Cover to Cover

More
Liveright

At 50, fresh from publishing Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy swerved into despair, disillusioned with fame and grand fiction. He was tormented by “the very simple question that lies in the soul of every human being,” he wrote five years later in Confession, his spiritual memoir. “Why should I live, why should I wish for anything, why should I do anything? … Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn’t be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?” He then set to work on the novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, inflicting the same question on an ambitiously conformist, middle-aged judge. Struck ill, Ivan Ilyich writhes his way toward a devastating recognition: his “past life had been very simple and ordinary and very awful.”

It’s perhaps little wonder that these two short works seem never to have been published as a pair before: a double dose of memento mori is a lot to take. But putting them back-to-back, with the fiction first—rendered in Peter Carson’s stunning, unvarnished translation—is a brilliantly timed stroke. Think of all the aging Baby Boomers and their book clubs! The careerist Ivan Ilyich’s existential struggle ends in a release from pain and fear. But what to make of his vision of light? And is that really a last moment of merciful communion with his wife and son? The bleak tale is haunting. Tolstoy’s own discovery of faith after his long turmoil may not be for everyone. But the master’s self-scrutinizing example is: When the author of War and Peace doubts the meaning of his life, who dares to be complacent?

Jump to comments
Presented by

Ann Hulbert is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees coverage of books and culture.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In