Leo Tolstoy: Out of the Havoc Comes Human Compassion and a Shot at Redemption

Not only are Tolstoy's stories rich and touching, but they are fun to read -- even the tragic ones.

I took a literature course in college where we mostly read short stories, and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” was by far the longest short story we read that semester. It was also the most surprising to me. I had avoided Leo Tolstoy’s works until then with nothing but a juvenile mindset to blame: he wrote War and Peace, so he must be difficult to read. It turns out that “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” was about the most straightforward story in that course’s anthology and hence was the most fun to read. Of all the great writers to instill intimidation in a college student, Tolstoy was probably last in line. I soon directed my frustrations towards Ernest Hemingway that semester, thanks to “Hills Like White Elephants”, but that’s a rant for another time.

Upon receiving Oxford World’s Classics’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, I got a chance to revisit the story and was mildly surprised that the weighty themes of life, death, false relationships, and the inevitable waste of it all didn’t make a greater impact on my tender mind all of those years ago. Perhaps I was just overjoyed with the fact that I could read exceptional literature while comprehending it, that I didn’t have a chance to connect with the protagonist’s gut-wrenching, bald-faced crisis. Ivan Ilyich’s dilemma went beyond what we today refer to as a midlife crisis, but into deep, scary territory, where one is afraid to be alone with their thoughts. Andrew Kahn’s introduction subtly pulls out the dismal viewpoint that “there is nothing worse than life.” (page xxiii) The text on the back of the paperback is introduced with this sorrowful sentence, sans capitalization: “no one pitied him as he would have liked to be pitied.”

If you are wondering why these stories are being repackaged yet again, it’s because of a new translation by Nicolas Pasternak Slater. And if you’re wondering why there is a new translation of these stories, Slater makes a brief explanation in the book following Kahn’s introduction. Tolstoy was fond of lengthy sentences, historical present (describing past events as if they were happening now), and the ominous repetition of certain words and names. The translator’s job is already a precarious two-pronged duty — make it comprehensible for English readers while staying true to Tolstoy’s original intent. Toss in the author’s knack for grammatical quirks and suddenly there are too many ways to translate a work.

To help with this, footnotes are scattered through the text, pointing the reader to an index that begins on page 211. Back there you can find out how long a “verst” was (3,300 feet/1.067 km), how large a “desyatin” was (117,600 sq. ft.), what “vint” was (a card game not unlike Bridge), and why Russians were so frugal with their sugar (it was a luxury). Given that these stories originated from 19th century Russian culture, these footnotes have much explaining to do. Their length, though necessary, can derail the reader’s momentum. If you put a hefty price on the momentum of your reading, as I do, it’s best to make an educated guess at each asterisk and move on. Revisit the definitions later.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories contains six stories, saving “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” for last. The other large story, surely regarded as one of Tolstoy’s “greatest hits”, is the sweeping “The Forged Coupon”. The remaining four are “The Two Old Men”, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, “Master and Workman”, and “Alyosha Pot”. “The Two Old Men” and “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” are placed appropriately at the beginning, considering that they are the two earliest stories of the collection. “The Forged Coupon” and “Alyosha Pot” were both published posthumously, skewering the chronology slightly, though there is a handy timeline of Tolstoy’s life and work following’s Slater’s notes on the translation.

Finding a way to fit “The Forged Coupon” into a chronological run of stories would have been difficult, since it took two years for Tolstoy to finish the work (apparently Tolstoy started writing the story over ten years after he was struck with the idea and the story itself was published six years after he finished it). So The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories does give you a sense of an arch, with Tolstoy reflecting on his years as a peasant at the beginning only to be diving headfirst into existential despair by the end.

All one needs is a small sampling of Tolstoy’s work to see why he was considered such an important writer. His characters were vivid and likeable, his themes didn’t hide behind a thick academic veil, and his prose was on the level. Nothing gets obfuscated and no reader is left behind. The six stories inside of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories reinforce these traits time and again, so much so that I wanted the book to continue indefinitely.

Right out of the gate “The Two Old Men” gives the reader a warm bear hug full of humanity. Two old peasant friends set forth on a religious journey and are separated on the way. The one who continues on to their destination has a disillusioning and hallucinating experience while the other stays behind in a decrepit village full of starving peasants. These weren’t just men who espoused their religion, they lived out its virtues.

In “Master and Workman”, Tolstoy taps into the theme that sacrificing one’s self for others just might be the greatest thing one can do in life. Moderately wealthy landowner Vasily Andreyevich doesn’t appear to be too warm to his peasant guide Nikita at the beginning of their journey, but manages to express warmth both literally and metaphorically for him by the story’s end.

Tolstoy’s time spent with peasants also caused him to cast a cynical eye upon materialism and capitalism with “How Much Land Does A Man Need?” The title is self-explanatory. This story comes from a time when acquiring land was the main way to keep up with the Joneses, and the protagonist certainly has a lot of land-grabbing competition swirling around him. In this story, we are led to believe that it’s actually the devil himself who drives the peasant Pahom to constantly outdo himself in land acquisition, only to be cut down while reaching for the mother load. This devil, however, makes so few appearances in the story that you can’t help but conclude that Pahom himself is the one to blame.

The three remaining stories wander into even more profound territory. “Alyosha Pot” is the shortest and strangest of them all. A young man named Alyosha is sent by his father to live as a servant for a more affluent family. And though he dies young after suffering an accident, he takes comfort in the one major revelation that he experienced in his short life: that he meant something to somebody else.

“The Forged Coupon” and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” are both enormous in scope but deal with life’s precariousness in very different ways. “The Forged Coupon” is a lesson in serendipity and the havoc it can impose. A young boy is stiffed on his allowance, so he enlists a friend’s help in forging an extra digit on a coupon. As this coupon trades hands in the village, misery seems to follow almost all who touch it.

Out of the havoc in Tolstoy’s stories however, come genuine human compassion and a shot at redemption for almost everyone. The storylines fly seemingly out of control at first. But as Kahn reassures us in the introduction, it’s not as scattershot as it seems. There is death and dying in almost all of these stories, but the novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” puts the subject front and center in the hot seat. Ivan Ilyich starts life inauspiciously, eventually climbs up the ladder of the legal world, and finds himself surrounded by inauthentic friends and colleagues and an emotionally distant family. A physical ailment overtakes him and he is not able to reconcile the disappointments of life with the promises of death until the very last minute.

As great as this collection is, Kahn’s introduction is challenging. He plunges deep between the words of Tolstoy’s stories to explain the religious and political convictions of Tolstoy and the corresponding political climate and class system in Russia at the time. If there was a flow or a rhythm to Kahn’s expositions, then I missed it, because this introduction was, for me, something through which to persevere. It’s difficult to tell if I would have suffered from a lack of understanding had I started reading these stories cold, by skipping the introduction, but there have to be more succinct ways to lay a foundation than a tightly-packed 24-page essay bogged down with so much socioeconomic information in academic language that it might frighten away the layperson.

No matter, because The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories is just right for said layperson. Not only are Tolstoy’s stories rich and touching, but they are fun to read — even the tragic ones.

RATING 9 / 10