Just Dying for It: On Tolstoy’s “Lives and Deaths: Essential Stories”

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TOLSTOY HAD MORE vitality than anyone he knew. His friends and family thought of him as a dynamo. He occasionally set out on foot for a 120-mile journey from Moscow to his estate at Yasnaya Polyana. Visitors who came from abroad to see the great man in his old age marveled at his energy and robustness. And yet he was also regularly debilitated by illness and depression.

The seriousness of his fiction, from his earliest novellas to his last, Hadji Murad, seems to me rooted in his continuous awareness of death. When his characters block themselves from recognizing death’s inevitability, Tolstoy has us hold them in contempt. Face death! It’s coming! Only fools avoid thinking about it! That is one of the morals of tale after tale, novel after novel. There are many morals, and if you read Tolstoy, you have to tolerate the moralizing because in between are some of the most glorious peaks of literary art on Earth. Creating stories of people who never existed was one of the activities that kept Tolstoy from brooding on and becoming disabled by mortality, because, after all, the characters had to do something while they weren’t dying. He also kept himself busy; he loved hunting (until he gave that up because of its cruelty), playing piano, walking, swimming, plowing, and — his most uninterrupted lifelong pleasure — horseback riding.

There are only four tales in this concise, beautiful little volume, and there could be several other Tolstoy collections with the same title that would contain none of these. (There is as well a 2017 edition translated by Kirsten Lodge, published by Broadview, that includes the first three of these stories and tiny excerpts from Tolstoy’s other writings on death.) The longest here and most famous, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, seems to me the work by Tolstoy most read by Americans. It often appears on syllabi and in anthologies of World Lit. Boris Dralyuk’s translation makes it clearer and sharper than perhaps any other rendering, and though I would rather read almost any other of Tolstoy’s novellas, and would have chosen either the thrilling Hadji Murad or the beautiful and stirring Master and Man as better works and more profoundly revealing about death, Ivan Ilyich has a new life for me.

Most rereaders will remember that Tolstoy starts the story by dramatizing the reaction of Ivan Ilyich’s colleagues and friends to a newspaper’s announcement of his death (well dramatized in Ikiru, Akira Kurosawa’s movie inspired by the novella): “And so, upon learning of Ivan Ilyich’s death, the first thought that occurred to each of the gentlemen gathered in the office concerned the potential reassignments or promotions that this death might occasion for the members themselves or for their acquaintances.” That is,

In addition to considerations of transfers and other potential career changes that this particular death might bring about, the very fact of the death of a close acquaintance prompted in each person who learnt of it, as such things always do, a joyous sense that it was he who had died, and not they.


I had forgotten the arch tone, however, and that in the first chapter there’s even a comic moment right out of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers (Tolstoy much enjoyed Trollope):

As the widow moved towards the couch (the whole room was stuffed with knick-knacks and furniture), the black lace of her black shawl caught on the carved edge of the table. Pyotr Ivanovich rose to help her, liberating the pouf, which rumbled and gave him a push. The widow began to detach the shawl herself, and Pyotr Ivanovich sat back down, again suppressing the rebellious pouf. But the widow didn’t manage to free the shawl completely, so Pyotr Ivanovich rose once more, at which point the pouf rebelled again and even gave a pop.


In the recounting of Ivan Ilyich’s career and hopeless fatal descent in his mid-40s (which comes as the result of a home-improvement accident), the image that has stayed with me is his nightmarish feeling that “he was undergoing the painful process of being stuffed into a black bag, narrow and deep — that he was being pushed ever further into the bag, but could not be pushed through completely.” Later, finally, “He was thrashing about inside the black bag into which he was being thrust by an invisible, irresistible force.” I’m reminded of this feeling every time I’m struggling to wake up and get entangled in heavy blankets. Reading this translation, however, I’m struck by other details:

what tormented Ivan Ilyich most was the fact that no one pitied him the way he wished to be pitied. There were times when Ivan Ilyich, after much suffering, wished above all else — however much it shamed him to admit it — to be pitied as sick children are pitied. He wanted someone to kiss, caress and weep over him, as they would caress and console a child.


His shame over this revelation known only to himself is the story’s most touching insight. He becomes even more isolated as he meets his end.

