The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories gives us recent translations of 11 of Leo Tolstoy’s poignant short stories by the two most renowned Russian translators today, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
The stories collected in this book, following an illuminating introduction by Pevear, include “The Diary of a Madman,” “The Kreutzer Sonata,” and “Hadji Murat,” which literary critic Harold Bloom has called “the best story in the world.” And, of course, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” a work of such insightful criticism of our modern consumer culture that we shouldn’t be able to stomach upper-middle class values in quite the same way after reading it.
This new translation is like a fine olive oil — it goes down smoothly, but leaves a biting, toothsome, lingering impression. Pevear and Volokhonsky imbue Tolstoy’s brilliance with great poetry — consider this description: “dead-man fashion, his stiffened limbs sunk into the lining of the coffin.”
But they are also not afraid to write directly and simply if this is what Tolstoy wanted. Pevear and Volokhonsky know how to use bluntness to great effect, such as saying the death of his two children made family life “still more unpleasant for Ivan Ilyich.”
As the title reminds us, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is ultimately about death, or rather in what way life should be lived considering that we all must face the leveling truth of our own deaths. Ilyich feels strongly the inharmoniousness of death existing within life; it should not be, it is terrifying, yet there it is. This is perhaps the best account in literature of the physiological and psychological panic man feels when facing his own death.
In “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Tolstoy makes his caustic yet sympathetic critique of modern man’s avoidance of death, and how this aversion gives our lives less meaning than they deserve. From the moment that Ilyich’s friend, upon hearing of Ilyich’s death, wonders if he might now receive a promotion, Tolstoy shows us that he is writing a piece of cultural criticism. As Tolstoy writes, “…the very fact of the death of a close acquaintance called up in all those who heard of it, as always, a feeling of joy that it is he who was dead and not I.”