Although Leo Tolstoy is primarily known for writing the juggernaut masterpieces Anna Karenina and War and Peace, readers venturing into the less formidable remainder of his canon will find within them the same incisive narrative clarity, that overarching symphonic structure, and those profound eternal questions that continue to immortalize him nearly a century after his death. His shorter fiction, while little resembling precise Chekhovian gems or pithy O. Henry exercises, encompasses a macrocosm of immense character and depth, highlighting more pronouncedly his work's finest qualities pared down to concision.
While the market is abundant with myriad editions of Tolstoy's stories, this new volume of his late fiction is particularly remarkable for the collaboration of translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, both of whom have rendered critically acclaimed translations of great Russian classics. Seasoned readers of Dostoevsky will invariably direct neophytes to their landmark The Brothers Karamazov, considered today as definitive for mirroring the author's ironic humor, tortured spirituality, and most importantly, his language's cadence and tonality. At the turn of the millennium, the couple released their Anna Karenina, which later garnered international attention upon Oprah's promotion of the title in her book club. Two years ago, Pevear and Volokhonsky also published their hefty, beautiful version of War and Peace, enthralling readers of serious literature and becoming the subject of a four-week online discussion presided by the New York Times.
The eleven stories in this volume, all but one of which was written after Anna Karenina, signify a distinct change in artistic character--a spiritual crisis engendered when the author converted to Christianity--from Tolstoy's earlier novels. Pevear notes in his introduction that, "Here the conflicting claims of art and moral judgment strike a very difficult balance, and its precariousness is strongly felt." Although the polarities between the classes and the idyllic depictions of Russian life still command a presence in these stories, central to them now is the "confrontation with the mystery of death," which, though initially introduced through Anna Karenina's progressively "tragic atmosphere," emerges here as an unmistakably crucial motif.
For instance, in the titular novella, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," Tolstoy concerns us with the presently deceased Ivan Ilyich, a judge whose life "was most simple and ordinary and most terrible." Though commencing as a focused reflection on the hero's death, the story gradually progresses as an examination of Ivan's life, tracing his ascent through the social hierarchy until a seemingly arbitrary injury begins to discomfit him. Upon realizing that he faces a terminal condition, his psyche similarly deteriorates, causing him to lash on his family until he alienates all but Gerasim, a servant boy, whose compassion moves him to question the true meaning of life.
With the dark and harrowing "The Kreutzer Sonata," Tolstoy tells a disturbing tale regarding the moral nature of love, sex, and seduction channeled through the story's mad narrator, Pozdnyshev. He tells us that, before marriage, he lived "in depravity," which he envisions more as a self-deprecating act of abstinence. After marrying his wife, both alternate between periods of passionate love and violent altercations. During the latter years of their union, she takes a liking to a dashing violinist, who invites her to participate in a duet by playing Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata. The music's tension rouses a change in Pozdnyshev, who finds that it "affects one fearfully...in a provoking way." Returning later from a foreign trip, he comes home to find them together, and, in a fit of anger, murders his wife.
In "Master and Man," one of the author's most touchingly composed stories, a wealthy merchant, Vassily Andreich, and his muzhik companion, Nikita, are pitted against a treacherous whiteout that strands them during their circuitous wanderings towards another town. As master and man are confronted with the prospects of perishing in the cold, Vassily ruminates about the value of his societal contributions while regarding the unenterprising muzhiks as unworthy of grace; Nikita, on the other hand, ponders about his "ceaseless servitude" and how death might affect his place in society. As the snowstorm continues to batter them, Vassily is seized with a rapturous vision, and undergoes a startling transformation of character right before he expires.
While many of these display the fine-tuned prose of Tolstoy's maturity, the most unconventional hero of his authorship--and perhaps the finest creation of his pen--revolves not around a Russian compatriot wrestling with his tormented self, but rather, a Muslim warrior who, although by no means peaceable, stands as an essay on the art of the hero. "Hadji Murat," an artfully symmetrical creation that begins and ends with the scrutiny of a twig, tells a dramatically arresting tale of heroism about its eponymous Chechen rebel commander, who allies with the Russians after a falling-out with his imam.
Unlike the majority of Tolstoy's creations, many of who are deeply flawed and resignedly human, Hadji Murat is an epic hero streaked with uncommonly divine qualities--his daring, his warrior-like dexterity, his uncanny leadership, his heroic ethos, his wise understanding of reality, and his resignation of fate to God--that mark a departure from the author's conventional realization of character. Although death inevitably constitutes his destiny, he sees it not as an object of mystery, but instead for what it merely is--a physical detachment from the earthly realm. This apotheosis in character has never been more strongly defined in Tolstoy's oeuvre, and if it were to stand as the sole exponent of his art, it would still seal his reputation as one of literature's finest craftsmen.
Indeed, throughout this collection, life and death's many mysteries pose certain powerful questions that reflect the important ruminations of Tolstoy's art. As with "The Kreutzer Sonata," stories like "The Devil" and "Father Sergius" challenge us to think about the moral gravity of sex, lust, and love and the sometimes-drastic sacrifices we must make in order to achieve inner peace and happiness. Another story, an eccentric parable entitled "The Forged Coupon," recalls the corruption that laces an entire community when a young man, in desperation for money, dishonestly alters a coupon's face value. This bizarre ordeal is ironically settled only when one of the indicted attacks a old woman whose final mournful, yet spiritually poignant words engender a change of heart. And in a stroke that captures the author's nihilistic tendencies, "The Diary of a Madman" chronicles one man's descent into madness, his unwillingness to come to terms with spirituality, and a final association with a faith of his own invention that closely mimics Tolstoy's version of Christianity.
If Tolstoy's shorter fiction hardly approaches the impressive breadth he invested in his largest masterpieces, he manages to award his characters with a sense of spiritual destiny, with voices wrestling with truth, life, God, and morality. Though many of these morose creatures often face an inevitable end, they also dawn on the idea that happiness and truth are unattainable in this world. Rather, these characters come to the transcendent realization that redemption, if only by acknowledging the universal need for morality and truth, is possible for even the most tormented and flawed of us.