The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
A carefree Russian official has what seems to be a trivial accident.
Russian literature is both feared and underrated; I have been guilty of both in my time. It’s untrue; completely untrue - the truth is Russian literature is masterful. I am yet to find a Russian novel that didn’t throw me around with its satire, commentary, and genius.
Even so, I underestimated this one from the beginning. I didn’t expect The Death of Ivan Ilyich to be a satirical look at elite society, an immoral display of artificiality, and a pure message to just live your life.
Ivan Ilyich is a respected professional, flying high in society. He lives as his peers would expect him to, furnishes his home in the way everyone else in high society does, and behaves exactly the same as everyone else. After an accident, and a long illness, he finds himself staring Death in the face, and is forced to examine his life and how he truly lived. His transformation was incredible.
My favourite of Tolstoy’s manoeuvres here was his clever use of structure to ring the death knell. Beginning the novel with the death itself, and transporting us back in time to witness the accident renders the death inevitable from the beginning. He describes the years of Ivan Ilyich’s life as a young man spanning several chapters, yet after the accident, speeds things along remarkably, even starting chapters with lines such as “A fortnight passed,” hurtling us towards the irrevocable outcome powerlessly. In addition, the twelve chapters each become shorter and shorter as we progress, creating a chronological claustrophobia, and working nicely with the way Tolstoy begins to sprint through Ivan Ilyich’s remaining days. Death is almost here, he says, and we feel each of Ivan Ilyich’s regrets and remonstrations keenly.
I found some factors here reminiscent of A Christmas Carol, and was delighted to learn afterwards that Tolstoy was a huge Dickens fan. It’s likely he’s taken some inspiration from the famous tale of Scrooge - I love the thought of this.
Another wonderful addition to the Little Black Classics range. I will continue my crusade of Russian literature promotion and dispelling of fears. Absolutely gorgeous.