‘The Death and Ivan Ilyich’ by Leo Tolstoy

Terror, humour, pathos, anguish, illumination: a full – and wondrous – house! Ivan Ilych, forty-five-years-old, leads a seemingly “straightforward, ordinary” life. He’s pursued “the path of duty” assiduously – a promotion to the Court of Justice (“all that mattered was five thousand a year”), “chit-chat with colleagues”, dinners, evenings spent playing whist. Small disturbances – the animosity between husband and wife; the cool relationships with his daughter and son – are put to one side. Afterall, the delights of Ivan Ilych’s working life demand his full attention. “The knowledge of the power that he wielded,” Tolstoy deftly explains, opening up a knowing distance between narrator and subject, “the possibility of ruining anyone that he fancied ruining, the gravitas (even if it was all outward show)…all of this gave him pleasure.” Then the swift – barely noticeable – turn of the cogs: Ilych falls awkwardly from a ladder in the drawing room of the family’s fashionable new home (notice the moment the accident happens: he is demonstrating to a “dull-witted” upholsterer how to hang draperies – more concern with “outward show”). A bruise appears; Ivan Ilych is wrong to be unconcerned. During the next thirty-nine pages, Tolstoy anatomises – while simultaneously inhabiting (the extraordinary intensity and mobility of the characterisation feels as much rooted in the author’s body as his mind) the dying man’s loneliness, his memories (my favourite passages include those hyper-charged visions which arrive from childhood) his terrors and regrets. As Ivan Ilych approaches the end, the tumults of his physical suffering intersect with a desperate and terrible moral awakening: “What,” the dying man wonders, his kindly servant Gerasim sleeping peacefully at his side, “if I’ve really been wrong in the way I’ve lived my whole life?”  

(p.s. see also ‘This is Water’, David Foster Wallace’s address to Kenyon College in 2005)

First published in Russian, 1886. Widely available in translation, including as a Penguin Classic, 2006, and online, including here

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