Sunday, December 21, 2014

An Ordinary Death

The Death of Ivan Ilych And Other StoriesThe Death of Ivan Ilych 
by Leo Tolstoy

"Essentially, though, it was the same as with all people who are not exactly rich, but who want to resemble the rich, and for that reason only resemble each other . . . And in his case the resemblance was such that it was even impossible for it to attract attention;  but to him it all seemed something special."   - Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych

The Death of Ivan Ilych is notable for many things not the least being its focus on the life of Ivan Ilych; for, after introducing the narrative with the announcement of his death the story continues with his life up to and including his last days. This is the story of a very ordinary man, a Russian equivalent of an American John Smith, who is notable by his coworkers as being likable, but not so important that they do not make their first thoughts upon his death an intense discussion about how each might benefit from his passing -- whether through promotion or increase in salary.

A deceptively simple tale, it is admirable in its brevity, succinctness, and even ordinariness. Reading this short novel reminded me of some of the existentialist works that I have read and studied over the years (think of Camus' The Stranger or The Plague). 
Tolstoy's story is a meditation on the death of an every man, a bureaucrat whose life was anything but uncommon. Effortlessly, Tolstoy examines life’s shallow exteriors as well as its inner workings. And in the quotidian details of a life we see pageant of folly. After noting Ivan's rise to apparent success in chapter three, there begins a slow descent into illness and inevitably death. As death approaches there are signs ignored, reality deferred, and only slowly does wisdom emerge not like a dull moral lesson, but heavy, as if from a downpour, with all the weight, shine and freshness of real life. We see, vividly, Ivan Ilych’s errors until one day we realize that someone is looking at us as if we were a character in The Death of Ivan Ilych. This is a small book with a large impact on the reader. It is one that has not lost its power more than a century after its first appearance.

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Brian Joseph said...

I have really come to appreciate simple but meaningful ruminations on life and death such as this seems to be. The Camus novels that you mention are some of my favorites.

I like your allusion to wisdom coming all at once like a downpour.

James said...


This is simple and deep. Impressive in its ability to make you think.

Priya said...

I loved Anna Karenina when I read it a couple of years ago. This sounds like an interesting read, and the Camus-comparison has me curious because I would never have used that in reference to Anna Karenina...

James said...


Thanks for your comment. Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Ilych about a decade after Anna Karenina. His style and approach to fiction was evolving and this is a great example of it.

M. said...

Amen to all of the above.

FYI. In yesterday's NY Times an review by Masha Gessen of two new translations of Anna Karenina. Compares older translations ncluding the familiar P&V. Interesting on nuances of Tolstoy's Russian style (and intelligible to us non-Russian readers). Worth looking up.

James said...

Thanks for sharing the news about new translations.