We learn that “in the latest stages of this dreadful loneliness Ivan Ilyich lived only in his memories of the past.” Tolstoy’s food-prompted time-traveling antedates Marcel Proust’s:

Images rose before him, one after the other. They always began with what was nearest and led back to what was most remote, to childhood, where they would linger. If Ivan Ilyich should recall the stewed prunes he had been offered that day, he would then recall the raw, shrivelled French plums of his childhood, their special taste […] and the memory of that taste would give rise to a whole series of memories from that time.


Tolstoy started The Death of Ivan Ilyich in 1882, took it up again at the end of 1884, and completed it in the summer of 1885.

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On May 31, 1856, Tolstoy noted in his diary: “I want to write the story of a horse.” In the novelist Ivan Turgenev’s version, Tolstoy got the inspiration from him:

Once, seeing Tolstoy in the summer in the village, we took a stroll in the evening by a pasture, not far from the estate. We saw, standing in the pasture an old horse of the most pitiable and suffering kind. […] We went up to it, to this unhappy gelding, and here Tolstoy started petting it, meanwhile saying that in his opinion it had to feel and think. I listened absolutely spellbound. He not only went into the situation of that unhappy existence himself, but led me into it. I didn’t hold back and said, “Listen, Lev Nikolaevich, truly at one time you were a horse. Go on and imagine the internal state of a horse.” [1]


It wasn’t until 1861 [2] that Tolstoy began writing “the story of a horse”; he kept kicking it around until early May 1863, when he gave it up as “false” [3] and took up writing a book that became War and Peace. Tolstoy set aside his fictional works the way some of us set aside exercise routines. Years later, he could pick them up again. When his wife Sofia, as mistress of his manuscripts, was putting together a new edition of his collected works in 1885, she found the story in his papers and asked him to give it a look-over. He began revising it, and apparently enjoyed feeling himself “swimming in the free current of his imagination.” [4] In 1886, Sofia Tolstaya published the revised story and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It is one of his longest allegorical tales. Most of it is told from the point of view, and in the voice, of the titular horse, including a five-night story-hour in which old Pace-setter recounts his life, pre- and post-gelding (in case you or your horse have blocked it out, “to geld” means “to castrate”).

“My spots,” says Pace-setter, “which people found so ugly, seemed to delight the other horses. They would surround me, admire me, flirt and frisk with me. I began to forget what people had said about my spots, began to feel happy. But soon I would have my first experience of grief, and its cause was Mother.”

As a child of the 1960s, I can’t help thinking of Mister Ed, the situation-comedy starring a wisecracking horse named Mister Ed and his human sidekick Wilbur, but this time with Mister Ed lying on straw in his psychoanalyst’s barn. Pace-setter remembers his mother, frisky with springtime, neglecting her poor spotted son: “It seemed she was a different horse altogether. At times she would, for no reason at all, begin to frolic, running around the yard — behaviour terribly out of keeping with her venerable age.” She runs off for a rendezvous with a “powerful” stallion. “I felt I had lost my mother’s love forever. And all because I am piebald, I thought, recalling what people had said about my coat.”

Though “Pace-setter” (Kholstomer in Russian, called “Strider” in Louise and Aylmer Maude’s translation) is immensely popular in Russia and is even taken seriously by Tolstoy scholars, I find the horse-narrated passages fairy-tale-ish at best and, at worst, maudlin, in the fashion of Hans Christian Andersen (whose stories Tolstoy found “charming,” [5] and one of which he translated in 1857). The horse-sense philosopher reflects on the concept of ownership:

many of the people who claimed that I was “their own” horse never rode me. Other people did that. Nor did these so-called owners of mine ever feed me. […] [T]he people who treated me kindly were never my owners: they were coachmen, farriers, total strangers. And the more I observed, the more convinced I became that this went beyond us horses — that the concept of “mine” in general had no other basis than the low, beastly human instinct they call the sense or right of property. […] Yes, in life, people aspire not to do what they think good and right, but to label as many objects as possible “their own.” I am now convinced that this is the essential difference between people and us. Setting aside all our other superior traits, this alone places us above humans on the ladder of living beings.


My favorite parts, though, involve Pace-setter’s dissolute former owner, Nikita Serpukhovskoy, who “was over forty, tall, fat, bald-pated, with bushy moustaches and whiskers. It was clear that he had been handsome in his youth but now he had declined — physically, morally, financially”:

Nikita Serpukhovskoy had managed to squander two million rubles over the course of his life, and now owed a hundred and twenty thousand. […] He had begun to drink — that is, to get drunk; this was new for him, although, properly speaking, he never actually began or stopped drinking. But the clearest signs of his descent were the restlessness of his glances (his eyes had become shifty) and the unsteadiness of his voice and gestures. This restlessness was so striking because it had obviously taken hold of him quite recently; one could see that he had never, in all his life, been afraid of anything or anyone, and that this new fear, so alien to his nature, had come to him only now, after great suffering.


