartleby the Scrivener), and Tolstoy (The Death of Ivan Ilych)].

The-Death-of-Ivan-Ilych1-235x274Tolstoy, especially, is a daunting author for me (think War and Peace), but a novella—defined as a short novel or long short story—seemed like a less daunting way to approach such an author. I did read Anna Karenina many years back. It’s a fascinating and intricate story, but I have always objected to the first sentence of that book: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I know from experience that isn’t really true.

What is The Death of Ivan Ilych all about? It’s basically the story of the rise and fall of an upper level Russian bureaucrat, a judge, who prospers in pre-Revolutionary Russia.  But the focus on the rise is short, and the focus on the gradual decline and deterioration towards death is long, drawn out, and frankly rather grim. It is a “serious” novella. A man comes to terms with his imminent death. There is very little joy. It is told from a third person narrator point of view, and I don’t think the identity of the narrator is ever revealed. It could just as well be a movie script, one of those “serious” films with little dialogue that wins an award for its cinematography or best adaptation of a novella.

Tolstoy himself was from aristocracy—his mother was a princess, and he was born with the title “Count,” back in the days when Russia was still a monarchy, a pre-industrial country ruled by czars. You would think this upbringing might explain this seeming sneer at bureaucrats like Ivan Ilych. However, the flyleaf of my edition of the book notes that Ivan Ilych was 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 Ilych represents perhaps the most keenly realized melding of Tolstoy’s spirituality with his artistic skills.

During the writing of this book, one of Tolstoy’s 13 children died, which may have heightened his focus on death. However, he increasingly became an ascetic, renouncing the church, private property, and “the demands of the flesh.” Imagine how his wife, mother of his 13 children, felt about this royalty-to-rags trajectory! As Mary Boyd writes in the New Yorker (2013), Tolstoy died “from pneumonia, aged eighty-two, at the railway station of Astapovo, a remote Russian village, on November 7, 1910. He had left his family home on October 28, in the middle of the night, walking out on his wife of forty-eight years—the long-suffering and increasingly paranoid Sonya. Grim, right?

That said, I’m glad I read this book, this novella. Before this, I was in awe of Tolstoy as a writer. Now, I’m still in awe of his writing, but I have a better picture of where he was coming from, and where he was going with this.




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