- Paperback: 86 pages
- Publisher: Waking Lion Press (August 3, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1600964338
- ISBN-13: 978-1600964336
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.2 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars See all reviews (467 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,441,548 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Death of Ivan Ilych Paperback – August 3, 2006
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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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Top Customer Reviews
One thing that Leo Tolstoy could never be accused of was being a minimalist. He is best known for the massive novel 'Anna Karenina' and the even more massive 'War and Peace'. Almost all of his fiction seems to be an attempt to pack in as much panoramic life as possible. This characteristic applies to his shorter pieces as well as his novels.
This new translation (2009) assembles his best known stories as well as some lesser known ones as well and is presented chronologically, from the earliest, "The Prisoner of the Caucassus", written between the composition of 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina', to his final novella, "Hadji Murat," written over the last two decades of his life and published posthumously a few years after his death. All of the stories deal with the themes familiar in his other works—how can a man lead a moral life, what should his attitude be toward the pleasures of the flesh, honor in the midst of war and equality among the classes.
"The Prisoner of the Caucassus" deals with a young soldier who has obtained leave from his regiment to visit his ailing mother and perhaps marry before she dies. On his way through the mountain passes he takes a wrong turn and is pursued by Tartars. His bafflement as to why these people would want to kill him is similar to young Nicolai Rostov in 'War and Peace', who had grown up in the bosom of family love and could not conceive that anyone would wish him harm. The naiveté quickly disappears as a steely resolve to survive takes its place. Tolstoy is a master at depicting wartime action and the campaigns of pursuit, capture or killing which are inherent in war.
"The Death of Ivan Ilyich", "The Kreutzer Sonata" and "The Devil" are largely concerned with the subjective evolutions of individual consciousness in relation to external perceived challenges. My early exposure to the psychologically penetrating tales of Henry James has made me predisposed to be more comfortable in these subjective realms where specific characters undergo psychological/spiritual journeys. "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" depicts the life of an attorney/judge who has gone through all the right steps and played by the societal rules for reaching success and prosperity in life. He believes that his life has obtained a stability and order and that he has reached the pinnacle of success, until a random accident resulting in a bruise in his side, seemingly inconsequential but escalating to severe internal pain disrupts all of his sense of order. His selfish wife now seems self-absorbed and irritable with Ivan's health crisis as it presents an inconvenience in her life. His escalating illness, never named but presumably cancer, forces Ivan to reevaluate his life and question all his previous judgments. He goes through all the stages of dying to the point of ultimate acceptance. He reaches that point which always fascinated Tolstoy and compelled him to contemplate the process to the ultimate last step of consciousness that he also depicted in 'War and Peace', as if he wanted to venture as close as possible to the 'final frontier' and still be able to return to tell the tale. Ivan's serenity precedes his physical death and achieves the ultimate transformation.
The character in 'The Kreutzer Sonata" seems like he just stepped out of the pages of one of Dostoevsky's intense novels and wandered into Tolstoy's universe. Like Raskolnikov, he is a killer and, also like Raskolnikov, he needs to make a complete, thorough confession to another human. His jealousy and ambivalence to his wife's beauty and seductiveness has culminated in murder. The character repents of the murder, but not, as Tolstoy later made clear, of his aversion to sexual pleasure. Tolstoy's own revulsion toward sexual pleasure in his later life made explicit his own attitude. Despite this obvious bias, the story can be read as a compelling psychological fable without knowing the feelings of the author.
"Master and Man" is one of Tolstoy's most evocative tales. A greedy landowner, Brekhunov, takes his servant, Nikita, with him to a neighboring landowner in order to purchase a valuable piece of land. In his haste to reach his destination before other prospective buyers, he speeds his horse and servant on through a snowstorm, gets lost and, as night approaches, appears to be stranded through the frigid night. The horse is pushed beyond endurance and dies and he abandons his servant, who is succumbing to hypothermia, to find his way, gets lost and ends up back at his sleigh. He undergoes a radical spiritual transformation from self-obsessed aristocrat, willing to sacrifice anyone in behalf of reaching his goal to resignation. This predicament is no one else's doing but his own. He has refused a previous offer to stay with a family overnight and resume his journey in the morning. He realizes too late that he should have accepted that offer. Left with no one else to hold responsible but himself, he decides to cover his dying servant with his own body in the back of the carriage, dying in the process but enabling his servant to survive. Like Ivan Ilyich, he travels through different stages before reaching a spiritual epiphany and considering the worth of someone other than himself. The nocturnal cold and the slow, inevitable acquiescence to the harshness of the environment is reminiscent of the equally chilling Jack London tale, "To Build a Fire".
