Thursday, April 7, 2016

Book 9a of 2016: "The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Leo Tolstoy


Why is a story about the life and death of a middle-aged, middle class, mid-career, mid-19th Century Russian bureaucrat on a 21st Century American Military Blog?  I'll tell you.

First, Leo Tolstoy was a soldier.  He served on the front lines in the brutal Crimean War near Sevastopol in some of the heaviest fighting.

Second, I am a soldier.  So I react to stories as a soldier.  And what I read is what at least one soldier reads.

Third, this time is my fifth reading of this wonderful story since I first read it in 1983.  It gave me a vivid picture of how suffering can be good and a haunting picture of what death can mean.

Soldiers face suffering and death as part of their job, but this story is not just an acknowledgement of that fact, it is a meditation on both.

Now to the story.

"The Death of Ivan Ilych" opens at Ivan's funeral.  In a scene only a career soldier or other government bureaucrat could appreciate, we first meet Ivan's best friend.  He is scheming about how to leave the funeral as quickly as possible and get to a card game.  At the card game, the discussion is about the vacancy left by Ivan's death.  Who gets Ivan's job?  And what of the vacancy left when someone moves into Ivan's position?

At the funeral Ivan's grieving widow begins wheedling and scheming to be sure she gets as many benefits as possible now that her husband is dead.

In the military, the best plan for advancement is to volunteer for leadership in the most dangerous jobs.  Lots of vacancies open up.  And the ambitious soldiers will speak quite matter-of-factly about who gets the next rung up the ladder of success when a vacancy opens.

After this tragic-comic opening of the story. We get a brief biography of Ivan.  He is ambitious, moderately successful, and strives to be correct in everything.  Just as he achieves a big promotion and prominent success, he falls ill and his life unravels.  In the final days of his suffering, he is cared for a selfless servant named Gerasim.  The care Gerasim gives him and the wrenching suffering push Ivan to question whether he lived as he should, and at the end, reject the life he lead.

Many fans of Tolstoy and scholars think "The Death of Ivan Ilych" is the best of Tolstoy's huge body of work.  I have read "Anna Karenina," "War and Peace," and many of Tolstoy's short stories and remain convinced that "The Death of Ivan Ilych" is his best work.

For those who know of my love for Dante's Divine Comedy, you know I can tell you the relative merits of each of the seven translations I have read.  The same is true of Bible translations.  Richmond Lattimore's New Testament is the best translation available in English.

Not so much with Ivan Ilych.  I like the translation I just read by Pevear and Volokhonsky, but I was not bothered by other translations.  So get a cheap copy on Amazon and read the best of a very great writer.