The Death of Ivan Illych

” Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible. “

– Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Illych

This is the only bit of Tolstoy I’ve read before this year. Maybe it was five years ago. Maybe ten. It has stuck with me since then. And reading it again this month, it reads fresh. It’s one of those books that reveals itself anew with each reading. So I have a feeling I’ll read it in another five or ten years.

Ivan, post curtain hanging

I think every man should. Every person.

Is it? So much of my life seems to be trial and error without the reward but lately it seems the rewards are finally coming.

It’s a story, obviously, about how to live told through a man’s death. It teaches how a life lived poorly will lead to a death died poorly and vice versa. That’s something I want – a good death. I don’t want to be screaming in regret. Or depressed wondering where the lifetime went – thinking I’d wasted what I had. 

I question that now. Maybe too much. But even now when I think I’m wasting time or what others may think of as wasting time I often see a purpose. Although even later I think it may have been a waste but even then, if I’ve learned from that waste, the time isn’t really wasted. 

Ivan Illych spent his time following rules and making sure things looked right for other people. At least I learned early on that that’s not the way to a good life.

The Kreutzer Sonata

As I wrote in my thoughts on Anna Karinena, Tolstoy inhabits people. He gets to know them. He lives in them and inhabits their souls. In this case, that of a jealous murderer. 

A scene not actually from the novella

And Tolstoy writes from the jealous murderer’s viewpoint with sympathy. I didn’t feel sympathy for him but Tolstoy wrote with sympathy. He didn’t condemn his creation. He simply depicted him truly – without judgement. Which is off putting. Does this mean Tolstoy agree with his character? He seems to hate women, kids and sex. And possibly himself as well as humanity in general. Tolstoy doesn’t flinch. No. Of course, Tolstoy doesn’t agree with his protagonist. But this character of his is a human being, like all of us but one whose flaws overcome him and lead him into killing his wife. 

I could have done without the killer’s rationalization and speechifiying for half the novella. Or it could have at least been present in more of a debate or dialogue rather than an endless monologue.

Anna Karinena

Tolstoy knows me. He seems to know everyone. Deeply.

One of the best compliments I got on my own writing was by a friend who said something to the effect of, “I know every single one of those characters in your book. Including me.”

It was one of my proudest moments. I thought that I’d created several characters that were believable and realistic. But that compliment, said by someone who I respected, proved I’d accomplished it.

But I’m no Tolstoy.

He seems to know the souls of every character he writes because they are the souls of every person he ever met. We’re not so different really but he was able to detail the inner life of each character – no matter how diverse – so succinctly. Even in my own life, I feel it’s hard to empathise with my younger self. How can that young man I was do such a stupid thing? Who was that teenager that was so stupid? As if I was another person. That lack of empathy must be profound at a differnet person – a different sex, race, etc. 

I marvel at how Tolstoy is able to put us in the mind and soul of Anna in love and in despair. In Levin’s heart as he waffles between one socially awkward scene to another struggling with his own faith. Or giving us empathy for Vronksy, who only wanted to love – on his terms. I only mention these three but none of his characters are caricatures. All are given a soul. They may be bad people or have bad moments but Tolstoy does not treat them badly. They are not created, I feel, just to be sacrificed for a lesson or to be the baddie.

Even looking back on the story, I want to dislike Vronsky. Or Alexei Karenin or Anna. Definitely Stiva …but I can’t. Not really. I’ve gotten to know them.

Ok, Stiva is just a dick.

War and Peace – I finished it.

I am Pierre Bezukhov.

That is to say, I’m a bit of a goof trying to do my best and failing. I’m trying to improve myself but often coming up worse for wear. I’m often going on tangents in life but meandering back, I think, slowly, to the truth path that I was always seeking and would never have arrived at if I hadn’t gone on all those side trips.

Earnest and silly and a fool and I think wiser than all the other characters by the end, Pierre is the character that is going to stick with me. While I’m sure I will not forget the novel any time soon – maybe the educational bits and the second epilogue – I’m sure the characters and plots will get muddled in my brain but Pierre’s journey will not because it’s just hit too close to home. Likely for many.

While reading it I often wished I had read it earlier but I have a feeling I was too immature and just not ready for it. I am not and I hope I have the interest to read it again and I hope I have the growth to read it with new eyes when I do.

This is a brilliant guide, btw:

2019 Reading Project: War and Peace Book Ten

Growing up, I came to think anything anti-war started with the 1960s. The Baby Boomers, like many generations, though they were the first to think the thoughts they had. They were no different than other generations – although maybe they did amp up the narcissism.

Of course there were other works of anti-war fiction but Book Ten of W&P seems to me the most memorable and the most epic. From the beginning of the book as the Russians seem to fall apart and flee before a purposeless French army finally ending at Borodino with the opposing mindsets of the historic Napoleon and Zutuzov down to the blood soaked fictional field hospital where Dolohov is having his leg amputated.

I could do with less of Tolstoy’s historical essays interrupting the narrative. But I knew they were coming. Maybe at some point I’ll read about why those are in there. They aren’t too distracting and are a bit informative but I’m not reading this to be informed.

