Book Of A Lifetime: The Death of Ivan Ilyich, By Leo Tolstoy

Why The Death of Ivan Ilyich? Initially, because every recommended reading list pushed on me by teachers included Anna Karenina, which was long, whereas The Death of Ivan Ilyich was short. Why not check off Tolstoy in a sitting? The death part didn't sound enticing, but the author, supposedly, was an essential Dead White Guy if I was to hobnob impressively, someday, with fellow adults. Ivan Ilyich looked like the opposite of War and Peace (which is literally 25 times longer), and my crisp, quick ticket to at least a modicum of Tolstoyan literacy, provided I could endure the subject matter for an hour or two, after which I would go back to life as a teenager.

The subject matter, it turned out, wasn't complicated, and neither was the prose. Ivan Ilyich, a judge, married, with two children, dies at the age of 45 after much suffering, reflection, and self-recrimination, and after considerable indictment by Tolstoy.

Ivan Ilyich is self-satisfied, opportunistic, shallow, grasping, dull, cold - in short, despicable - and Tolstoy presents him with no stylistic flourishes. In stern, spare, ironic tones, he prompts us to look closely and in condemnation at this man, and then, gradually and with gathering force, he induces not just our sympathy but our identification with him.

The irony is established at the outset. Ivan Ilyich's colleagues, on hearing of his death, begin immediately to think "of what effect it would have on their own transfers and promotions or those of their acquaintances".

Soon they're jockeying to prevent its formalities from detaining them from a scheduled game of whist. Everywhere is vacuousness and vapidity, everywhere the illusions and entertainments that get us from here to the grave.

But not quite. For in the midst of his "proper, socially acceptable life", Ivan Ilyich slips from a stepladder and bangs his side "against the knob of a window frame." So begins his fall from grace and, as his dying proceeds, his awakening.

As death subsumes him - day by day, hour by hour, and minute by minute, in Tolstoy's depiction - he's forced to confront the truth about himself. Finally, with seconds left to live, he "catches sight of the light".

It's revealed to him that though his life has "not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified". At death, it becomes clear to Ivan Ilyich that "what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides...'So that's what it is!'" he exclaims. "'What joy!'"

Harrowing as this novella is, it's also moving - at least to me - beyond words. It was moving, too, when I read it at 18: an age so often the height of delusion, when invincibility can seem a birthright. I was pierced, and I was seized, too, by the power of literature, and by the prospect of its engagement with my life.

David Guterson's new novel is 'Ed King' (Bloomsbury)

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot