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"The Death of Ivan Ilyich" was inspired by a story Tolstoy heard about a neighbor who'd spent the last three days of his life screaming at the top of his lungs. The question the reader finds himself asking is: Jeez, what can I do to avoid that? At first the novella feels like a sort of everyman tale, but it soon becomes clear that Tolstoy's Ivan Ilych has a very particular malady — he is disconnected from everything, in thrall to the habitual, in denial of anything even vaguely "negative," and is out of intimate connection with everything real, including his wife and family. Slowly he is overtaken by a fear that he may not have lived in the right way. The book has one of the funniest and most terrifying funeral scenes ever written, and Ivan's slow realization that, yes, he is going to die (him, Ivan Ilych, who can still remember the smell of a treasured striped leather ball he had as a child) is beautiful and horrifying — we, like Ivan, keep hoping for a reprieve that never comes — or comes quietly and internally, at the very last moment.
I recently taught this story at Syracuse and it opened up a remarkable space in the classroom; we were suddenly all really contemplating death, not in the abstract, but in the particular — our own forthcoming deaths. The story — available now in a masterful translation by the best Russian translators alive, Pevear and Volokhonsky — is a keen reminder of the power of literature. Admittedly, an unconventional holiday gift — but then, maybe not. In that season when we pause, take a breath, remember those long-ago holidays (and those lost times, friends, and places), and get ready for what the New Year may bring — what better time to take stock and ask ourselves the big question: How should I live, so as to do my best here, and leave easily? Ho, ho, ho indeed.
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George Saunders is a MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow and the acclaimed author of several collections of short stories, including Tenth of December, Pastoralia, and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, as well as a collection of essays and a book for children. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.
Books mentioned in this post
George Saunders is the author of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella