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The Death Of Ivan Ilych Paperback – February 9, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In the lovely, low tones of a fine storyteller, Oliver Fox Davies guides us through the stages of Tolstoy's mini masterpiece. Davies's skill with inflection, even within words, heightens the social satire of the early section and shifts with Ilyich's slide into ever increasing pain and irritability. With the terror and anguish of approaching death, his voice grows convincingly hoarse. Until his illness, Ivan Ilyich had never reflected on his life. But he slowly comes to see his life as a terrible, huge deception which had hidden life and death. As he lays dying, his lifelong friends think of the promotions that may come their way, and his wife began to wish he would die, but she didn't want him to die because then his salary would cease. He has always avoided human connection, but through the tender ministrations of a peasant he comes to recognize the mesh of falsity in which he's lived. Written more than a century ago, Tolstoy's work still retains the power of a contemporary novel. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
Enough of these homegrown comedies of manners. There aren't many jokes in this relentless novella about a cold, calculating, materialistic minor member of the St Petersburg judiciary, whose only ambition is to keep up with the Ivanovs. Until, that is, he falls ill with a mysterious terminal disease that opens his eyes to the shallowness of his friends, his family and, most of all, himself. Tolstoy's prose is majestic, his pace measured, his characters unflinchingly true to life, his message bleak. If you've never read any Tolstoy, best not start with this one - you might stop yourself before you get round to Anna Karenina --The Guardian - Sue Arnold --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Much has been said in other reviews regarding the novella itself. What struck me in my reading of the approx. 100 pages was that despite the fact that the story concerns a man who hasn't considered death, and when faces it takes a certain approach to it, the rest of the story is simply too real for most everyone to leave any reader comfortable (that's a good thing). Without giving it away, the thoughtful reader will see him/herself in the other characters, regarding both attitude toward and activities involved in death. Even for those who look at death differently that Tolstoy's character, much of what he thinks is what most think when faced with death.
Tolstoy has managed to look at everyone, you might say, and leaves any with a brain that can think with the necessity of self examination, not simply concerning death, but with the attitudes and cultures that surround death and its approach. This text would be excellent for a book club discussion, which, if handled according to the true number of statements of human reality, would take many weeks (months?) to cover in an honest manner of discussion.
The novel starts with the death of Ivan. He is introduced to us by a third person narrator who seems omniscient. Presumably, Ivan was an important figure, an eminent government functionary whose death elicits a faint surprise from his colleagues. But their surprise doesn’t soar beyond a formality. Promotions and due diligence for the funeral is what preoccupies them. It is up to his most well known acquaintance Peter to maintain the sense of propriety and it is through him that the narrator’s vision is colored in depicting us the death of Ivan.
“The expression on the face says that what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly…Besides this there was in that expression a reproach and a warning to the living. This warning seemed to Peter out of place, or at least not applicable to him.”
This description of the dead Ivan brings up a sense of mystery in us, a sense of mystery that heightens when Ivan’s wife tells Peter,
“He suffered terribly the last few days.”
And so Tolstoy sets up the plot. In the subsequent chapters the story continues detailing the ordinary life of Ivan culminating with his death. But why did he suffer ? This is where the beauty of the plot lies. Not only do we get to know the answer to his suffering, we get to hear the answer to Tolstoy’s grave question whispered to us by Ivan.
This edition is not necessarily the greatest; I read it for a class and wound up reading about half from the book and half from my computer (because who remembers to take the book with them?), but it's actually a very practical edition. Small enough to easily carry in a jacket pocket or pretty much any bag, I also like the small size because it removes a lot of the intimidation factor from Tolstoy, something that is crucial when dealing with students who know Tolstoy only for War and Peace.