The Death of Ivan Ilych

This is my first read of the Back to the Classics, 2019. This is also one of the books I’m reading with Kim. As you see, I read this in Spanish. I’ve had this book since 1993, when I bought it and read it for the first time. No wonder I didn’t remember having read it!

Notice how in Spanish we write Ilich and Tolstoi, while in English it’s Ilych and Tolstoy. Why?, I don’t know. Please tell if you do.

This is my pick for the novella category of the challenge. As it happens, this is a truly short book, 86 pages approximately. My book is 188 pages, and since it only has this title on the cover, I thought all the 188 were The Death of Ivan Ilych. It’s not, it’s three short stories in one, the other two are The Devil, and Father Sergius, which I may may end up reading as well.

It’s a powerful novella. What can I say about Tolstoy, having only read Anna Karenina once, and this short story? It’s my intention to pick War and Peace as my long novel. Maybe for 2020? And I can add that this short read reminded me why I’m one of the millions of readers who loves the inextinguishable and inexhaustible Russian literature genre. My reading year is always a better year when I read the Russians. I guess I’m finding out why last year my reads were not as satisfying and exciting as the year before, -I didn’t read any books by Russian authors-.

This year has had a fabulous beginning. The books I am finishing in January which I started in 2018, were amazing. This first pick was superb. (I can’t think of the last book Kim and I read that we both, -or one of us-, didn’t like. I must say that if we start one we don’t like, we quit. So, yes, we’ve abandoned two books, Silence by Endo, and To the Lighthouse, by Woolf. I’m supposed to be reviewing The Death of Ivan Ilych, -ahem-, but if you want to know why I quit these books, you can ask me in the comments.

The questions of what’s a happy life like, a successful life, an honorable life, -and are those inclusive or exclusive?-, what’s a life worth living, are all explored in depth in just a few pages. And the themes of perspective, time, childhood, adulthood, marriage, love, taking care of the sick, the inconvenience of dying. Pain. To tell you more would not be fair. At 86 pages, and with free access in the public domain and in many different languages, what are you waiting for?

13 thoughts on “The Death of Ivan Ilych

    1. True. It’s dark and shocking.

      Hahaha. To the Lighthouse was rubbing ME wrong at the time. I could not read anything with a married couple, and with those sad and existential notes. Her style demands we dive into it, and I didn’t want to. It’s too close thematically, and too far away ideologically for me to enjoy it.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Somehow I missed this post! Weird…..

    I haven’t read The Death of Ivan Ilych but I did read War and Peace last year. I didn’t care for it. I can see that it’s a well-written book, but I just couldn’t engage with it. It became a slog to get through too. But I finished it! I did also read The Duel by Anton Chekov last year and really liked it. Have you read that one yet? It is also a novella. I started reading The Brothers Karamazov back towards the latter part of 2017 I think, and still haven’t finished it. It was also hard for me to plow through. However, it was also my first time attempting to read a Russian author/novel. And I think that had I started with a shorter Russian work, like maybe The Duel, I would have been able to engage more with The Brothers Karamazov. The story is certainly is dramatic. I think primarily my struggle with The Brothers Karamazov was that I just wasn’t used to some of the stylistic characteristics of Russian novels….mainly the use of numerous names for one person. And having one person being referred to with different names at different times really threw me off and made it harder for me to engage with the book. Now, having read two more Russian works, I think I could go back and re-read The Brothers Karamazov and probably enjoy it much more. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting, -your journey with the Russians-. I know as a young person I read Chekhov, but I don’t remember. I may even have seen one of his plays at the theater in Madrid. Oh, well, I must read some of his stories. Don’t get into a long Russian book you don’t care for. Find the one you click with. (There’s more). I started with Crime and Punishment, -which reads faster than Brothers Karamazov-. I’d recommend Solzhenitsyn, his short books first. And if you read a longish one, sometimes is best to have a companion to keep motivated. (I did that with BK, I read it with Kim).


      1. You should give The Duel by Chekhov a try then. It’s pretty short. I’d love to hear what you think of it! I would even read it again if you wanted to read it at some point. 🙂

        I did read War and Peace with my book club, so I read it with 3 other people. But it wasn’t a read-along like what you are doing with Don Quixote on your blog. So we all just read the whole novel individually and then discussed it. Maybe…..MAYBE…..I might have liked War and Peace better or at least engaged with it more if I’d been able to do a read-along for it like what you have been doing with Don Quixote. I do think I want to give The Brothers Karamazov a try again though. I only have like 1/4 of the book left so I don’t know if I just want to finish it or just start all over again. I’m learning towards starting all over again. Either way, it will have to wait for now because once I finish Don Quixote, I’ve got to get started on Anna Karenina. You wouldn’t consider a read-along for that would you? *BIG SMILE*

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I will give Chekhov a try. (I have some of his short stories, and maybe that one, The Duel, is among them. I’ll go and check. It’s possible you’d have liked W&P better, but it’s also possible that the content and characters weren’t your thing, though, as I can tell by you finishing it, I know you appreciate having finished it, and the fact that it was well written. I may read a summary and read that last 1/4 of Brothers Karamazov, -since the end wraps it all nicely, in my opinion-. I’d consider AK read along, but not this year, ha ha ha. If you are already committed to read it this year, go for it. I believe it’s more readable, and there may be characters you like in the book. But I know, long books are maybe nicer with a few others, or one companion, and someone who can tell us what we are reading, or how to look or what to look for while reading.


