Roles of Assessment in Teaching and Learning

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 social change according to anti-establishment Christian ideals, and producing acreages of pamphlets, essays and correspondence. He also wrote some of the greatest short stories of his career.
Tolstoy translator Richard Pevear asserts 'there is no such thing as a "Tolstoy story,"' and it's certainly true to say that the folktale simplicity of Alyosha the Pot (1905) is miles apart from the suffocating psychological interiority of The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), which in turn bears little relation to the exhilarating Prisoner of the Caucasus (1872). Yet these stories are linked by what the French scholar and translator Michel Aucouturier calls Tolstoy's "gift of concrete realisation", and an ever-restless breed of philosophical inquiry – a combination that could produce works of an intensity that surprises even after repeated readings.
Following publication of the non-fictional A Confession in 1882, Tolstoy aimed to concentrate on morally improving tales. It may be unwise to judge a book by its cover, but if we can do so by title those such as Where Love Is, God Is, Evil Allures, but Good Endures, and A Spark Neglected Burns the House might rightly dampen expectations. Even in the throes of such didacticism, however, Tolstoy's storytelling ability could not be subdued. This is true to...