The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
by Leo Tolstory (1886)
translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2009)
Knopf (2009)
500 pp


To continue this month’s look at beautiful books you might want to give for the holidays, I am excited to showcase this beautiful hardcover, just released. As a collector’s item, I don’t think one can go wrong investing in this and in the hardcover War and Peace Knopf released a few years ago. They look great on a shelf, especially next to each other.

This new collection of Tolstoy’s stories contains the following eleven works:

  • The Prisoner of the Caucasus
  • The Diary of a Madman
  • The Death of Ivan Ilyich
  • The Kreutzer Sonata
  • The Devil
  • Master and Man
  • Father Sergius
  • After the Ball
  • The Forged Coupon
  • Alyosha the Pot
  • Hadji Murat

And what’s even better? It’s a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Pevear and Volokhonsky certainly don’t need me to introduce them. Since they entered the world of translating together twenty years ago, their important work has been widely and rightly praised. Over the past decade (I first got to know their work through their translation of Anna Karenina), I do my best to make sure friends don’t read anything less. When I see someone who downloaded Crime and Punishment from some free online translation (valuable as that service is), I intervene. In fact, I’ve even held off reading War and Peace because I had faith that they’d translate it eventually. When that translation was finally released a couple of years ago, I bought it the day it was out.

Unfortunately, I still haven’t read it. However, I’ve read enough of the discussion flowing from that translation to know that people were a bit befuddled by some of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s choices. I’d like to spend a second defending one of the most derided choices of them all: the choice to say, when the characters are looking at the dead prince, “what had been he” rather than something along the lines of “what was left of the prince,” used in another translation. I’m being completely honest when I say I support Pevear and Volokhonsky’s less colloquial “what had been he.” The negative presence in “what had been” is much more profound than the positive presence of “what was left.” Furthermore, “he,” that wonderful subjective pronoun, is much more universal and human and sobering (and potentially more noble, even) than “the prince.” I appreciate their attention to the inherent, often subversive, meanings of syntax and grammar, and their courage to take their knowledge to the printer.

But, if that scares you, don’t let it! These aren’t convoluted translations, obfuscated unless you try to decypher the rules of grammar. No! — they are flowing, at once precise and impressionistic. I first read Anna Karenina in Constance Garnett’s translation. Ms. Garnett did wonderful work — she did — but it is well known that her Russian wasn’t solid and that when she encountered difficult passages she’d simply skip them or improvise. Still, very very important work from Ms. Garnett, who is a great stylist in her own right. But when I read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation I was shocked at the unveiling of multiple layers I think were compressed in the old translation. To their credit, Pevear and Volokhonsky are adamant that they are merely — through a wonderfully rich and thorough collaborative process — being faithful to the original.

Through their unique husband-wife translation process, they have produced what many consider to be the “definitive” translations of the Russian masters Fyodor Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov (1990), Crime and Punishment (1992), Notes from Underground (1993), Demons (1994), The Eternal Husband and Other Stories (1997), The Idiot (2002), The Adolescent (2003), and The Double and The Gambler(2005)), Mikhail Bulgakov (Master and Margarita (1997)), Anton Chekhov (Stories (2002), The Complete Short Novels (2000)), Nikolai Gogol (Dead Souls (1996), The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol (1998)), and Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina (2000), War and Peace (2007), and most recently The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (2009)). They are currently working on Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, so there’s another book I’ve meant to read and finally will thanks to their services.

For people who haven’t read Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich might be a less intimidating place to start than, say, Anna Karenina or War and Peace (someday!). One can witness how well he manages narrative without having to see how well he meshes narrative on top of narrative on top of narrative. Not that this short novella is simple.

