With the Winter Olympics taking place in Sochi the past two weeks, it’s a good time to reflect on the fact that some of the world’s best novelists come from Russia. As my friends and I watched the opening ceremony we cheered at the reference to Dostoyevsky and melted over the ballet reenactment from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Because whatever else you want to say about Mother Russia, her writers are fantastic.
But Russian novels can be dauntingly long (I’m embarrassed to say how long I’ve been working on The Brothers Karamazov), so I am going to review a shorter one today. Short, but wonderful.
It would be easy to dismiss Leo Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich as depressing because, well, it is. It details the death of a well-off Russian business man, focusing mainly on his thoughts as he realizes what is happening, and then goes through the stages of processing it.
The book, while perhaps slow and certainly sad, is a beautiful and challenging exploration of what it means to truly live. At the beginning we know little about Ivan. Most of what we learn about him is revealed through his thoughts and the reaction of his family and friends to his coming death.
As the book goes along, the reader slowly comes to realize that work was everything to Ivan Ilyich. His friends were his business partners and his family was secondary to his work. But as the reality of death sinks into his consciousness, he begins to struggle with what his life had become. The problem was not that he has lived a bad life, indeed, he did, in his own words, “Everything one is supposed to do.” The problem was that he, like all of his friends, lived as if he would never die, becoming distracted and focused on things that were never meant to be the driving force behind life in the first place.
My favorite part of the book comes when he finally asked the question that gets to the heart of how we, as human beings, live our lives:
“What had induced his moral agony was that during the night, as he gazed at Gerasim’s broad-boned, sleepy, good-natured face, he suddenly asked himself: ‘What if my entire life, my entire conscious life, simply was not the real thing?’”