Monday, February 11, 2008

The Death of Ivan Illyich by Leo Tolstoy

Source: Learn out Loud, courtesy of Hovel Audio (direct link)
Length: Approx. 2 hr, 20 min
Reader: Simon Vance

The book: Tolstoy starts his novella The Death Of Ivan Illyich with the title character's funeral. Beginning in the middle or at the end of a story has been common since the time of Homer, but here the device is particularly effective because of the intrusive feeling of attending the funeral for someone we don't know. Many outside viewpoints are given about the life and death of Ivan Illyich, few of them positive.

In the second chapter, the viewpoint switches to Ivan Illyich's and quickly follows him through his life. Like those who attend his funeral out of obligation, Ivan lives life as if it is only something expected of him to do. When he falls ill, he becomes annoyed at those who don't behave as he thinks they should. As Illyich's disease progresses, we see illustrated the classic stages of grief, but Tolstoy also gives insight to the details of dying: the inability to have the doctor tell you what you want to know, the indignity of having someone else attend to your personal hygiene, and the boredom of waiting to die.

Ivan Illyich is one of Tolstoy's later works and the influence of his Christian conversion is evident in the climax. The profound insights into the entire process of dying make it no wonder that this book is often assigned reading for ministers, doctors, and hospice workers. Its short length is an excellent introduction to Tolstoy for those who want to avoid the commitment of his doorstop novels Anna Karena and War and Peace.

Rating: 7/10

The recording: Simon Vance is a professional voice-over actor performing a commercial audiobook that just happens to given away for free. In this edition, The Death of Ivan Illyich is paired with the long story "Master and Man" as the collection Tolstoy on Death. Having already read "Master and Man" in print, I did not listen to it and do not intend to review it here except to say that Ivan Illyich is the greatly superior story.

This recording is indeed free, though Learn Out Loud makes you register in order to download. No financial or personal information is required other than an email. I did not see an increase in spam following registration, but you must uncheck "Receive occasional emails". Be careful when giving personal information and never give credit card information for "free" audiobooks


Erez said...

What! They're giving it away for free? And to think that I *bought* my copy... :)

Anyway, Simon Vance is definitely on my "top 1 narrators" list. Have you ever heard any of his Dickens recordings? (Many of the older ones are under the name "Robert Whitfield"). Very highly recommended. I must have more than 20 audiobooks narrated by him.

As for Ivan Ilyich: I normally keep my distance from literature with a religious "flavor", but I found this story very moving and incredibly well written, more spiritual than religious with just a hint of Christianity thrown in at the end (and I'm not even a Christian). I completely agree with you that Master and Man, especially in conjunction with Ivan Ilyich, is much less impressive, though the snow descriptions are highly effective (I was shivering when I listened to it, driving through an actual desert at noon).

And thanks again for this wonderful blog. I've discovered some great stuff through your recommendations. I've just finished listening to "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" -- what a delight! And the narrator, wow!

Amy said...

Hi Seth,

I just found your review through The Blue Bookcase, and it's funny to me because I literally began reading the story this morning. I enjoyed your simple yet insightful overview of the story and will keep it in mind as I read. I also like your concept for the blog, although I personally am not much of an audio reader. (I get too distracted...) Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I enjoyed it and may reference it if I ever review the story on my own blog, if you don't mind. :)