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The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (Penguin Classics) Paperback – May 27, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Count Leo Tolstoy was born on September 9, 1828, in Yasnaya Polyana, Russia. Orphaned at nine, he was brought up by an elderly aunt and educated by French tutors until he matriculated at Kazan University in 1844. In 1847, he gave up his studies and, after several aimless years, volunteered for military duty in the army, serving as a junior officer in the Crimean War before retiring in 1857. In 1862, Tolstoy married Sophie Behrs, a marriage that was to become, for him, bitterly unhappy. His diary, started in 1847, was used for self-study and self-criticism; it served as the source from which he drew much of the material that appeared not only in his great novels War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), but also in his shorter works. Seeking religious justification for his life, Tolstoy evolved a new Christianity based upon his own interpretation of the Gospels. Yasnaya Polyana became a mecca for his many converts At the age of eighty-two, while away from home, the writer suffered a break down in his health in Astapovo, Riazan, and he died there on November 20, 1910.

Anthony Briggs has written, translated, or edited twenty books in the fields of Russian and English literature.

David McDuff was educated at the University of Edinburgh and has translated a number of works for Penguin Classics, including Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

Ronald Wilks studied Russian language and literature at Trinity College, Cambridge, and later Russian literature at London University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1972. He has also translated ‘The Little Demon’ by Sologub and, for Penguin Classics, My Childhood, My Apprenticeship and My Universities by Gorky, The Golovlyov Family by Saltykov-Shchedrin and four volumes of stories by Chekhov: The Kiss and Other Stories, The Duel and Other Stories, The Party and Other Stories and The Fiancée and Other Stories.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Hadji Murat


I was returning home through the fields. It was the very middle of summer. The meadows had been mowed, and they were just
about to reap the rye.

There is a delightful assortment of flowers at that time of year: red, white, pink, fragrant, fluffy clover; impudent marguerites; milk-white “love-me-love-me-nots” with bright yellow centers and a fusty, spicy stink; yellow wild rape with its honey smell; tall-standing, tulip-shaped campanulas, lilac and white; creeping vetch; neat scabious, yellow, red, pink, and lilac; plantain with its faintly pink down and faintly perceptible, pleasant smell; cornflowers, bright blue in the sun and in youth, and pale blue and reddish in the evening and when old; and the tender, almond-scented, instantly wilting flowers of the bindweed.

I had gathered a big bouquet of various flowers and was walking home, when I noticed in a ditch, in full bloom, a wonderful crimson thistle of the kind which is known among us as a “Tartar” and is carefully mowed around, and, when accidentally mowed down, is removed from the hay by the mowers, so that it will not prick their hands. I took it into my head to pick this thistle and put it in the center of the bouquet. I got down into the ditch and, having chased away a hairy bumblebee that had stuck itself into the center of the flower and sweetly and lazily fallen asleep there, I set about picking the flower. But it was very difficult: not only was the stem prickly on all sides, even through the handkerchief I had wrapped around my hand, but it was so terribly tough that I struggled with it for some five minutes, tearing the fibers one by one. When I finally tore off the flower, the stem was all ragged, and the flower no longer seemed so fresh and beautiful. Besides, in its coarseness and gaudiness it did not fit in with the delicate flowers of the bouquet. I was sorry that I had vainly destroyed and thrown away a flower that had been beautiful in its place. “But what energy and life force,” I thought, remembering the effort it had cost me to tear off the flower. “How staunchly it defended itself, and how dearly it sold its life.”

The way home went across a fallow, just-plowed field of black earth. I walked up a gentle slope along a dusty, black-earth road. The plowed field was a landowner’s, a very large one, so that to both sides of the road and up the hill ahead nothing could be seen except the black, evenly furrowed, not yet scarified soil. The plowing had been well done; nowhere on the field was there a single plant or blade of grass to be seen—it was all black. “What a destructive, cruel being man is, how many living beings and plants he annihilates to maintain his own life,” I thought, involuntarily looking for something alive amidst this dead, black field. Ahead of me, to the right of the road, I spied a little bush. When I came closer, I recognized in this bush that same “Tartar” whose flower I had vainly picked and thrown away.

