The Death Of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy
I’ve previously posted on one long piece in this book: Hadji Murat. The remainder of this book is a collection of short stories selected by the book’s translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, no doubt to show off the diversity in Tolstoy’s story structure and subject matter. But in doing this, they’ve perhaps inadvertently selected tales that, except for a pair, depict Tolstoy’s project of using story to demonstrate his views on morality.
Some of his moral depictions here (and almost all literature trifles with ethical dilemmas of the author’s times to one degree or another) are as subtly put as those modern by a hundred years. On the other hand, others are actually quite ham-handed. But more on this subject below and in the following two weeks’ posts.
The translators made these stories entertaining – not only by showing us the more timeless aspects of Tolstoy’s literary thinking – but in herding them ever so gracefully into modern times via a more contemporary language that refuses to betray Tolstoy and the language of that time. As I’ve implied previously, these two translators are without peer in doing so.
Possibly since I’m a blue collar dude by sensibility, my favorite story (besides Hadji Murat) is "Master and Man," in which a man of means, Vassily Andreich and a servant, Nikita, an older muzhik, or peasant, take off on a winter trip to another town with a snowstorm looming.
The story is a masterwork of the dynamics between the two men, how they complement one another as they manage their inherent class conflicts. As well, it depicts as deftly as any modern work might the ways in which Nikita belongs to nature, in which he understands, despite his usual drunken state, how to navigate nature in such times and how to yield to it in order to survive. Vassily, on the other hand, is headstrong to a fault, which proves his undoing in this Jack London-style story of man versus the elements.
I’m not going to blather on about each story in this way. Instead, what I propose is a radical departure from my usual book posts.
I’ve mentioned several times here my observation that secular culture’s Achilles heel is its underdeveloped sense of what’s ethical and what’s not. And further, my wish that literature be looked upon as something I’ve called secular scripture, writing that complements religious precepts and writings over the millennia on ethics (okay, some – including me at times – would also wish that literature’s depictions of ethical successes and failures actually supplant those of archaic religious texts)
So. If I’m going to rattle on about such high-minded things, I think I should get that conversation going.
Over the next two posts, I’ll use two more of Tolstoy’s stories in this collection as springboards into the possible uses of literature as ethical texts in the secular world.
My rating for the book: 4-1/2 of 5 stars
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Native American culture. Education. Creative writing.