Monday, November 19, 2012

Leo Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich": Audiobook Review

Certain stories matter more as we mature, and age. I read this years ago as a student, and found myself remembering its bleak evocations of pain and loneliness. This is a strong story, not for the weak-willed or casual reader. I find it works better, perhaps, for those who've undergone some encounters with those facing death, although it may arouse sad memories.

Now middle-aged, I listened to the Naxos audiobook version with Oliver Ford Davies in returning to the novella. In audio versions, Naxos intersperses classical music from the period deftly. Here, interludes enhance what will prove a harrowing, but necessary, delineation of how one man faces the Biq Question of how death comes, at last, to us no matter what.

Davies captured the officious nature of those around Ivan, colleagues and family, who were faced with the necessary burdens of paying respects and going through the familiar motions we all have, once we've lived awhile, of attending to the impact of death on one we work with or know, but whom we don't feel all that close to. The tedium of funereal arrangements, and the impact of what a colleague or family member's loss will mean for us, will sound all too convincing, for many of us. Tolstoy makes us see, first, Ivan's demise through their perspectives, as ones we recognize with a twinge of guilt.

Then, he shifts to his wife turned widow; we hear her own mixed reactions: she's happy in a way to be free of the torment of a husband she'd grown distanced from, and one whose last hours were but a howl of agony, from the hearing of her, their son, and their household, this being a respectable judge's residence. We understand her weariness with the duties inflicted upon family, and the wish, often unspoken but nearly always felt, by the survivors that the dying one be finally gone.

The doctor is also harried, and we hear from him the routine platitudes and vague assurances that any patient does, no matter how grave the case. It's another day at the office for the medical profession, and what's a case study to solve for them reminds Ivan of his own aloofness as an educated, but detached, judicial functionary, above the reality felt by the troubled man brought before him to be analyzed and sentenced. Again, Tolstoy presents the administrative or familial point of view fairly, and steadily. It's human nature to step away from the messiness of fate and mortality, after all.

Finally, we enter into Ivan's consciousness, indirectly but powerfully. Oliver Ford Davies navigates the gradual move from complacency and self-regard into raw, cold, mental and physical and spiritual brutality. Only forty-five, mostly convinced as most of us that success lies in accomplishments, comforts, a career, and status despite his misgivings, Ivan must confront what we all fear. Davies shows how he moans and contorts, in thoughts and words, as his final moments near. Gerasim, a servant, by his humble commitment to bedside duties helps Ivan find a saving grace of comfort when most needed.

The final moments of this tale moved me to tears as I heard them. I recommend an audiobook version as this takes you away from too quickly skimming over the nuances of emotion and subtlety which Tolstoy brings to this novella. Hearing the prose reminds us of our common fate, and how Tolstoy captures unforgettably the revelation that we can only hope is not an illusion. The delicacy and craft with which he creates the same reactions in us as Ivan undergoes will astonish you. (Amazon US 7-15-12)

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