We Can See Russian Tragedies From Our Porch

We're more the Flying Karamazov Brothers type.Title: “The Death of Ivan Ilych”

Author: Leo Tolstoy

Rank: 715,269

Blurb: None. But we suspect it doesn’t have a happy ending.

Review: None. Who reads Tolstoy in the summer?

Customers Also Bought: “On Death and Dying,” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Footnote: Oh, that’s right — it’s time for our monthly Stinque Book Chat! Did everybody finish their assignment?

The Death of Ivan Ilych [Amazon]

Buy or Die [Stinque@Amazon kickback link]


I read this book when I was in college. It’s about this guy Ivan who claims he’s tired of people making fun of his kids (who he’s been using as political props for years) and decides to commit political suicide. The book, however, strongly hints that Ivan was a corrupt prima donna who was about to be indicted for misuse of public office.

Hey! I bought the book! Now about reading it…

Shit, I barely have time to read Field and Stream and the other outdoor mags when they come in. I did make time to read my friend Eddie Tafoya’s book on stand up comedy as an American literary form. Last chapter is an an analysis comparing the parallel structure of Dante’s Inferno with Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. Also, my kid wants me to read a Justice Society of America comic, which I’m gladly doing.

I loved this book. Brilliantly constructed, and he makes every word, every sentence count. In some ways I think the shorter form brings out the best in a writer, because of the discipline and economy of words it enforces. The beginning, where Ivan’s friends’ reaction to his death–pretty much “how sad–but it’s not me!”–reminded me of FCS’s comment the other day about neighbors looking away when someone is facing foreclosure eviction, just glad that it’s not them. The chasing after possessions and positions to preserve the illusion (or delusion) that one is part of the upper classes, and living beyond one’s means to do so, hasn’t changed in the century since this was written. In many ways, it seemed quite modern in its condemnation of the emptiness and shallowness of the “proper” life.

Had no time to read this but did begin it a couple of times. I want to read it when I can enjoy it. He’s one of my faves, peerless. And I love his later stories in his ‘pitiless’ style. The opening chapter is a masterpiece of concision and irony, beginning slam in the middle of the story before pulling back to show us how we got there.

@Mistress Cynica: I agree. I was really amazed at how timeless the story was. It really could have been written in our time. So many people living above their means, trying to get ahead in life and doing things just because they assume that’s how life must be lived. He picked his wife, his life for others – not himself – and couldn’t even find peace in dying. Still, though, I think it did have a (perversely) happy ending because his death ended his suffering, both physical and mental.

This story was so much better than Olsen’s but it amused me to see how both of them painted a depressing picture of marriage.

What are we going to read for next month?

@Jamie Sommers: SFL and I were discussing this, and in light of current events thought we would suggest Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, about growing up in Iran after the 1979 revolution. Anyone have strong objections to the graphic novel (or, in this case, autobiography) format?

@Jamie Sommers: I had recently read Revolutionary Road, and was struck by the parallels, with the stultifying, do-what’s-expected middle class marriage spiritually destroying those trapped in it. Marriage rarely seems to come off well in literature (or at least in the books I read) unless the story ends right after the wedding with “and they lived happily ever after.”

@Mistress Cynica: Anna Karenina. Himself draws the portrait of a failed marriage side-by side with a spectacularly successful one. Plus best proposal evah.

@Benedick: Agree. Masterful storytelling, no wasted words.

@Mistress Cynica: I saw the movie made from the book — excellent.

@Benedick: umm, yeah. graphic novel=comic book with an MFA.
I read Anna Karenina years ago and really liked it, but have been meaning to check out the new translation. (My show-off sister is currently reading it in Russian.) Also, it strikes me as a good novel to re-read after 25 years of life experience. Like most of the classics I struggled through in HS an college, it would no doubt have far more meaning for me now.

@Mistress Cynica: I’ve been meaning to re-read “Death in Venice” again for that reason.

@Mistress Cynica: @Jamie Sommers: It was a little surreal to read this book while reading of foreclosures of McMansions in the paper. The writing is so taut, and since I don’t speak Russian I have no idea if it’s a good translation, but the tension and anxiety came across nicely. I re-read Olson’s story too, and it does offer a nice counterpoise to Tolstoy’s piece.

@Mistress Cynica: I started reading We Need to Talk About Kevin this morning, and it’s like Revolutionary Road of the 21st Century. Riveting.

@redmanlaw: We picked a graphic novel! That’s a fancy way of saying high-falutin’ comic book. Read it!

@Benedick: I still have the list with all of your suggestions, some of which I’ve read and some I haven’t and they seem intriguing. However, they’re all like 600 pages so Cynica and I would have to give people two or three months notice.

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