Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Art of the Novella Challenge: The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy

The Death of Ivan Ilych was one of the first "grown up" short stories I ever read. There was a great used bookstore in my town whose eclectic selection formed the basis of my largely self-directed reading as a teenager; I bought an old paperback of The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories for about a quarter and devoured it. It jumpstarted my lifelong love of Russian literature.
So naturally I had to read the Art of the Novella edition for this challenge, and it's the first time since I was a teenager that I've revisited this classic. The story is simple, about the life, illness and death of Ivan Ilych, a Russian attorney and judge who has been, all is life, everything that everyone has expected of him. He made all the right moves, married the right woman and settled into a successful career. Then, in late midlife, he's struck with a sudden illness, soon protracted into a painful and miserable slow death.

The story starts with his funeral then backtracks to his early life and childhood, following through to his final moments. Towards the end, he starts to question himself and his choices, but, certain as he is that he's always lived the right way, he never gets very far. Still, the suspicion gnaws at him like the pain. The only relief he finds is when his manservant elevates his legs, or when he can find a moment or two of solitude.

Reading this story now, it's just as powerful and moving for me as it was when I was younger. I feel a little more for Ivan Ilych now, being an adult now and feeling some of the stresses the narrator describes. I think when I was younger I saw more of the didactic morality tale, which I can still see, but which takes a back seat for me to the questions we all have to ask ourselves about our choices. I still love this story!

So that brings me to my goal of six novellas for the challenge. I'm officially "Captivated"!

Thanks to Frances of Nonsuchbook (who has my vote for Best Literary Blog in BBAW) and Melville House for hosting this challenge. It's been so much fun, and I know I'll continue to read these wonderful books.

Here are links to the rest of the novellas I read for the challenge:

The Duel, by Heinrich von Kleist
The Illusion of Return, by Samir El-Youssef
The North of God, by Steve Stern
Benito Cereno, by Herman Melville
Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance, by Sholem Aleichem