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?
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