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Washington, DC

Portrait of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. Oil on canvas. 124 × 88 cm. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Dr. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress for more than two decades, is also a leading authority on Russian history and culture. So naturally, we asked him to chime in when we were working on The Big Read Reader's Guide for Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich. In this excerpt from an NEA interview, Dr. Billington examines how Tolstoy used this very Russian story to also tell a universally human story.

Now, what you see in Ivan Ilyich is a contraction of time right through the 12 chapters. They get shorter and shorter and the time span that they describe gets shorter and shorter and the space which begins with all of [Ivan Ilyich's] different appointments all over Russia and so forth and then narrows in [until] finally you?ve got this vision of being not quite in but a black bag closing around you.

Everybody?s fear of death---it?s a very common thing. You hear it from many people that you get the impression that you?re in something like a black bag that?s closing in on you. You can?t breathe and so forth so until . . .the zero point of time when you?re actually dying at the very end and the zero point of space as it contracts.

Remember at the end there [Ivan Ilyich is] only lying on a sofa and won?t move, but he?s looking first at the wall, then at the back of the sofa so it?s getting darker and darker and more isolated and isolated. So you see this philosophical thing that [Tolstoy] describes as the destruction of the spatial body and the temporal consciousness.

I mean he goes to the really fundamental image of this progression and you aren?t conscious that space and time are closing in. He doesn?t leave the scaffolding on once the building is built but you feel it closing in on you. You know what the end is going to be. But Tolstoy  even contrasts at the beginning the way death is discovered. These middle level judicial officials are sort of muttering around on a coffee break, [and then they hear]  ?Oh, by the way, Ivan Illych has died? and then everybody begins saying, ?Oh, it?s too far to go to the funeral and I wonder what?s going to happen? Who?s going to get his appointment? and all these questions? And so what we find is we are at the very beginning when we know he?s dead and then you go back and start to tell the story of his dying.

You are carried through something that everyone experiences, which is the enormous triviality, confusion, almost cover-up that goes with a long terminal illness. It hits home because it?s describing Russia at a certain time and place, but it?s describing the modern world in a way with its cover-up. But Tolstoy isn?t making fun of it. This is what?s great about the literature. He isn?t making fun of these people. He?s making us see that we?re really in this story. We?re the ones who don?t know exactly what to do when you enter the room with a dead body.

Visit the Death of Ivan Ilyich page on The Big Read website to learn more about Leo Tolstoy, this novella, and Tolstoy's other works.

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