Where Serpukhovskoy is soon to die with a worthless hide (“Neither his skin, nor his meat, nor his bones proved to be of any use whatsoever”), Pace-setter has a corpse that is worth something. Tolstoy shows us it being recycled not only by the flayer but by a family of wolves and an impoverished peasant.

Readers of Anna Karenina might agree with Tolstoy’s friend Nikolai Strakhov that the least effective characterization of a primary player in that novel is Vronsky — the handsome, horse-loving military man who sweeps Anna off her feet and into his arms. Tolstoy had trouble bringing Vronsky into clear, consistent focus, but he succeeds, it seems to me, when Vronsky, not having to talk, communes with his darling horse Frou-Frou. (Unfortunately, Vronsky accidentally breaks her back, and he then has to kill her to put her out of her misery.)

Death and horses were the only dependables in Tolstoy’s life. But Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy’s giant contemporary (the two rivals never met), found something annoying about Tolstoy’s men being so smitten with horses and wrote in an essay that characters “such as Vronsky […] who can speak of nothing but horses, and who is even unable to find a subject for conversation other than horses, are, of course, curious from the standpoint of ascertaining their type, but very monotonous and confined to a certain taste only.” [6]

I would be Dostoyevsky’s neigh-sayer about that. Tolstoy’s passions are always interesting. As for the short story “Three Deaths” (1858), the truly profound death in this extremely moral tale is of a tree:

Suddenly a strange sound, alien to nature, echoed and died away at the edge of the forest. But then it sounded again and was repeated steadily, over and over, down at the trunk of one of the motionless trees. One of the crowns began to tremble unusually, its juicy leaves began to whisper something and a redbreast that had been sitting on one of its branches fluttered up twice with a whistle and, twitching its tail, perched on another tree.


The noise of the axe below grew duller and duller, white chips, dripping with sap, flew onto the dewy grass and a faint crack was heard beneath the blows. The tree shuddered all over and leant to the side, then quickly straightened itself, shivering fearfully on its roots. For a moment all was still — but then the tree leant again, the crack sounded once more, and, snapping its boughs and lowering its branches, it fell, laying its crown on the damp earth.


It’s enough to make me weep.

Finally, there’s the posthumously published “Alyosha the Pot.” I love it and teach it every semester. Almost everyone in my community college classroom identifies with the humble hero, a bullied, overworked, under-appreciated employee. Alyosha does take some satisfaction in service, but he discovers sympathy and love only from a fellow servant, the cook Ustinia. He wants to marry her but is forbidden from doing so by his greedy father and begrudging employers. For relentless Alyosha, though he’s still a young man, death is a relief:

“You really dying?” asked Ustinia.


“Sure I am. Can’t live forever. We’ve all got to go sometime,” Alyosha said, speaking quickly, as usual. “Thank you, Ustyusha. Thank you for feeling sorry for me. Good thing they didn’t let us marry. Nothin’ would’ve come of it. Worked out for the best.”


Tolstoy’s famous death at the age of 82, in a train stationmaster’s cabin far from home, after running away from his anxious and broken wife, was ridiculous and disappointed everyone, except for the news media of 1910, which rushed there to witness and document the family farce by telegraph, photography, and even moving pictures. Despite what Dralyuk describes as “the breathtaking fearlessness of his imagination,” the creative visionary did not see that kind of death coming.

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Bob Blaisdell’s Creating Anna Karenina: Tolstoy and the Birth of Literature’s Most Enigmatic Heroine will be published this summer by Perseus.


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[1] Source: https://rvb.ru/tolstoy/02comm/0278.htm

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] L. N. Tolstoy Entsyklopediya. Moscow: Prosveshchenie, 2009. 125.

[5] Nikolaj Gusev. Letopis′ zhizni i tvorchestva L. N. Tolstogo. Vol. 1: 1828-1890. Moscow, 1958. 176.

[6] F. M. Dostoievsky [sic]. The Diary of a Writer. Translated by Boris Brasol. New York: George Braziller. 1954. 610.