The “Tartar” bush consisted of three shoots. One had been broken off, and the remainder of the branch stuck out like a cut-off arm. On each of the other two there was a flower. These flowers had once been red, but now they were black. One stem was broken and half of it hung down, with the dirty flower at the end; the other, though all covered with black dirt, still stuck up. It was clear that the whole bush had been run over by a wheel, and afterwards had straightened up and therefore stood tilted, but stood all the same. As if a piece of its flesh had been ripped away, its guts turned inside out, an arm torn off, an eye blinded. But it still stands and
does not surrender to man, who has annihilated all its brothers around it.

“What energy!” I thought. “Man has conquered everything, destroyed millions of plants, but this one still does not surrender.”

And I remembered an old story from the Caucasus, part of which I saw, part of which I heard from witnesses, and part of which I imagined to myself. The story, as it shaped itself in my memory and imagination, goes like this.

Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Classics
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Penguin Classics edition (May 27, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140449612
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140449617
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #502,337 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on January 16, 2009
Format: Paperback
[Note: Nearly a hundred of my fiction reviews by great literary artists and others not so well known are now available in my book, "Novels and other Fictions." Get it at Amazon.]

I've been reluctant for decades to read the great Russian master because I never felt I had the time to tackle War and Peace or Anna Karenina. I suspect others have felt the same way and thereby missed reading one of the truly great literary artists to have ever lived. Put it off no more. Pick up this 317-page splendid collection of some of Leo Tolstoy's best stories including the celebrated "The Death of Ivan Ilyich."

There are six other stories, the most significant of which is perhaps the sad "Polikushka" which is just about as long as "Ivan Ilyich" and to my mind a bit better in some respects. I also very much liked "The Raid" and "The Woodfelling" which are starkly realistic stories about soldiers engaged and not engaged in battle told wistfully without phony heroics or needless sensationalism. In fact, every story is not just excellent, but deeply engaging, cathartic and transcending as only great literature can be.

You don't have to read more than a few pages before you are struck with the sheer majesty of Tolstoy's gargantuan narrative style, his command of all aspects of storytelling from the kind of deep understanding of character that one finds in Shakespeare, to the kind of descriptive power about people and their environs that can only come from someone with a prodigious memory, a sharp eye and an unusual ability to concentrate. Somehow Tolstoy always knows what to leave in and what to leave out. He knows how to describe without slowing down the tale or making the reader aware of "purple passages.
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I prefer novels much more than short stories, but decided to take a chance on this. I was pleasantly surprised. While the first few stories were a little bit of a chore to get through, the title story was magnificent. All of the stories revolved around the subject of death, but "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" stood out as a brilliant and nuanced existential journey of a man taking stock of his life as he faces his impending death. I thought this story would be the gem of the book, but then I was really taken by surprise with the final story, "The Forged Coupon," which may have been even better. In it, what initially starts out as a minor crime begins to have a ripple effect that touches countless people and has major and unpredictable ramifications.
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Both Leo Tolstoy and many literary experts consider this 1886 tale The Death of Ivan Ilych "one of Tolstoy's best stories."
It is impossible to fully evaluate the success of a person's life until the person is dead. Thus, The Death of Ivan Ilych is really an examination of an only outwardly successful life. This examination, performed by one of the world's greatest writer, sensitizes readers to the values and vanities of their own lives. Tolstoy tells his tale indirectly; we understand what happens to Ivan by seeing how people act toward him and by seeing how he acts, without Tolstoy needing to explain matters to us.
At the outset, we sense how Ivan's wife reacted to his death when we read that she asked one of Ivan's friends, before the funeral, how she could increase her pension now that he was dead. We understand about Ivan's friendships when we read how his friends wanted to play cards rather than attend his wake. Those who thought about his death at all were more concerned about what his death tells them about their own mortality than about Ivan.
Then Tolstoy shows Ivan's life, his apparent joys, difficulties, behaviors, his advancements in his jobs and his final illness.
We learn how Ivan was affected by the deterioration of his marriage by reading what he did inside and outside his home. We read about all the troubles Ivan took to decorate his home when he became successful and acquired a higher salary. He was very proud. Yet: "In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves." In reality, despite his efforts, despite his pride, his house was like the others, in no way exceptional.
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