The final story in the collection, the novella "Hadji Murat," take us full circle back to the Caucassus and tells the story of real life Chechen rebel Hadji Murat who, through a chain of circumstances, felt forced to retain his honor by defying the more militant rebel Shamil, who has held Murat's mother, wife and son captive, and defecting to the Russian forces. Murat is constantly aware that he may be placing himself in an untenable situation in which he is not fully trusted by either the Russians or the Chechens. Against this foundation, Tolstoy wanders into the minds of various rebels and Russians, even launching into a tirade against the lecherous and cruel Tsar Nicholas I who prided himself on being against the death penalty while also condemning prisoners to run gauntlets of thousands of blows resulting in certain fatality. Tolstoy lost none of his descriptive powers in the final years of his life. 'Hadji Murat" is as compellingly cinematic as anything he had written previously. My only reservation with the story, as for most of the others in this collection, is that they could all benefit from being fleshed out in greater length. He has the material for several novels here and, while I'm not advocating expanding them to the sizes of his magnum opuses, I feel that they could have been improved by more intensive exploration of the characters and circumstances. The tales race by through successions of characters we don't have enough time to get to know thoroughly before being thrust into another setting. In my view, Tolstoy never reigned in his maximalist tendencies, even in his shorter works. Nonetheless, what we have are still vital and indispensable contributions to a titanic literary career.
I have not read much fiction in recent years but I could not put this book down, and I have been thinking about it a great deal since I finished it.
The thing that makes this a classic (besides its author) is how much the story holds up today. Many of the things that trouble Ivan are the same with Everyman.
The title of "Family Happiness" (1859) is ironic: the novella contests the notion that there ever can be such a thing as family happiness. Written from the perspective of a young woman, Masha, it traces her relationship - romance, marriage, early bliss, subsequent boredom and quarrels, followed by infidelity - with Sergey, nineteen years older than her and a friend of her father's. It was inspired by Tolstoy's own half-hearted courtship of the twenty-year-old daughter of a neighboring landowner; he eventually realized that he did not really love Valeria, but had been pursuing a conventional path to a marriage that could only bring them unhappiness.
The third novella in the volume is "The Kreutzer Sonata" (1889). In it, Pozdnyshev relates the story of his life and how he came to murder his wife to a fellow passenger on a long train journey. Much of it is a diatribe against licentiousness, the display of women's "naked shoulders, arms, almost breasts", the courtship game of Society, birth control, wet nurses, meat, music, etc. Pozdnyshev stabbed his wife in a fit of jealousy, over her friendship (it is unclear whether there was more to it) with a violin player, with whom she played the piano in a recital performance of Beethoven's "The Kreutzer Sonata", which served to exacerbate Pozdnyshev's agitation. It is a powerfully written, gripping novella, but the assorted complaints about prevailing Russian life lose some of their force because they are delivered by a self-confessed "lunatic".
In "Master and Man" from 1895, a greedy merchant (Brekhunov) embarks with a good-natured peasant (Nikita) on a cross-country trip by sledge to buy up a grove of trees at a ridiculously low price. Time is of the essence, so Brekhunov sets out in a blizzard. Through his greed-driven foolishness, he and the faithful Nikita are stranded for the night, lost, in the midst of the howling snowstorm. Brekhunov has a last-minute epiphany concerning the meaning of life, and he redeems himself in melodramatic fashion. "Master and Man" made a huge impression on me when I read it as a teen-ager, but now it strikes me as a little contrived.
Finally, there is the title story, "The Death of Ivan Ilych" (1886). It is the tale of the last weeks of a man in his mid-forties who thought that he had lived his life properly, but comes to realize that it was a shallow, wasted life. Ivan Ilych is Everyman. On one level, the novella is about the fear and acceptance of death. It too features a deathbed epiphany. It is superbly written. I believe it more powerful, better even, than "War and Peace" or "Anna Karenina", both of which I recently read. "The Death of Ivan Ilych" is one of those works that everyone should read in his/her life.
This Signet Classic was in print for about a half century. My copy is the 13th printing, with a cover price of $1.25. Even today a sound used copy can be bought for about the same price. "Family Happiness" is translated by J.D. Duff, the remaining three works by Aylmer Maude. There also is a helpful ten-page Afterword by David Magarshack. It is a volume that belongs in any and every library.