‘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.