‘The Death and Ivan Ilyich’ by Leo Tolstoy

Terror, humour, pathos, anguish, illumination: a full – and wondrous – house! Ivan Ilych, forty-five-years-old, leads a seemingly “straightforward, ordinary” life. He’s pursued “the path of duty” assiduously – a promotion to the Court of Justice (“all that mattered was five thousand a year”), “chit-chat with colleagues”, dinners, evenings spent playing whist. Small disturbances – the animosity between husband and wife; the cool relationships with his daughter and son – are put to one side. Afterall, the delights of Ivan Ilych’s working life demand his full attention. “The knowledge of the power that he wielded,” Tolstoy deftly explains, opening up a knowing distance between narrator and subject, “the possibility of ruining anyone that he fancied ruining, the gravitas (even if it was all outward show)…all of this gave him pleasure.” Then the swift – barely noticeable – turn of the cogs: Ilych falls awkwardly from a ladder in the drawing room of the family’s fashionable new home (notice the moment the accident happens: he is demonstrating to a “dull-witted” upholsterer how to hang draperies – more concern with “outward show”). A bruise appears; Ivan Ilych is wrong to be unconcerned. During the next thirty-nine pages, Tolstoy anatomises – while simultaneously inhabiting (the extraordinary intensity and mobility of the characterisation feels as much rooted in the author’s body as his mind) the dying man’s loneliness, his memories (my favourite passages include those hyper-charged visions which arrive from childhood) his terrors and regrets. As Ivan Ilych approaches the end, the tumults of his physical suffering intersect with a desperate and terrible moral awakening: “What,” the dying man wonders, his kindly servant Gerasim sleeping peacefully at his side, “if I’ve really been wrong in the way I’ve lived my whole life?”  

(p.s. see also ‘This is Water’, David Foster Wallace’s address to Kenyon College in 2005)

First published in Russian, 1886. Widely available in translation, including as a Penguin Classic, 2006, and online, including here

‘Master and Man’ by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude 

Chosen by Hannah Piekarz

This is the perfect winter story – a horse-driven sledge ride through a snow blizzard, snug under layers of thick fur coats. The master, Vasili Andreevich, sets off during holiday festivities in order to get ahead with his business affairs, taking his man, peasant Nikita along for the trip. Little is spoken between them, other than discussion of where they think they are and the best way forwards. We’re treated to a moment-by-moment journey along icy tracks in fading light, as they double-back on themselves, twice. It evokes being lost in a landscape, decision-making and the endurance to continue until you encounter way markers to navigate yourself back onto the map. While the plot resembles most of my own rambles into the countryside, it is also an allegory of the speculative educated landowner versus the learnt intuition and sobriety of his worker. When the men are entirely lost, they are simultaneously isolated yet free. The cool crisp atmosphere sharpens the delivery of the story where the moral is found deep, blanketed under soft snow and warm insulation. These pages offer a restorative hug to your soul. 

First published 1895. Collected in Master and Man and Other Stories, Penguin, 1977. Read it here. Hannah Piekarz writes science and for the screen, continuing the search for the universal in the specific (works in retail).

‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy has his flaws, but I challenge anyone to find better, more precise, more careful delineations of human psychology and behaviour. His novels are masterworks, but he applies the same rigour and compassion to his stories. This might be halfway between the two, but in its focus and intensity, I’m claiming it for a story. I have never read anything by him and come away less than amazed – but reading this gave me a sense of profound and life-changing understanding that very few works of art or literature can manage. 

First published in Russian, 1886. Widely available in translation, including as a Penguin Classic, 2006, and online, including here

‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ by Leo Tolstoy

This long short story (or is it a novella?) was another Amanda Holmes Duffy recommenddation. I read it when I was living in Brussels. The life we led there was affluent, comfortable and sociable. But what if that is not enough? Should there be something more to life? I did not feel that I was ever as shallow as Ivan Ilyich but Tolstoy’s story does sound alarm bells to all who read it. 

First published in Russian in 1886. Widely translated. Currently available as a Penguin Little Black Classic and in the Melville House Press Art of the Novella series.

‘Master and Man’ by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Ronald Wilks and Paul Foote

Even in this, the cossetted age in which we find ourselves, snow is one of the seasons’ few natural phenomena capable of transforming the country, blanketing and blotting out the familiar, imperilling the living and stalling society.

Leo Tolstoy, at the time of my writing, has never made an appearance in A Personal Anthology. On the one hand, this isn’t surprising. The author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace is always going to be remembered as a novelist. But even if those books had somehow gone unwritten it’s still likely, imho, that Tolstoy would enjoy a reputation for greatness purely on the basis of his short fiction, tales which wrestle with hefty themes in an unpretentious and eminently readable manner: ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, ‘Alyosha the Pot’, ‘The Forged Coupon’, and this, a seemingly simple tale of what can happen to man when besieged by snow.

Vasily Andreevich, an affluent landowner, enlists a deferential peasant in his pay to accompany him on short sleigh ride to a neighbouring rival in order to close a business deal. They find themselves beset by a snowstorm, one through which the master insists they must travel. As they do so, the blizzard grows more extreme, and the three of them (Mukhorty, their horse, is a character in his own right) soon discover they have strayed from the road and are now hopelessly and hazardously lost. Stripped, quite literally, of life’s cosy certainties, Andreevich – not unlike Scrooge – experiences a true Yuletide revelation, one that upends his self-conception and forces him to appraise his fellow man anew.

The spare structure of ‘Master and Man’ has the feel of a parable (and at times a ghost story) but it’s Tolstoy’s signature nuance and care when it comes to his character – their interplay with others in particular and society in general – which transmute this story into one of the most affecting and essential pieces of winter writing we have.

First published 1895. Collected in Master and Man and Other Stories, Penguin, 1977. Read it online here

Chosen by Richard V. Hirst. Richard is the editor of We Were Strangers, an anthology of new stories inspired by Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, Confingo Press, 2018.