At the beginning, we attend the relatively young (45) Ivan Ilyich’s funeral with his friends and family. Tolstoy, showing why he is a master, creates deep characters in a sentence, showing us their internal thoughts, which are far from Ilyich himself. Those short passages create real personalities with motives that spring from undisclosed events we are nevertheless able to imagine fully. Then the story shifts back in time. The first part recounts the life of Ivan Ilyich before he got sick. We meet him as an ambitious professional, working to claw his way up the hierarchy until he finally became a high judge. We see his marriage to the beautiful Praskovya Fyodorovna, whom we met at the funeral and who didn’t seem to be offering the right kind of mourning for someone who just lost her husband, at least, not entirely. Their unfortunate marriage showcases Tolstoy’s masterful use of inconsistency to create an entirely realistic feel. For example, at the the end of one page we read about a fight they had: “The quarrel was big and unpleasant, and Praskovya Fyodorovna called him ‘fool’ and ‘slouch.’ And he clutched his head and angrily said something about divorce.” Near the beginning of the next page we read this seemingly inconsistent passage: “So they lived. And it all went on like this without change, and it was all very well.” As as a narrator, Tolstoy has the ability to enrich his own voice through this type of irony that is, nevertheless, entirely realistic in the context.

That “all was very well” is soon shown to be more the result of complacency and evasion than the result of anything actaully being well. And look at how well Tolstoy takes these characters apart to show just how their unhappiness feeds on itself:

And now Praskovya Fyodorovna could say, not without grounds, that her husband had a difficult character. With the habit of exaggeration typical of her, she said that he had always had a terrible character, and it had needed all her goodness to put up with it for twenty years.  t was true that the quarrels now began with him. His carping always began just before dinner and often precisely as he was beginning to eat, over the soup. He would point out that something was wrong with one of the plates, or that the food was not right, or that his son had his elbow on the table, or it was his daughter’s hairstyle. And he blamed Praskovya Fyodorovna for it all. At first Praskovya Fyodorovna protested and said unpleasant things to him, but twice at the start of dinner he flew into such a rage that she realized it was a morbid condition provoked in him by the tasting of food, and she restrained herself; she no longer protested, but only hurried with dinner. Her restraint Praskovya Fyodorovna set down to her own great credit. Having decided that he husband had a terrible character and made her life miserable, she began to pity herself. And the more she pitied herself, the more she hated her husband. She began to wish for his death, yet she could not wish for it, because then there would be no salary. And that irritated her against him still more. She considered herself dreadfully wretched precisely in that even his death could not save her, and she became irritated, concealed it, and this concealed irritation of hers increased his irritation.

The second half of the novel is bleak for Ilyich. He finds out that he has some ailment, perhaps nothing, perhaps something terrible, the doctors don’t know. Again, we get to see just how well Tolstoy knows this character — and human motivation in general:

Ivan Ilyich’s main occupation since the time of his visit to the doctor became the precise following of the doctor’s prescriptions concerning hygiene and the taking of medicines, and paying heed to his pain and to all the functions of his organism. People’s illness and people’s health became Ivan Ilyich’s main interests. When there was talk in his presence of someone being ill, or dying, or recovering, especially of an illness similar to his own, he listened, trying to conceal his excitement, asked questions, and made applications to his illness.

He obsesses over his sickness and becomes quite superstitious in his attempts to evade death, his own death being absolutely unfathomable to him. This sickness affects his persistently horrible relationship with his wife and his family. For them, there is nothing to be done, so his continual bad spirit is something they seek to escape. This causes his spirit to become worse. What a tragic spiral we see as Ivan Ilyich comes to realize just how profound this development is:

It was impossible to deceive himself: something dreadful, new, and so significant that nothing more significant had ever happened in his life, was being accomplished in Ivan Ilyich. And he alone knew of it. Everyone around him either did not understand or did not want to understand and thought that everything in the world was going on as before.

We already know that Ivan Ilyich will die. We have a good idea at how his family and friends will greet his death. However, though we watch Ilyich’s fear steadily rise as his death approaches, we are not certain how he will greet his death. To be honest, for a while I didn’t like this story because I thought the ending was facile, a bit of annoying morality at the end of a great narrative. But rereading the novella, I can see how wrong I was. Sure, the morality is there (this was written shortly after Tolstoy converted to Christianity), and it is meant to teach us a lesson on how to live; however, the complexity doesn’t go away, not when we remember the funeral and see that what Ilyich thinks upon his death does not actually happen. Then we can recall the complex spirals in the tale and see that while Tolstoy is teaching us a lesson, he’s not suggesting it is easy to live it.

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