The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
We learned Tolstoy’s mother was a princess, and Leo was a count. He joined the Army as a “junker” – junior officer that is somewhat of a gopher. Jack pointed out that the 12 chapters are subdivided into three groups of four: the first four are his journey through Life; the next four are his diagnosis and struggle with the concept of Death; the last four is his dying and finally, accepting death. “Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t go to other people’s funerals, they won’t come to yours.” With that in mind, several readers came to pay their first respects:
Bob Simon: I give this book an A-, my usual grade for a well-written book. This is the first Russian novel I have read, and I enjoyed it. The first 40 years provided insight into the Russian legal profession.
Dick Arms: When I started this book was a B – short, depressing – but very well written. It moved up to an A. It was interesting to me that this short book engendered so much discussion. We are all concerned with our own death. I have not ever read any Tolstoy before. A
Kenny G: Although I thought it was well-written, at my age it was depressing. B+
Charlie: I give it an A; I think of it more and more. This is an emotional issue; it eats away at you like a pain in your side. This business about Death is depressing and the book is A.
Bob Woods: A- Profound, philosophical; could have been a lot shorter.
Jack F: I agree with everyone else. The theme interest is a function of our age. Challenging, worthwhile, A
Mike: I appreciate the insight of the discussion. I found some repetition in the last few chapters, when Ivan was dying, which was highly distracting. I found it amazing that Tolstoy (even translated) could describe and discuss the banality of life, e.g., choosing the decorations for the apartment, and make it interesting, even compelling. A-
Tom G: A- as a novella, I agree with the comments that the book was insightful with respect to the people surrounding Ivan. I didn’t think about the translator, it didn’t bother me. Some beautiful language, e.g., re Ivan’s sad marriage: “There remained only those rare periods of amorousness which still came to them at times but did not last long. These were islets at which they anchored for awhile and then set out upon that ocean of veiled hostility which showed itself in their aloofness from one another.”
Dick J: I did not look forward to reading this after War & Peace. One night after dinner I started into it, and I found I really got into it. I didn’t understand the image of the black sack and the light until our discussion. A-
Ron Bousek: I have a joke and a poem. The joke: a priest, a lawyer, and an engineer are sentenced to death by guillotine. The priest says “I want to die looking up to heaven.” … The engineer looks up, and says, “Hey, I think I see your problem!” The book we read has the tone of this poem: “Unknown Citizen” by W. H. Auden.
I liked this book. It reads relevantly even though it was written so many years ago – dealing with bureaucrats happened to me. Good read: A
Keith: I enjoyed it also. Not only its brevity but also a subject we don’t often discuss. Like a girl in a mini-skirt, there may not be much material there, but there is plenty to talk about, viz.: the foibles of death – its inevitability.
Nabokov: The Tolstoyan formula is: Ivan lived a bad life and since the bad life is nothing but the death of the soul, then Ivan lived a living death; and since beyond death is God's living light, then Ivan died into a new life – Life with a capital L." A-