      3. Yes, I definitely appreciate having finished War and Peace. Just no desire to ever read it again. Ha!

        Regarding Anna Karenina, yes I have to read it this year as it is one of the books one of my IRL bookclub ladies picked. I want to read it ahead of time and be able to take my time with it because if I try to read it quickly, I think that has the potential to make my reading experience of the book less than ideal. 🙂 I think these longer books really are nice read with a read-along like what you are doing on your blog here…where you can read a little bit at a time and read others thoughts and discuss it. You add so much insight with your posts. It has really enhanced my reading experience with this book. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this on your blog!

        Liked by 2 people

      4. If you didn’t pick a lot of long classics back to back, you will do great. AK doesn’t have a lot of digressions, lol, I found them well paced, and I hope the story will give you much to discuss. Have you thought about a couple of emails to the ladies before book club day?(Maybe a couple of emails with some open ended questions, or thoughts on the first and second third of the book, to invite them to succinctly write down a few thoughts for a more lively conversation). And anytime a reader is willing to guide us just a bit throughout a long book, it’s easier to stay the course, and hopefully, more enjoyable. I am truly thankful to hear that from you, Kim, and all the others. It’s exciting to me to know you are reading my musings.


  2. I have to laugh — you’ve almost shamed me into reading Death of Ivan Ilych — I want to rush over to the bookcase and grab my mouldering copy (I’ve had it for a very, very long time)! It’s such a great choice for the novella category of the Challenge; perhaps I’ll switch to it (I had thought to read Stevenson’s The Beach at Falesa, since I seem to be on a European colonial binge at the moment).
    I agree with you about Russian lit — there’s a depth and profundity there that’s hard to match. Many years ago I went on a Russian mini-binge, reading a few of the major novels (War & Peace, Crime & Punishment & Brothers Karamazov) but haven’t ventured much beyond them. I considering re-reading W&P this year for the Challenge (I had really liked it one time; tried a later re-read and didn’t get far; wasn’t in the mood) but quite honestly didn’t feel that 2019 was a Russian classic kind of year for me, if you know what I mean. At the very least, I think I’ll try to squeeze Ivan in, if possible (I’m starting back on art history classes next week and I’m not sure how much energy/time I’ll have).


    1. A Russian mini-binge, ha ha ha. There’s nothing mini in it. I can also see how a second read of W&P didn’t appeal to you. When I was young, (I’m using this preface way so often lately, :), my friends and I truly read the Russians. I don’t know if it started as a show off kind of thing, but I got to The Gambler, by D. and Crime and Punishment. Last year, (with Kim, huh), we took on Brothers Karamazov, -I shouldn’t say Brothers K for short, since that’s a different book, another family saga longish one, but more modern-, and it went well. We both enjoyed the book, and found it faster pace reading than we had expected.

      The same than Ilych, I know as a young person I read Chejov, (which in English you call Chekhov?), but it was so long ago, that I forgot. I don’t want to convince you to change the novella to this. In truth, I’d love if you read it, selfishly, I’d enjoy your review of it, or your spontaneous thoughts, anything. But you can inflict more good reading on me, seriously, if you end up reading Stevenson, -author that I enjoy and whose title, The Beach at Falesa, I didn’t know about-, I may end up reading that one myself. It’ll always be a win win.

      If this is not your Russian year, -European colonial is such a good category-, ignore this, but if you ever try to get into Russian lit, try something more contemporary. After my twenties, in my late thirties, the book that took me back to the Russians was Cancer Ward, a recommendation by a friend. It seems a bit less historical, still political, but less dissertation style, and more embedded in the story. (The ward is a microcosm that brings people from the whole Russian spectrum together because of their illness). I found it more dynamic, (I guess the author being closer to us gives us a bit of an advantage). I’ve placed Solzhenitsyn’s short stories in my Back to Classics pile, (we can, if we read a book with several in full, and it’s book length). He’s too good to resist.

      And I forgot you talked about your art history classes. Enjoy and forget about the rest, -but remember, 86 pages of depressed thoughts, nagging and darkness… sounds irresistible, right? (And yet Tolstoy may very well be the precursor of existentialism in this novella. It’s very thought provoking. It has a mystery quality too, that keeps you reading until, “wow, I’m done”, and then you spend that day, and your week, and probably the whole month, thinking about this man, his life, and his death, and begging others to read it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It takes a major health crisis to send this dude into an existential tailspin, full of remorse and the regret of missing out on the best things of life. Hell, it didn’t take health scare to persuade me that death could come anytime to anybody anywhere. I was jogging and this teenage girl jumped out of a car and let me have it with a super soaker hydro cannon. On one hand it felt good to be cooled off while jogging. On the other hand, I realized given our mean streets in post-industrial hell-holes, it could easily have been a real gun and I would be the victim of random senseless thrill killing. Who needs to read Tolstoy when teenage girls with squirt guns go on a rampage?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. I am laughing but not completely sure about how to feel. These are crazy times, so, sure, we don’t need Tolstoy to be our detonator, hahaha.

      Now that more time has passed, I recognize in him that admiration for the ideal (or maybe real) type of the honest servant, and he surely is always hinting and hitting at the asperities of marriage, and how out of place illness leaves us.


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