One of the biggest accomplishments of last year for me was completing Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in the Constance Garnett translation. Without a doubt, I’ll say that Anna Karenina is one of the best books ever written, and, from what I’ve read, it can be called the best book of the Victorian period, even though it did not come from England. Riding high after completing that book, I went and read Tolstoy’s later novella The Death of Ivan Ilych. Is The Death of Ivan Ilych a good book? Yes, of course, and it’s better than so much of what else is out there. Here’s the catch: so much of The Death of Ivan Ilych basically seemed like a pared down version of some of the storylines that run through the much richer novel Anna Karenina.
Anna Karenina is a book that’s full of life. There are more characters than I can possibly recount. While there are some chapters that delve into Tolstoy’s beliefs and philosophy, there’s also a good many chapters that are nothing but lovely descriptions of ice skating, pheasant hunting, and grand dinner parties. The Death of Ivan Ilych though is essentially Anna Karenina sans life.
In Tolstoy’s work, it’s the descriptive passages (and he’s quite possibly the best writer out there when it comes to describing things) that save his stories from seeming overtly moralizing or trenchant. Without a lot of these instances of creative flair though, The Death of Ivan Ilych comes off as polemical.
Part of the reason for this is Tolstoy’s famous break with artistry. Years after completing War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Tolstoy created a bit of controversy by writing several essays and diary entries declaiming the art he used to be the greatest apostle of: literature as we know it. He’s said to have later written off Anna Karenina by calling it “cosmopolitan trash,” probably referring to the aforementioned dinner parties, pheasant hunts, and so on. This would explain why The Death of Ivan Ilych is so devoid of extraneous detail. Also, Tolstoy criticized his own art by saying, because of its size and style, it was foreboding to the working class. I find the flaw in this argument to be that it’s asanine on the master’s part to assume the working class would not appreciate the richness of the book (although he may have been right, as the USSR eventually banned Tolstoy’s work, despite how Lenin referenced it lovingly). To this end, he simplified The Death of Ivan Ilych by including only a small handful of characters, and kept the length less than 200 pages.
So in the end, what I’d say is, if you have a busy life, go ahead and read The Death of Ivan Ilych. It will give you pause to consider that perhaps your busy life is not getting you anywhere, in terms of the metaphysic. In a way, it’s a book specifically for busy people, as poor Ivan Ilych spent so much of his life busying himself. If you have the time and energy on the other hand, I would much sooner recommend you read Anna Karenina.
–Sooner or later I’ll write about Anna Karenina in greater detail.