“There is no explanation.”
Written eight years after the publication of Anna Karenina—a time during which, despite the global success of his novels, Leo Tolstoy renounced fiction in favor of religious and philosophical tracts—THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYCH represents perhaps the most keenly realized melding of Tolstoy’s spirituality with his artistic skills.
Here in a vibrant new translation, the tale of a judge who slowly comes to understand that his illness is fatal was inspired by Tolstoy’s observation at his local train station of hundreds of shackled prisoners being sent off to Siberia, many for petty crimes. When he learned that the sentencing judge had died, Tolstoy was roused to consider the judge’s thoughts during his final days—a study on the acceptance of mortality only deepened by the death, during its writing, of one of Tolstoy’s own young children.
The final result is a magisterial story, both chilling and beguiling in the fullness of its empathy, its quotidian detail, and the beauty of its prose, and is, as many have claimed it to be, one of the most moving novellas ever written.
LEO TOLSTOY was born into the upper levels of the Russian aristocracy (his mother was a princess) in 1828. After a licentious youth, he joined the army to fight in the Crimean War, and published his first novel, Childhood, while serving in an artillery unit. After participating in some of the deadliest battles of the century, such as the Siege of Sebastopol, he quit the military in disgust. But the experience proved the inspiration for some of his greatest writing, includingSebastopol Sketches and War and Peace. After the war, he traveled throughout Europe but was disillusioned by Western materialism and returned to his family estate, Yasnaya Polyana. There, he married, fathered 13 children, founded a school for young peasants, and wrote Anna Karenina. But in 1879 Tolstoy underwent a spiritual crisis, and denounced the Orthodox church, private property, and the demands of the flesh. His extreme asceticism inspired a widespread, cult-like worship, but it also exacerbated a decades-long tension with his wife, Sofia. In 1910, after an argument with her, he fled the estate, only to die shortly thereafter at the nearby railroad station.