A brief survey of the short story part 25: Leo Tolstoy
The best of Tolstoy's short fiction confronts the reality of death better than any other writer
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Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) Russian writer, philosopher and mystic, telling his grandchildren a story. Photograph: World History Archive / Alamy/Alamy
By 1877 Leo Tolstoy was finished with the long-form novel: no other vast work would flow from his pen to join War and Peace and Anna Karenina. But that's not to say the great writer was content to rusticate on his estate. Instead, he spent the remaining 33 years of his life – an appropriately Christ-like period – sermonising, attempting to foment ...view middle of the document...
This is true to the extent that, after completing the short novel Hadji Murat in 1904, he said that he wrote it "in secret" from himself, and against the strict notions of "good art" laid down in his essay What is Art? (1898).
Some of Tolstoy's fables fall foul of over-simplification, a sentimentalising of the peasantry, and blared moral lessons. Others, however, such as Alyosha the Pot, are triumphs. Written in a single day, you can almost inhale its freshness; it contrives to sound like an oral tale shaped by a thousand mouths, rather than a lone man at his desk. Writing in 1911, the poet Alexander Blok called it "one of the greatest works of genius I have ever read". Tolstoy's own opinion, recorded in his diary, differed somewhat: "Wrote Alyosha, very bad. Gave it up."
Part of the power of Alyosha, which describes a cheery peasant worker who remains sanguine whatever befalls him, derives from the extraordinary death scene with which it ends: "He spoke little. Only asked to drink and kept being surprised at something. He got surprised at something, stretched out, and died."
Here, in synopsis, is the great obsession of Tolstoy's fiction: death. Orlando Figes points out in his cultural history of Russia, Natasha's Dance (named for a scene in War and Peace), "No other writer wrote so often, or so imaginatively, about the actual moment of dying." It's this distinction that characterises Tolstoy's greatest short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich – probably the greatest work about a death in world literature.
The story revolves around the eponymous judge discovering, as he slowly, painfully expires, that his entire life has been a sham, built on bourgeois inconsequentialities and bereft of love. Even at his end his family cannot comfort him – "he saw that no one would feel sorry for him, because no one even wanted to understand his situation" – leaving him to receive succour from Gerasim, the butler's helper....