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)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The US is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


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

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In