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The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories

A new translation of 11 short works by Tolstoy.

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But this unhappy novella was not a labor of love or guilty pleasure, as Tolstoy admitted “Hadji Murat” was. Tolstoy is preaching that when we die, the main impression on our friends is: “a feeling of joy that it was he who was dead and not I.”

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A few of the stories included here Tolstoy didn’t like enough to finish, and seven of the 11 he didn’t even publish in his lifetime. (He knew “Hadji Murat” was a keeper, but he held it back from publication, as it glories in a Muslim warrior’s martial spirit and actions, while Tolstoy in public mode was an absolute Christian pacifist.)

Pevear, having selected only stories written after 1884 (when Tolstoy was 56) justifies his inclusion of the brilliant “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” (which Tolstoy wrote for his series of graded readers in 1872) for its geographic connection to “Hadji Murat.” I wonder, then, having violated the time scheme, why not assemble a book of all the stories set in the Caucasus and include Tolstoy’s second-greatest novella, “The Cossacks”?

“The Forged Coupon,” which Pevear calls “a perfect parable,” is a trick story unfinished and abandoned by Tolstoy. It’s about the domino-fall of consequences of a single crime and then the flip-side religious consequences of a single true conversion. If you happened to read it without knowing its author you could not help thinking: “second-rate.” “After the Ball” is second-rate Guy de Maupassant. “Alyosha the Pot” is expert but extremely short and minor. And when it comes to “The Diary of a Madman,” read instead Gogol’s wild story by the same name.

“The Kreutzer Sonata” (or, my subtitle: “How a Crazy Man on the Train Told Me He Blamed His Murder of His Wife on the Crippling Socially Acceptable Feelings of Lust”) is well known. It and “The Devil” and “Father Sergius” set out to prove that sex is bad because it destroys your will. In “The Devil,” Tolstoy sympathizes with the newlywed landowner who finds he cannot resist his former lover: “The main thing was that he felt defeated, that he had no will of his own, and there was another force that moved him....”

Tolstoy, the father of a large family and for the last 20 years of his life the most famous person in the world, willfully accomplished everything he ever set out to do except conquer his sexual susceptibility. “Father Sergius,” the most compelling of the three sex stories, is about an ambitious and brilliant young man who, because of disillusionment with his fiancée’s sexual history, gives up a military career for an ecclesiastical one – but as lust and doubt continue to rattle about in him, Tolstoy conjures up a hall-of-fame metaphor to describe the precariousness of the holy man’s faith: “As one steadies a poorly balanced object, he steadied his faith again on its shaky pedestal and carefully stepped back so as not to knock it over.”

If you haven’t read Tolstoy before, I suggest starting with the three stories that are unmatched by him anywhere else: “Hadji Murat,” “The Prisoner of the Caucasus,” and “Master and Man.” Then find “Anna Karenina” in whichever translation you come upon (or Pevear and Volokhonsky’s of 2000 if you’ve convinced yourself of their superiority). Following that plan, in about a thousand pages, you will have experienced fiction that extends as far as any has ever extended.

If you’re determined to stick with the short fiction, a wider selection comes in “Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy,” translated in the main by the Maudes, the other renowned husband-and-wife Tolstoy team of a hundred years ago.

Bob Blaisdell edited "Tolstoy as Teacher: Leo Tolstoy’s Writings on Education”.

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