When I saw that Well Read Mom’s first selection for the new season was Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” I might have groaned just a teeny tiny bit. Goodness, another Russian author? I tried to finish WRM’s Spring selection, “The Brothers Karamazov” but with moving twice in four months, I just couldn’t cross the finish line with that 1,000 page haus. It was a great exposure to an iconic work, but man oh man, I had a hard time walking with the “Brothers K.” What I really enjoyed was listening to the audio book. It was terrific. The Russian names, which kind of trip me up when I am reading them, make so much more sense when I “hear” them vs reading it.
I did read Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” a few times, and somehow, Tolstoy’s writing didn’t upend me quite like Dostoyevsky. I trust the foundress of WRM, Marcie Stokman, with my reading to-do list, so I forged ahead.
I am so glad I picked up “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” First, it is substantially shorter than most Russian literature I’ve been exposed to, given that it is a short story. I think it took me just a few hours to read. It is hard to say that I love Ivan Ilych, like I love “Kristin Lavransdatter” or dark chocolate, but it is a must read. (Every dead Russian author has just now collectively rolled in their graves that I compared them to Sigrid Undset and dark chocolate.) The Russians specialize in powerhouse reads, yes? They know just how to cut to the quick, even if they often take a 1,000 page pre-game tour through the land of sin and carnage. When they get to it, they lay us open and expose our weaknesses like my Southern friend, Flannery O’Connor. There’s no wiggling out of this one, Folks. We are all going to die. Maybe Flannery, due to her chronic illness, felt death’s stare just like those in Russia, who were dodging the bullets of Revolution or battling against starvation, oppression, pride, themselves and vodka. Their lives were often either brutally hard or brutally shallow. And there is always the mystical air of Orthodoxy that permeates their culture, reminding them of where they have come, and where they will go back to…
So, I’m not giving anything away here when I say this main character, Ivan….dies. Tolstoy deftly moves through his stages of denial, grief, anger, indignation, all of it. And finally, we witness Ivan’s awful realization that his life was shallow…and he wrestles with that until the end. It is ugly, but necessary. We recognize our own selves, our pettiness, our ambition.
“It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death.”
Ivan’s family and friends all continue to play the game of life in charades, a perfectly orchestrated power struggle of vying for the next important rung on the social ladder. The True Story is revealed to him, and while terrifying, there lies his freedom at last. I was touched by the way Tolstoy uses Ivan’s young son as the innocent, the one who’s authentic grief and love accompany Ivan ever so briefly. There is no gore in this story, no scary medical scene, but you follow Ivan’s devastating inner turmoil throughout. I appreciate that it’s never melodramatic in a cheap way…the Russians don’t write cheap lit.
Friends, be brave, be fearless, pick up Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” It will stick to you like grace, because that’s what the Holy Spirit does. He works through authors like Tolstoy to get us thinking about our own lives, our own well lived journey. The ending of our story can be affected by the reading of this story.
Come back and tell me what you think.