What If You Wasted Your Entire Life? Book Review

Leo Tolstoy and the Meaning of Life

Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy

Following his wealthy and entitled mid-nineteenth century compatriots, the young Tolstoy spent his daytime hours dutifully attending the responsibilities of a young noble. But, at night, he slipped through dark streets and dark doorways to enjoy the soft pleasures of the whorehouse. As an older man, he tried but could never wrestle away from his sex drive,  though he mostly gave up whores and his wife’s embrace once he found religion.   True Religion is more accurate. He was Russian Orthodox his entire life until renouncing orthodoxy for his own version of True Faith in Jesus. The Death of Ivan Ilyich – a novella easily read in an afternoon – was his first published effort after his awakened faith. It tells the story of a man who, with no real skill, effort, or drive, rises to a mid-level bureaucratic position in the Russian state and flaunts his faux importance.  In doing so, he soon loathes his once beloved wife, largely ignores his once adorable children, and spends his time proving to his colleagues and neighbors that he is a man of great culture and import. He is a Kardashian. He trades in pretense without substance.

On a ladder one day, hanging the perfect drapes in his new and ostentatious perfect home, he falls. Over the next few days, he feels an ache in his side and a metallic taste in his mouth. His wife urges him to see a doctor. He finally relents to her nagging and agrees to see a doctor, then doctors, and then specialists who all fail to diagnose his ailment. He knows, but will not admit, that he has begun a downward spiral toward pain and death. He detests life and despises those around him. Death was never meant for him. Not now! He sees through doctors, friends, and family as common liars who feign concern to his face, while plotting their escape to the card table. People avoid him, he thinks, because he reminds them of death, of their death, of wasting, and of their own demise. His only comfort is his peasant servant, a vein running strong through all of Tolstoy’s writing. The peasant, to Tolstoy, is never despoiled or haughty but is always the true human without guile.

Ilyich’s last days are excruciating. Not from pain only, but from the pestering realization that he now admits: he has lived his life wrongly. Like a vapor. He has lived a false life elevating artifice and selfishness just like those he now despises. Just an hour before dying, he feels release realizing that a good life is an authentic life.  A peasant life.  A life of empathy and compassion. His heart turns, and love and pity for his friends wash over him. He sees his death as their release from the burden of his care.

No Answers But Good Questions

But Ilyich is no mere pamphlet. Tolstoy avoids pedantry, and Ilyich’s dying revelations are implied and open to interpretation. Is this part of Tolstoy’s genius? To let each reader meander through his words to sit at a bench made of their own meaning? Can we live authentically as wealthy people? What good is it to ‘inherit the earth’ if you are poor, weak, and dying? Thirteen years later, Tolstoy will publish Resurrection where the themes of Ilych are expanded. The Death of Ivan Ilyich rests comfortably on the same bookshelf with other great philosophical fiction (and isn’t all Russian lit philosophical?). Tolstoy presents the problem, hints at solutions, but raises as many questions as he answers. This is the Russian writer’s genius.

There are still questions: are leisure and fine things wrong? Is there an intrinsic reward in service and hard work? Read the book and work these things out for yourself.

Modern readers can struggle with the prose and Tolstoy famously takes time to develop the story. But it is a wonderful and thought-provoking read that can be profitably read and re-read.

Four stars.

For more reviews, go here to see the book on Goodreads.

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