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Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog front… I’ve been trying to write a story, which not only takes time, but brings on all sorts of angst as you move from initial joyous moment of inspiration through dark despair at ever being able to get things down on paper the way you envisaged it.

It doesn’t help when you take a break and read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories and feel nothing but hopeless inferiority beside it.

I’ve never read any Tolstoy before, but had been interested to read Ivan Ilyich since seeing it used to illustrate some points about Existentialism (by Thomas E Wartenberg, another good book).

Thomas E Wartenberg makes the point that although most Existentialists were atheists, it was possible to be both religious and Existentialist, and it’s interesting that Tolstoy went through a religious conversion after writing War and Peace and Anna Karenina, to an odd kind of Christianity, which wasn’t exactly the same as the Christianity of the Orthodox church.

The four stories in the book are presented in chronological order.  The first, Family Happiness, was written in 1859, before War and Peace.  It is a sumptuous examination of an eighteen year old orphan and her infatuation with and marriage to a thirty year old man.  I found it quite astonishing that Tolstoy, never having been an eighteen year old orphan, was able to get so convincingly inside the mind of his character, right down to the awful misconceptions about the world and relationships that I remember having at that age and are so embarrassing to look back on that I don’t think I could even bring myself to talk about them in public.

The second story, Ivan Ilyich, was written just after Tolstoy’s conversion and it’s brilliant, generally considered his best short story.  It stars with the announcement of the death of Ivan Ilyich, then works through his illness and life.  I’d describe it as a bit of a horror story with a three pronged attack: firstly describing our (for the most part) indifference to any random individual’s death, compared with the business of our own living.  Secondly the loneliness of being the one trapped inside a dying body.  And finally, the most terrifying of all, the question of whether we will be content at the end of our lives that we have lived it as we should have done, or whether we will think that we got it all wrong.

The brilliance of the story lies in the unremarkability of the characters – we are invited to think about we could be Ivan, or any of the observers of his death.

The third and fourth stories, The Kreutzer Sonata and The Devil, are works from 1889.   It’s hard to know what to say about them; they come across as slightly maniacal in the condemnation and terror that the principal characters feel in their obsession with the temptations of women and sex.  They possess a certain intensity, but when placed directly after Ivan Ilyich, I found them a bit disappointing.

They are also not as interesting as talking about the Notting Hill Carnival, which I went to on Sunday 🙂

A friend organised it as his birthday jaunt and it was the best day out I’ve had in ages.

No pictures, because it was a very messy sort of a day, with more than a dozen of us trying to get through thick crowds while not trying to lose each other, and the inevitable queuing for toilets after lots of drinking in the park didn’t help.

It did make me think how strange it was that if we had all just walked through the streets, had a bit of a dance, and then left again, it wouldn’t have been such fun!  It was the staying together through thick and thin that made it so memorable (bearing in mind that most of us didn’t know each other, so it was very bonding!).  Although it did remind me a bit of a slasher movie, where every so often someone would go, “Where’s X??  Where’s Y??” and we’d realise that we’d lost a few more of our party.  And then we’d shrug and push on to our destination.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, writ large.




  1. Rachael

    I’m going to see if Kindle has that ……… I need a good existential read. I’m very existenialistic when I am in the throes of the Black Dog. Me and Kakfa become best friends then ……..

    • Hope the company of II helps. On one level, they had a very odd way of living back then and all seemed to have got married and done all sorts of other things for very odd reasons. I don’t know if that is just Tolstoy.

  2. Interesting post, Denise, going from Tolstoy to Notting Hill! Wasn’t the Death of Ivan Ilyich a play? I think it might have been. And please, don’t set yourself against Tolstoy in your own writings – just write and have fun with it. Pitching yourself against a classic author is setting the bar way too high!

    • OK, I see what you’re saying – not just one of the best writers ever, but one of his best stories.

      Thanks for sense of perspective regained, Jenny 🙂

  3. Oh lovely i’m sure your story is fab, comparing ourselves to Tolstoy would be fatal for even the best writer!

    Glad you had fun at the Carnival! I haven’t been in years but always had a great time 🙂

    • One of our party had kids with them… actually the newborn was fine, in a sling, but it was hard work for them with the other. I was thinking of how difficult it would have been taking mine, especially LD #1.

      Was a lot more fun than I was even expecting it to be!

  4. Glad you had such a fun day out, I did laugh at your comment about it reminding you of a slasher film, so funny that 😉 Hope your writing progresses well despite the blips…

    • Facebooked one of my poor slashed friends the other day. Poor girl had got totally separated from all in the party and wandered around a bit, then just went home. That would have been horrible and I’d have been so disappointed if that had happened to me. We’ll have to do it again next year and take better care of her next year.

  5. I didn’t think I knew this, but as I read on realised that I have come across The Kreutzer Sonata somewhere, probably in an anthology. If you haven’t read anything else by Tolstoy do try and find the time to read at Least Anna Karenina; it is worth the effort.

    • AK is next on my list. I have bought it, but lost it somewhere around the house. 😦 I hope it surfaces when I move.

  6. kateatthekeyboard

    Sounds interesting! I really need to read some Tolstory. Every year I say I’m going to tackle War and Peace and then put it off, it just seems like such a commitment, so perhaps it would be better to start with something like this.

    I’ve not been to the Notting Hill Carnival but it is something I’d like to do – it seems to be quite the experience!

    Good luck with the writing!

    • Oh yes, definitely definitely this is a good alternative to War and Peace! I have Anna K waiting to be read but would be very surprised if I ever had the time in my life to read W&P.

  7. I love how you talk about your writing your story. Then take a “break” and read Tolstoy. I also like how you describe the crowd in the rain as bonding. Reminded me of the movie “Blade Runner”, starring Daryl Hannah!

    • There is a lot of displacement activity going on in the house while I near the end of my story… running, reading, blogging.

      Must… get… over… the last few words.

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