Author of AGAINST A DARKENING SKY, THE EMPTY ROOM, OUR DAILY BREAD, and others. Find out more at www.LaurenBDavis.com. I read as if my sanity depended upon it.. . . oh, wait, it does! Snort.
Tolstoy. Need I say more? Probably not, but I'll try.
Having recently read NOTHING TO BE FRIGHTENED OF by Julian Barnes, I needed something to raise me from the depths of depression. At first glance, perhaps Tolstoy's story of the life and death of Ivan Ilyich wouldn't be everyone's first choice, but since I had read it many years earlier and found it deeply moving, but by no means sentimental, I knew I was in good hands.
Reading this novella in middle age, rather than as a young person, is a much deeper and nuanced experience, although I advise everyone to read it, regardless of age, and to read it over and over again.
Tolstoy wrote the book shortly after his conversion to Christianity and the writing of it appears to have been his way of exploring his own new understanding of the meaning of life and death.
The story opens with acquaintances of Ivan Ilych learning of his death, and each wondering how the death might affect them. It's a small and petty and selfish opening, and reflects the world Tolstoy felt he was living in. Ivan himself is a cartoonish ordinary government functionaire. His life has been uneventful. He has done what has been expected of him. He has accomplished a middle road -- neither rising too high nor falling too low. Marrying, having children, but not caring very much about the people in his life. Indeed, the marriage has grown increasingly unhappy over the years. He plays bridge. He seeks money. He is, in short, as petty and as small minded as everyone else.
He is easy to identify with. Well enough off financially. Satisfied, more or less. MIddle class. MIddle aged. Unromantic. Appallingly normal. The first half of the work is told in narrative summary, which further serves to distance the reader, to make the character seem both unimportant and more a 'type' than a true personality.
And then, while undertaking (pardon the pun) a small domestic task, he has a tumble. It doesn't seem like much, but it begins the end of his life and the journey becomes a portrait of all human fear, alienation, desire, loneliness, dread and hope. It is precise and profound and so perfectly written and constructed that the reader cannot help but confront his or her own mortality. The questions of life's purpose and meaning and of forgiveness and mercy are unavoidable both for Ivan and the reader.
Regardless of where one falls on the faith spectrum, this is a work of the utmost importance. The conclusions each of us come to at the end of the novella -- just as at the end of our lives -- will be different, but the significance of the questions, the process, the glimpse into one's final moments, is invaluable.
Every library should include a copy of The Death of Ivan Ilyich, every serious reader should read it, at least once.