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the daily review, thu., feb. 25

Like most prose writers, I believe Count Leo Tolstoy was one of the greatest writers of fiction ever. His real competitors are not numerous, and few of those who have expressed scorn for Tolstoy's work (Rebecca West, say, or Joseph Brodsky) are credible. (West said of Anna Karenina that she was Tolstoy in drag and Brodsky, who was a rotten judge of literature, was sneeringly scornful of those who preferred Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky, though Dostoyevsky himself thought Tolstoy the greater writer.)

So for me, new translations of Tolstoy are occasions to revisit his precise mind, his genius as a storyteller and the variety of his approaches to moral matters and moral questions. New translations also offer us a chance to look at the current state of translation, to think about how we translate and what that says about us and our expectations.

This new collection of Tolstoy's work, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, was translated by the most celebrated pair of translators currently working in our language: Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. (Interestingly enough, they are, after Louise and Aylmer Maude, the second married couple to admirably translate Tolstoy. Perhaps two minds are best where Tolstoy is concerned.)

In various interviews, Pevear has described their working process: Volokhonsky does a first, complete, literal translation of the work(s). Pevear then rewrites her work in such a way as to make it into the kind of English his ear dictates. She then rewrites his rewrite, so that it conforms to her idea of the original. They go back and forth like this a few times, until they have arrived at a version that pleases them both. In this way, they have translated Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Bulgakov and Chekhov. They were the translators of the Anna Karenina that, with Oprah Winfrey's endorsement, became a bestseller in the United States, and they brilliantly translated Tolstoy's War and Peace in 2007.

Vladimir Nabokov described Tolstoy's style as that of the "groping purist." He goes on to say, "In describing a meditation, emotion or tangible object, Tolstoy follows the contour of the thought, the emotion, or the object until he is perfectly satisfied with his re-creation, his rendering." Volokhonsky and Pevear give us the "groping purist," but also the writer of quick, probing, almost "Hemingwayesque" prose. Their Tolstoy is, at times, awkward, but his every sentence has what even Henry James - who thought Tolstoy too slipshod to be great - conceded his work has: vitality, energy.

Volokhonsky and Pevear are also, for the most part, faithful in word as well as spirit to Tolstoy's original. Their version of The Death of Ivan Ilych, for instance, says "pouffe," "gymnast" and "vint," where the Guerney/Maude translation changed Tolstoy's words to "ottoman," "athlete" and "whist." They trust Tolstoy's precision, his words, even when doing so means adding footnotes to the text, or making thing slightly - very slightly - more difficult for the reader. In checking (at random, and not obsessively) their translation against the original, I found only one instance when Volokhonsky and Pevear were - inexplicably - wayward, but that passage gives a good sense of the character of Volokhonsky and Pevear's Tolstoy.

Here (in Volokonsky/Pevear) is Ivan Ilych Golovin speaking to his wife after his fall: "It's not for nothing I'm a gymnast. Another man might have been badly hurt, but I just got a slight knock here; it hurts when you touch it, but it's already going away; a simple bruise."

Here is the same speech from Guerney/Maude: "It's a good thing I'm something of an athlete. Another man might have been killed, but I merely bruised myself, right here; it hurts when you touch it, but it's passing off already - it's only a bruise."

To my ear, the Guerney/Maude translation is closer to our idea of "good prose." But Tolstoy actually wrote, "It's not for nothing I'm a gymnast" (well, okay, he wrote in Russian) and he did not repeat the word "bruise", and his tone, as it is in Volokhonsky/Pevear, is offhanded and plain.

Still, Tolstoy did not say "badly hurt." He said, "Another man might have been killed" and, as it happens, his words are crushingly ironic because, in fact, Ivan Ilych was killed by this "slight knock" to his side. Guerney/Maude get this one detail right.

But of course, one can play this game all day long, picking random sentences here and there and comparing them, favourably or invidiously. In general, I (slightly) prefer the Volokhonsky/Pevear Death of Ivan Ilych, and I find it moving that they have respected the idiosyncrasies of Tolstoy's writing, that they have given him a vibrant, playful tone in English. It's proof of our respect for the original - as were Edith Grossman's lovely Don Quixote and Lydia Davis's fantastic The Way by Swann's - that we allow the original text occasional victories over our conventions, ideas and expectations. The Tolstoy who emerges in the language of Pevear and Volokhonsky is sometimes surprising, but he is stronger for it.

In his introduction to this collection, Pevear points out that there is no such thing as a "typical" story by Tolstoy. The range of Tolstoy's storytelling is unique: from fairy tales and fables to parables, meditations on sacrifice, sexual longing and death, by way of adventure stories and historical romance. Now, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories doesn't quite cover Tolstoy's waterfront, so to speak. Pevear and Volokhonsky have translated Tolstoy's best-known later novellas and long stories ( The Death of Ivan Ilych, Master and Man, Father Sergius, The Devil, Hadji Murad, The Forged Coupon, The Kreutzer Sonata), a few shorter works ( After the Ball, Prisoner of the Caucasus, Diary of a Madman) and only one fable ( Alyosha the Pot).

With the exception of Prisoner of the Caucasus, a youthful work inspired by Pushkin, the Tolstoy in these pages is mature, serious, obsessed by death, God, sexual longing, salvation and moral goodness. He brings to his obsessions a lifetime's experience of storytelling, so that a number of these stories make for tense, thrilling reading. (My own favourites are Master and Man, Hadji Murad and The Death of Ivan Ilych.) All of the stories are vivid in Pevear and Volokhonsky's translations. They have given us a Tolstoy who is almost aggressively moral, a writer who struggled to express his sense of right and wrong while keeping his talents as a writer - eye for the telling physical detail, a great sense of rhythm and pace, quickness of characterization - under control.

Toward the end of his life, Tolstoy had come to regard his gift for writing as frivolous, as something that led him away from what he called "the correct, that is, the moral relation of the author to the subject." He came to believe that art for art's sake was an abomination, which is partly why he despised critics who pointed out how beautifully he wrote. (He would have had very little time for Vladimir Nabokov, for instance.) Tolstoy wished of his art that it should help humans to live rightly, to know good from evil.

The tension between the committed moralist and the helplessly beautiful writer is at the heart of the his later stories. There is a great anecdote about Tolstoy, recounted by Maxim Gorky in his Reminiscences of Tolstoy and quoted in Richard Pevear's introduction: "Suler tells how he was once walking with Lev Nikolaevich [Tolstoy]in Tverskaya Street when Tolstoy noticed in the distance two soldiers of the Guards. The metal of their accoutrements shone in the sun; their spurs jingled; they kept step like one man; their faces, too, shone with the self-assurance of strength and youth. Tolstoy began to grumble at them: 'What pompous stupidity! Like animals trained by the whip …'

"But when the guardsmen came abreast with him, he stopped, followed them caressingly with his eyes, and said enthusiastically: 'How handsome! Old Romans, eh, Lyovushka? Their strength and beauty! O Lord! How charming it is when man is handsome, how very charming.' "

There, in two paragraphs, in essence, is the tension that courses through these stories. For those who haven't yet read Tolstoy, this collection is not a bad place to start, though reading these stories first will give you a biased sense of Tolstoy's approach, will introduce you to the moral aesthete before you meet the beauty-struck thinker. Ultimately, it's in War and Peace and Anna Karenina that you'll encounter the height of Tolstoy's accomplishment. But Hadji Murad, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Master and Man are not far behind, not far at all.

The Death of Ivan Ilych 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.

Contributing reviewer André Alexis's most recent novel is Asylum.