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Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories gives us recent translations of 11 of Leo Tolstoy’s poignant short stories by the two most renowned Russian translators today, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

The stories collected in this book, following an illuminating introduction by Pevear, include “The Diary of a Madman,” “The Kreutzer Sonata,” and “Hadji Murat,” which literary critic Harold Bloom has called “the best story in the world.” And, of course, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” a work of such insightful criticism of our modern consumer culture that we shouldn’t be able to stomach upper-middle class values in quite the same way after reading it.

This new translation is like a fine olive oil — it goes down smoothly, but leaves a biting, toothsome, lingering impression. Pevear and Volokhonsky imbue Tolstoy’s brilliance with great poetry — consider this description: “dead-man fashion, his stiffened limbs sunk into the lining of the coffin.”

But they are also not afraid to write directly and simply if this is what Tolstoy wanted. Pevear and Volokhonsky know how to use bluntness to great effect, such as saying the death of his two children made family life “still more unpleasant for Ivan Ilyich.”

As the title reminds us, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is ultimately about death, or rather in what way life should be lived considering that we all must face the leveling truth of our own deaths. Ilyich feels strongly the inharmoniousness of death existing within life; it should not be, it is terrifying, yet there it is. This is perhaps the best account in literature of the physiological and psychological panic man feels when facing his own death.

In “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Tolstoy makes his caustic yet sympathetic critique of modern man’s avoidance of death, and how this aversion gives our lives less meaning than they deserve. From the moment that Ilyich’s friend, upon hearing of Ilyich’s death, wonders if he might now receive a promotion, Tolstoy shows us that he is writing a piece of cultural criticism. As Tolstoy writes, “…the very fact of the death of a close acquaintance called up in all those who heard of it, as always, a feeling of joy that it is he who was dead and not I.”

Tolstoy’s most profound criticism is not in noting that we as individuals react to death in selfish, materialistic, and fearful ways, but that the very nature of our modern society almost requires us to gloss over the reality of death. In the eyes of the world, Ilyich was the epitome of success. Yet, at the end of his life, Ilyich realizes that all his chasing after financial and social success left him with absolutely no wisdom for coming to terms with death, and no time to have lived an examined life. Ultimately, the values of society left Ilyich with nothing of any true worth, with no idea of what his life should be. Society’s deceptive and absurd norms force us to become strangers from life and, eventually, death (both our own and others’).

Tolstoy’s brilliance in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is his ability to turn a critical eye on the most pervasive yet most dehumanizing aspects of his, and our, society. His characters are not “bad,” they are just average, devoid of empathy and imagination. Yet, this is an unforgivable sin in Tolstoy’s world, as it should be in our own. The indifference with which Ilyich’s doctor treats him is no different from the incomprehension with which Ilyich treated the many who passed through his court during his career as a judge. The isolation of modernity, the inability to recognize that other people’s lives are as significant as our own, is society’s greatest ill, Tolstoy reminds us.

After waking up to the shocking revelation that his life up to his death has been meaningless, Ilyich finally realizes a moment of redemption. He thinks, “And suddenly, it became clear to me that all this should not exist. Not only that it should not exist, but that it does not exist, and if this does not exist, then there is no death or fear, and the former rending in me is no more, and I am no longer afraid of anything. Here the light shown fully upon me, and I became what I am.”

As Tolstoy well knew, the manner in which we choose to face death determines mightily the ways in which we are able to face life. It is as though Tolstoy here is Heidegger in literary clothes, reminding us that only by facing our ownmost death can we hope to live an authentic life. Ilyich glimpses the joy of an authentic life at the very end of the story — Tolstoy, by warning his reader of the dangers of living an unawakened life, hopes we can experience more than a few brief minutes of this joy.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, as translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, is a beautiful and resonating contribution to the great discussion that is world literature. By definition, this makes it a necessary read, for literature is a tool for giving meaning to our lives, which we too often, like Ivan Ilyich, pass through mindlessly. Tolstoy is a storyteller, but he is also a philosopher, and he does not fear to ask life’s hardest questions. Yet, his empathy with his characters saves us from feeling as though he is making a mockery of our modern lives. But, Tolstoy believes we must go against the grain and actually ponder what the value of our lives can be when they will ultimately end in death, if we are to find any meaning in a society that has taken so much of it away from us.

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