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The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (Vintage Classics) Paperback – October 5, 2010
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, December 2009: To anyone for whom Leo Tolstoy's masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina have stood as giants too daunting to scale, and equally to the many readers who have devoured those novels and are hungry for more, we offer The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories. Newly translated by the team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who have enlivened the Russian classics for a new generation, this selection of 11 of his finest stories reveals a Tolstoy of many sides and unsurpassed storytelling talents. Along with smaller gems like "Alyosha the Pot," the collection features a handful of thrilling longer tales that each carry the power of a novel: the terrifying murderer's confession of "The Kreuzer Sonata," the breathlessly dramatic path of a single crime through dozens of lives in "The Forged Coupon," and the haunting account of the isolation of mortality in the legendary title story. Most revelatory of all for a modern reader is the final novella, and Tolstoy's final work, "Hadji Murat," the disturbingly contemporary story of a fiercely honorable Chechen warrior caught between local rivalries and the ambivalent reach of a decadent empire. --Tom Nissley --This text refers to the Digital edition.
“Excellent. . . . The duo has managed to convey the rather simple elegance of Tolstoy’s prose.” —The New Criterion
“[Tolstoy’s] late style is leaner, his forms more spare, but this is also the economy of achieved mastery. He does more with less, and the Tolstoyan sounds, instantly recognizable, are still there. . . . [Pevear and Volokhonsky’s] new version is more flexible, individuated, immediate.” —The Nation
“The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories is a great collection well translated. As a lover of Tolstoy’s work, one couldn’t ask for more, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.” —André Alexis, The Globe and Mail
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One thing that Leo Tolstoy could never be accused of was being a minimalist. He is best known for the massive novel 'Anna Karenina' and the even more massive 'War and Peace'. Almost all of his fiction seems to be an attempt to pack in as much panoramic life as possible. This characteristic applies to his shorter pieces as well as his novels.
This new translation (2009) assembles his best known stories as well as some lesser known ones as well and is presented chronologically, from the earliest, "The Prisoner of the Caucassus", written between the composition of 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina', to his final novella, "Hadji Murat," written over the last two decades of his life and published posthumously a few years after his death. All of the stories deal with the themes familiar in his other works—how can a man lead a moral life, what should his attitude be toward the pleasures of the flesh, honor in the midst of war and equality among the classes.
"The Prisoner of the Caucassus" deals with a young soldier who has obtained leave from his regiment to visit his ailing mother and perhaps marry before she dies. On his way through the mountain passes he takes a wrong turn and is pursued by Tartars. His bafflement as to why these people would want to kill him is similar to young Nicolai Rostov in 'War and Peace', who had grown up in the bosom of family love and could not conceive that anyone would wish him harm. The naiveté quickly disappears as a steely resolve to survive takes its place. Tolstoy is a master at depicting wartime action and the campaigns of pursuit, capture or killing which are inherent in war.
"The Death of Ivan Ilyich", "The Kreutzer Sonata" and "The Devil" are largely concerned with the subjective evolutions of individual consciousness in relation to external perceived challenges. My early exposure to the psychologically penetrating tales of Henry James has made me predisposed to be more comfortable in these subjective realms where specific characters undergo psychological/spiritual journeys. "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" depicts the life of an attorney/judge who has gone through all the right steps and played by the societal rules for reaching success and prosperity in life. He believes that his life has obtained a stability and order and that he has reached the pinnacle of success, until a random accident resulting in a bruise in his side, seemingly inconsequential but escalating to severe internal pain disrupts all of his sense of order. His selfish wife now seems self-absorbed and irritable with Ivan's health crisis as it presents an inconvenience in her life. His escalating illness, never named but presumably cancer, forces Ivan to reevaluate his life and question all his previous judgments. He goes through all the stages of dying to the point of ultimate acceptance. He reaches that point which always fascinated Tolstoy and compelled him to contemplate the process to the ultimate last step of consciousness that he also depicted in 'War and Peace', as if he wanted to venture as close as possible to the 'final frontier' and still be able to return to tell the tale. Ivan's serenity precedes his physical death and achieves the ultimate transformation.
The character in 'The Kreutzer Sonata" seems like he just stepped out of the pages of one of Dostoevsky's intense novels and wandered into Tolstoy's universe. Like Raskolnikov, he is a killer and, also like Raskolnikov, he needs to make a complete, thorough confession to another human. His jealousy and ambivalence to his wife's beauty and seductiveness has culminated in murder. The character repents of the murder, but not, as Tolstoy later made clear, of his aversion to sexual pleasure. Tolstoy's own revulsion toward sexual pleasure in his later life made explicit his own attitude. Despite this obvious bias, the story can be read as a compelling psychological fable without knowing the feelings of the author.