2019 Reading Project: War and Peace Book Nine

I’m about 330,000 words into W&P and Tolstoy still has me humming along with his narrative. Book Nine is mostly about Napoleon finally launching into Russian. We all know how this turns out for the French but I don’t know how it will turn out for the characters…and I want to know.

1FK-160-E1812-10-B (15946) ‘Napoleon zu Moskau, 1812’ Napoleon I. Bonaparte, Kaiser der Franzosen, 1769-1821. – ‘Napoleon zu Moskau, 1812’. – (Rußlandfeldzug 1812. Napoleon im bren- nenden Moskau, 14./16. September). Lithographie, koloriert, um 1850, von R. Werbezahl nach Zeichnung von Friedrich August Frenzel (1814-1888). E: ‘Napoleon in Moscow, 1812’ Napoleon I Bonaparte, emperor of the French (1804-15); 1769-1821. – ‘Napoleon in Moscow, 1812’. – (Russian campaign 1812. Napoleon in burning Moscow, 14-16 September). Lithograph, coloured, c.1850, by R. Werbezahl after a drawing by Friedrich August Frenzel (1814-1888). F: ‘Napoléon à Moscau, 1812’ Napoléon Ier Bonaparte, empereur des Français ; 1769-1821. – ‘Napoléon à Moscau, 1812’. – (Campagne de Russie, 1812. Napoléon dans Moscou incendié, 14-16 septembre). Lithographie, coloriée, v.1850, de R.Werbezahl d’ap. dessin de Friedrich August Frenzel (1814-1888).

What I’m most impressed by is not only how episodic the story telling is but how deeply thought out it is yet how accessible it is. Again, I’m terribly intimidated by Tolstoy.

One last observation: I love it’s genre-lessness. War and romance. politics and family squabbles. He writes about it all and he writes it all so truthfully. Incredible.

War and Peace – Book Eight My 2019 Reading Project

Natasha “thinking”

Natasha is sweet but you can’t leave a woman in her prime on the shelf for a year like Andy does. Sooner or later hormones and biology are just going to do what they do. They’re explosive enough but when you add Moscow nightlife and then Anatole to the mixture. Pow!

So you have the downfall, in the eyes of 1812 Moscow culture of a nice girl who was treated poorly by a grumpy old count, his too-obedient son and a rich playboy. Not to mention her own dad who didn’t prep her for reality.

But wait, near the end of the book Pierre seems to be nice…he could make her happy…if it weren’t for that nasty yet beautiful Ellen. What shall happen? What shall happen?


This is a brilliant guide, btw:

War and Peace – Book Seven My 2019 Reading Project

Book Seven is wall-to-wall Rostov’s and that pretty much means spending your money and blindly avoiding your problems.

Why is War & Peace so long? Book 7 has six chapters of the Rostovs hunting wolves. It’s good….but six chapters.

And that strikes far too close to home. Fortunately, I learned while the Rostov’s, especially the Old Count doesn’t seem to. Now he gets to face that dread of impoverishing your kid or busting his dreams. Very depressing. But the small r republican in me remembers that most of this money is stolen from the people over generations so then I don’t feel too badly but still. I have a little sympathy for Nick and Sonya as they may have to learn to do with only one house and two servants in their old age.

I’m reading the book on Kindle and while I find it very compelling I do marvel a bit as I see the little meter at the bottom only register 44% read….oh, my. How much further I have to go! What’s going to happen? But no fear!


This is a brilliant guide, btw:

War and Peace – Book Six My 2019 Reading Project

Ah, youth! And damnable old people! The more things change the more things stay the same.

All the young ones are just trying to live their lives and the grown ups are either grumpy or making bad financial decisions or acting poorly thus causing their children all kinds of consternation. And the kids just want to live their lives and love.

Andy, Pete and Nat at the rave., 1809 style.

And all the while the serfs keep tilling and harvesting and trying not to die. But I digress.

I’m in the middle third of the great novel now. I know the characters. The honeymoon is over. The initial excitement is over and yet the finale is a long way off. But I’m not feeling it’s been a slog at all. Ok, maybe a bit. Tolstoy keeps opening up and developing the characters ever so slightly. While I believe Andrei and Natasha are the romantic stars here, I’ve found the others more interesting. Marya’s inner struggle at the end seems profound. Pierre fumbling around for enlightenment and wisdom strikes a bit too close to home as does the striving of Boris.

And as a striving writer, I’m more and more intimidated by Tolstoy. He’s a god.


This is a brilliant guide, btw:

War and Peace – Book Five My 2019 Reading Project

The man himself

So I’m come deep into War and Peace now – over a third of the way through.

The characters are no longer new. I know Pierre will be Pierre. A chump. Boris is politicking. Nick is still a rich boozer and looser but they are all trying to reform. Andrew is a depressive but I think that won’t last.

There is some changes afoot. But their final turns and their climaxes are a far way off still…And I’ve decided to quit aspartame and caffeine!

But the story keeps pulling me along. Tolstoy would fit right in with the Golden Age of TV writing, working in great stories as well as profound lessons you’d be able to talk over with your smarter friends. I’ll keep reading.


This is a brilliant guide, btw: