The story obviously evolves around Ivan Ilyich who you discover is dead in the first couple of paragraphs. Then the rest of the book is about the back-story and his life, which seems to be very successful in terms of work, mixed on the marriage front because he drifts apart from his wife and his children don’t seem to care very much for him. After losing out in the promotion race Ilyich heads off to Petersburg to get a better job and gets one. He gets a house ready for his family and while hanging curtains falls and hits his side, which becomes the source of all of his future troubles. As he starts to slide towards death he struggles to understand why it is happening to him and has to conclude that he is being punished for the life he has lead. His personal revelation doesn’t seem to be shared by anyone else and he dies alone and in a great deal of pain.
Is it well written?
Because of the title and the opening page you realise the subject of the book dies so you are waiting to find out what the story is about wondering if he is a victim of jealous rivals or some other plot. But it turns out that the real battle is with his own past and in the end he loses that realising that his life has been going in the wrong direction. Tolstoy keeps you waiting until near the very end to discover how things will play themselves out and for a 106 page book that is a real achievement. He crams in tension and emotion that other novelists would need three or four times the same space to get the message across.
Should it be read?
The beauty of the story once it gets past the start where numerous Russian names are thrown around it settles down to a pretty limited cast and then it focuses in on Ivan. As a book that is thought provoking it is pretty hard to beat and as a read that has a depth that is much more than its page length. At 106 pages what really is stopping you from knocking this off in a very short space of time?
Other Tolstoy books have the reputation of being very long so it might be a bit of a jump from this to War and Peace but that same detailed characterisation on display in Ivan is also in that book but writ large and there is also Anna Karenina, which will also provoke a range of emotions caused purely by brilliant characterisation.
Version read – penguin paperback red