"Master and Man" is one of Tolstoy's most evocative tales. A greedy landowner, Brekhunov, takes his servant, Nikita, with him to a neighboring landowner in order to purchase a valuable piece of land. In his haste to reach his destination before other prospective buyers, he speeds his horse and servant on through a snowstorm, gets lost and, as night approaches, appears to be stranded through the frigid night. The horse is pushed beyond endurance and dies and he abandons his servant, who is succumbing to hypothermia, to find his way, gets lost and ends up back at his sleigh. He undergoes a radical spiritual transformation from self-obsessed aristocrat, willing to sacrifice anyone in behalf of reaching his goal to resignation. This predicament is no one else's doing but his own. He has refused a previous offer to stay with a family overnight and resume his journey in the morning. He realizes too late that he should have accepted that offer. Left with no one else to hold responsible but himself, he decides to cover his dying servant with his own body in the back of the carriage, dying in the process but enabling his servant to survive. Like Ivan Ilyich, he travels through different stages before reaching a spiritual epiphany and considering the worth of someone other than himself. The nocturnal cold and the slow, inevitable acquiescence to the harshness of the environment is reminiscent of the equally chilling Jack London tale, "To Build a Fire".
The final story in the collection, the novella "Hadji Murat," take us full circle back to the Caucassus and tells the story of real life Chechen rebel Hadji Murat who, through a chain of circumstances, felt forced to retain his honor by defying the more militant rebel Shamil, who has held Murat's mother, wife and son captive, and defecting to the Russian forces. Murat is constantly aware that he may be placing himself in an untenable situation in which he is not fully trusted by either the Russians or the Chechens. Against this foundation, Tolstoy wanders into the minds of various rebels and Russians, even launching into a tirade against the lecherous and cruel Tsar Nicholas I who prided himself on being against the death penalty while also condemning prisoners to run gauntlets of thousands of blows resulting in certain fatality. Tolstoy lost none of his descriptive powers in the final years of his life. 'Hadji Murat" is as compellingly cinematic as anything he had written previously. My only reservation with the story, as for most of the others in this collection, is that they could all benefit from being fleshed out in greater length. He has the material for several novels here and, while I'm not advocating expanding them to the sizes of his magnum opuses, I feel that they could have been improved by more intensive exploration of the characters and circumstances. The tales race by through successions of characters we don't have enough time to get to know thoroughly before being thrust into another setting. In my view, Tolstoy never reigned in his maximalist tendencies, even in his shorter works. Nonetheless, what we have are still vital and indispensable contributions to a titanic literary career.
I have not read much fiction in recent years but I could not put this book down, and I have been thinking about it a great deal since I finished it.
This is the big surprise for me with Tolstoy. I've never come across an author, band, artist, etc. whose reputation is so contrary to their actual nature. Starting in childhood, we're told that War and Peace is an inaccessible tome of a novel. Tolstoy's prose is famously thought to be cold, formal, and difficult to get through.
This couldn't be further from the truth. Tolstoy's writing is beautifully flowing and sometimes even playful; his characters are well thought-out and sympathetic; the narrative motion of his stories is perfectly paced. This is not just true of this translation of some of his short stories, although Pevear and Volokhonsky seem particularly adept at honoring Tolstoy's gift with language.
At the danger of sounding fanatical, these stories are perfect. Literally nothing about them could be changed for the better. The volume begins with a fragment, Diary of a Madman, which discusses a religious man's breakdown. Parts of the story are even reminiscent of Sartre's Nausea, a book that came several decades later. There are two stories in the book that involve a realistic depiction of war: A Prisoner of the Caucuses and the novella Hadji Murad. I don't usually enjoy war writing, but Tolstoy has such a love for his characters, such a brutally honest and yet somehow optimistic view of human conflict, that these stories seem less about the actual logistics of war and more about man's contradictory disposition to violence.
The jewel of this book is the title story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I've recommended this story (among many others by Tolstoy) to several friends, and I've yet to find anyone who isn't in some way moved by it. The story involves a man who, at the end of his life, begins to question the choices he's made and how he's lived. Again, Tolstoy's compassion paints his characters as flawed but well-intentioned. If you have any doubts about this book, I'd recommend first reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich (even if it's an older translation -- some of these are even available online for free). The translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky is definitely superior, but the story is so strong that its genius is readily seen even in the older, stodgier translations.
Another thing that surprised me was the modern feel of Tolstoy's stories. These stories would be right at home in the 20th century literary canon -- sometimes it's even a shock when a character pulls up in a troika. You find yourself saying, "Oh, right -- this takes place in the 1800s." Because Tolstoy deals in morals and characters' subtle motivations, the writing is truly timeless.
Of course, once you read these stories, I'd recommend moving on to either Anna Karenina or War and Peace. Pevear and Volokhonsky have superb translations of both. And, when you come to the end of War and Peace, you'll have the same epiphany reached by most people who've read it: that this book, forever depicted as a cold, stern, tome, has some of the most beautifully depicted characters, the most involving and page-turning narratives, and the most memorable passages of any book you've ever read.
***One quick note: Many of the 1-star and 2-star reviews for this book claim it's full of errors and typos. However, if you look closely, you'll see that these reviews are actually for other Tolstoy compilations (which are also named for The Death of Ivan Ilyich), not for the P&V translation. For some reason Amazon lumps all these reviews together even though the books are vastly different. It's worth noting that, since Tolstoy's work is in the public domain, there are a lot of very shoddily put-together books of his stories.
This was my first experience reading Tolstoy, and this book made me want to continue to read more of his work.