The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
Bantam Classic edition published June 1981
Bantam reissue edition / May 2004
Genre: Fiction, philosophy
Synopsis from my paperback edition
“Hailed as one of the world’s supreme masterpieces on the subject of death and dying, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the story of a worldly careerist, a high court judge who has never given the inevitability of his dying so much as a passing thought. But one day death announces itself to him, and to his shocked surprise he is brought face-to-face with his own mortality. How, Tolstoy asks, does an unreflective man confront his one and only moment of truth?
This short novel was the artistic culmination of a profound spiritual crisis in Tolstoy’s life, a nine-year period following the publication of Anna Karenina during which he wrote not a word of fiction. A thoroughly absorbing and at times terrifying glimpse into the abyss of death, it is also a strong testament to the possibility of finding spiritual salvation.”
After reading Anna Karenina a while – maybe around two years – ago, I’ve wanted to read more literary classics and also more of Tolstoy’s work. Although I first read some other works from other classical authors, I finally decided to give The Death of Ivan Ilyich a go.
The subject of the book – death and dying – may not be the easiest or most comfortable subject, but I was interested to see what Tolstoy made of it. To see how a man, who had never even so much as thought about dying, found out about his near end and how he dealt with it sounded like a deep, melancholic, and interesting story to me. And, after all, there is always a lesson about life in stories about death, isn’t there?
Although I had already supposed that the book would be a little different from what I expected – length-wise and also considering the style of writing – I was surprised to find that it, in my opinion, differed a lot from what I had hoped to find. I had hoped that The Death of Ivan Ilyich would be quite similar to Anna Karenina, at least in terms of the style of writing as well as in terms of the description of the characters. Yet, although the main character is described rather well and closely, there were many things I missed within this book. For me it could have been slightly longer and in some cases a bit more detailed.
All in all, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is an interesting book which takes you on the journey of a dying man. There might have been many things missing – at least for me – and the style of writing might have not been my favourite, but in the end the story is somewhat captivating, even if you already know how the book will end. Tolstoy did a good job describing how the main character feels in his last months on Earth. Still, although it would have been plausible or at least understandable to feel truly sorry for Ivan Ilyich, it was rather difficult to feel any kind of empathy towards him – partly because of the character itself, but also because of the style of writing. The book wouldn’t be the first one I would recommend if somebody asked me for any kind of advice on what he or she should be reading next, but I also wouldn’t stop anybody from reading it.