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Friday Favourite: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

This week, David Alexander offers up our “most perverse ‘Friday Favourite’ yet”, with a look at Tolstoy’s brilliant and profoundly morbid novella.

I feel bad about not reading War and Peace. I want to read it – honestly I do. But it is just so damn long, and if I can’t successfully mount that campaign in an Oxford long vac, then my hopes during my working life are slim.

In the meantime, and to stave off my burning guilt just a bit, I read Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It’s much shorter, and a phenomenal work – deeply humane and yet deeply disturbing. In fact, this is probably the most perverse ‘Friday Favourite’ yet. I can’t think of a better piece of art about death.

The book is about Ivan Ilyich, a prominent official in Tsarist Russia. Throughout his life, Ivan has navigated the labyrinths of judicial bureaucracy so well as to become their gatekeeper. He is smart and likeable, efficient without being cold. A little self-serving, but so are his colleagues; Ivan has no choice but to play them at their own game.

A fall while hanging curtains (no one said this was an action thriller) injures one side of his body, and an unknown pain grows and grows. His family can’t see it, at least not until very late, but Ivan quickly becomes aware that the problem is terminal. The rest of the novella concerns Ivan’s attempt to comprehend this fact, to understand the metaphysical implications of his impending demise, and the meaning it projects back onto his life.

Many interpretations of the book argue that Ivan’s suffering is a product of his life’s superficiality. They point to Tolstoy’s juxtaposition of Ivan’s lacerating mental turmoil with the flippant material concerns of his family. The well-meaning relatives prop up some pillows, pester him with useless medicines and then nip back to the card table – can you take the pain more quietly, please, we’re trying to play here! Only Ivan’s selfless servant Gerassim seems to understand his employer’s agony: “Health, strength and vitality were offensive to [Ivan], but Gerassim’s strength and vitality did not fret but sooth him.”

When I consider this interpretation of the novella – that it’s all about recognising a mis-lived life –Dickens’ A Christmas Carol springs to mind. You know, old miser regretting his misdeeds, understanding that death is round the corner? Think of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, pointing its one revealed hand towards Scrooge’s tombstone as the horrified old businessman cowers. Tolstoy saw Dickens perform A Christmas Carol at St James’s Hall on a visit to London in 1861. We don’t know precisely what the travelling Russian thought of the piece, but its connection to Ivan Ilyich seems strong. After all, at his famous country estate, Tolstoy treasured a portrait of Dickens which moved around the house to wherever he was writing. Scrooge surely helped to forge Ivan, one miser giving rise to another.

Except Tolstoy doesn’t give Ivan’s life the theatrical flesh that Dickens applied to Scrooge’s. The description of Ivan’s ascendancy is crisply eloquent but deliberately functional. The novella’s real focus is the inevitability of death itself, which is so gargantuan, physically and philosophically, that retrospection is crushed into irrelevance. Ivan’s pain, combined with his helplessness, are described with wince-inducing exactitude. Similarities with A Christmas Carol fade away with the intensity of this grimness. Ivan dies after three days of non-stop screaming: if you’re looking for a dancing-through-the-streets kind of redemption, you’re reading the wrong author.

There is a glimmer of spiritual hope at the very end, mind, though to say more would be to spoil it. However, this remains largely gloomy stuff: a study of the kind of experience we barely consider until it creeps up on us at some terrible, unannounced moment. Yet by confronting the idea of death, even through literature, we take a major step towards improved self-understanding. None of us can avoid the reality of death forever, be it ours or someone else’s. The Death of Ivan Ilyich helps us to comprehend its enormity, and maybe, just maybe, to begin to come to terms with it as biological fact and common human destiny.

Hang on a minute, I’ve just realised something. Turns out that the very first ‘Friday Favourite’ was… War and Peace! How did I forget that? (I was Editor of Cherwell when it was published so I really should have remembered – though I doubt my long-suffering ex-section eds are surprised).

As that article – incisive, personal, classy, (do read) – shows, Tolstoy’s most famous epic is both readable and well worth reading. But before you do what I have yet to and consume its stately vastness, carve out a free afternoon for the slimmer The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It will terrify you, I’m sure, but you’ll be better and more human for it.

Illustration by Sasha LaCômbe

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