Beginning, as it does, with the death of Ivan Ilyich, you wouldn’t think there was much left to say but Leo Tolstoy’s novella, The Death Of Ivan Ilyich, then winds the narrative back to an earlier part of the character’s life and lets it unravel from there.
Ivan Ilyich is a high court judge with a wife and family who takes a fall one day whilst hanging curtains, and from there a curious illness befalls him that no amount of doctors can properly diagnose. All they are in mutual agreement of is that his condition is terminal, although they prefer not to tell him this and insist that their treatments will one day have him walking again. The diagnosis forces Ilyich to consider his own mortality and to understand why he should die:
In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it.
The novella, after the announcement of Ilyich’s death, returns to his earlier years and follows him from his youth to deathbed as he appraises all that he has done and who he has become - a man for whom his family plays second fiddle to his career, a man who believes himself always to be right.
After a time, the novella spends more time looking at Ilyich’s malady and its effect on his life. He goes from being an active man to one reduced to lying on a sofa, soothed only by the imbibing of opium and the purity of his servant, Gerasim, who seems to be the only one that truly cares for him. And from their he wonders what he has done in his life to deserve such suffering, why he should die. His understanding of mortality is severely misunderstood:
All his life the syllogism he had learned from Kiesewetter’s logic - Julius Caesar is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caesar is mortal - had always seemed to him to be true only when it applied to Caesar.
Tolstoy’s prose (at least in translation) is quick paced; the philosophical statements are made, but not dwelled on more than need be. The narrative, however, did feel too light for me in that it was more a catalogue of events which never truly allowed me into the scene, to get to know the characters better. That said, it felt like the characters were secondary to the ultimate point of the novella: a meditation on death. On the nature of death.
The Death Of Ivan Ilyich bears much in common with Philip Roth’s latest novel,Everyman, in that it’s a study of ailments leading to death for the main character. I much preferred Roth’s treatment (perhaps because it lingered more the characters) but can appreciate Tolstoy’s obvious inspiration, and wish I’d now read them in reverse order. But overall, a worthwhile read, which leaves you like Ivan Ilyich: asking questions you can’t answer.