Art of the Novella Challenge #1 - The Death of Ivan Ilych

So, after a fairly unsuccessful July, I am hoping my August will prove much more fruitful, and I'm kicking off my participation in the Art of the Novella Challenge today with Tolstoy.  An old favorite, Tolstoy has yet to disappoint.  His short stories are jewels.  I especially love "The Three Questions," and Jon J. Muth's adaptation of it for children is superior. 

The Melville House selection is The Death of Ivan Ilych, and it is an intriguing look at some familiar themes in Tolstoy's work: life, death, mortality, repentance, and salvation.  It opens with Ivan Ilych's acquaintances reflecting rather blithely upon their friend's death before moving to focus on one friend, Peter Ivanovich, who had studied law with Ivan Ilych and is considered a boyhood friend.  Peter Ivanovich goes to visit the widow, and from there we again shift rather quickly and quietly to the perspective of Ivan Ilych himself in the months and weeks leading up to his death.  Peter Ivanovich is all but forgotten by the time the novella concludes by relating the actual moment of Ivan Ilych's death.  The bulk of the story is spent in Ivan Ilych's mind as he attempts to work through the reality of impending death as well as the truth and worth of his life up to that point.

The novella was a quick and perhaps disturbingly entertaining read.  Especially at the first, I was laughing out loud at Tolstoy's little jabs and quips.  (Pay attention, Pamuk!  This is how you render difficult situations funny.)  I love this image of the official figure of the Church at Ivan Ilych's wake:
A vigorous, resolute Church Reader, in a frock-coat, was reading something in a loud voice with an expression that precluded any contradiction.
I also like the detail of Ivan Ilych's struggle, which is mostly un-funny but terribly appropriate to the human experience.  The reader easily alternates between sympathy for Ivan Ilych's plight and annoyance at his self-absorbed psychosis.  You are never sure if the pain he is experiencing is real or just a product of the mind.  Certainly, the doctors never conclude if it is indeed his kidney or his appendix, and we are left feeling at times like his wife, Praskovya Fedorovna: "...that it was his own fault and was another of the annoyances he caused her."  Near the end, though, we can't deny the difficulty of this truth:
Again minute followed minute and hour followed hour.  Everything remained the same and there was no cessation.  And the inevitable end of it all became more and more terrible.
Perhaps the most interesting piece of the novella is not his struggle with life and death but Tolstoy's use of furniture and decorating as a tangential preoccupation of both Ivan Ilych and the story.  On his visit to their home, Peter Ivanovich recalls "how Ivan Ilych had arranged the room and had consulted him regarding this pink cretonne with green leaves."  The ensuing comedy of the Pouffe is hilarious, and Ilych's ongoing relationship with his furniture is a smart and interesting ploy.  As he declines, he grows more concerned with the status of his furniture, he sees it as a reflection of himself and his standing in society.  As he becomes irrelevant, so, too, does his furniture get mishandled and damaged due to lack of care.  Furniture as life becomes clear in this parenthetical passage:
Every spot on the tablecloth or the upholstery, and every broken window-blind string, irritated him.  He had devoted so much trouble to arranging it all that every disturbance of it distressed him.
The Death of Ivan Ilych is a thoughtful reflection on humanity, and I'm glad Melville House has included it in their beautiful collection.  1 down, how many more might I accomplish before August goes the way of Ivan Ilych himself, I wonder?  By the way, Frances at Nonsuch Book is quietly churning away in her quest to read all 42 of the novellas in August.  Go, Frances, Go!  I am thoroughly impressed.

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