The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories

A new translation of 11 short works by Tolstoy.

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Translators are cooks trying to follow recipes to the letter, but by necessity they have to use the ingredients and equipment they’ve got at home. They make do and hope the approximations taste good. The American/Russian husband/wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are known for their translations of the Russian classics, and we should at least be grateful that their productions remind us to read or reread some of the best literature in the world. Learn Russian if you can (it’s taken me four years of hard labor to be lousy at it), or accept with gratitude what Pevear and Volokhonsky serve you.

Are their translations obviously better than all the others? No. Translation is an art of incremental details, and comparing phrases and sentences and passages, it’s possible to see how an earlier translator, Rosemary Edmonds, for example, was better with this particular phrasing and this pair is better with that one.

In any case, as I was merrily reading along in The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, I opened my Russsian-language editions of Tolstoy and compared what I made of particular lines with Pevear and Volokhonsky’s take, and if mine were sometimes livelier, theirs were invariably correct, though not absolutely consistent in vocabulary and tenses. (What I learned from learning Russian is that the translations I grew up on convey 95 percent of what’s there. What’s missing is what’s necessarily missing in any language transfer – the sound, the rhythm, the tumble and play of words and phrases.)

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What I’ll crab about is that Pevear and Volokhonsky didn’t put much thought into the selections included in this collection. They chose as if randomly from Tolstoy’s famous and unfamous, finished and unfinished, later stories and novellas.

It seems to me whoever wrote the novella “Hadji Murat” should be regarded as the greatest master of fiction in the world after Tolstoy. Tolstoy happened to write “Hadji Murat,” so, with “Anna Karenina,” he has the two greatest works on my list. “Hadji Murat” was a Tartar warrior in the middle of the 19th century who, because of a rival leader’s jealousy and death threats, goes over to the enemy Russians. A “based on a true story” adventure, Tolstoy introduces it, saying: “I remembered an old story from the Caucasus, part of which I saw, part of which I heard from witnesses, and part of which I imagined to myself. The story, as it shaped itself in my memory and imagination goes like this.”

More well-known is “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” Tolstoy is so great that to criticize his work we mortals have to build a tower to see high enough to compare his lows with his highs. From such a perspective we see that what Tolstoy manages in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” he does much better in many other stories and novels. I ascribe the popularity of “Ivan Ilyich” to its brevity and Tolstoy’s powerful singlemindedness: “The dead man lay, as dead men always lie, with a peculiar heaviness, dead-man fashion, his stiffened limbs sunk into the lining of the coffin, his forever bent head on the pillow, displaying, as dead men always do, his yellow, waxen forehead with the hair brushed forward on his sunken temples, and his thrust-out nose, as if pressing down on his upper lip.” (The repetition is characteristic of Tolstoy and true to the passage.)

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.”

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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