Monday, January 17, 2011

Short Story Monday: "After the Ball" by Leo Tolstoy

"So you say that man cannot understand what's good and what's bad on his own, that it's all a matter of the environment, that he's a prey to the environment. But I think it's all a matter of chance. Here, I'll tell you about myself."
Those opening lines to Leo Tolstoy's short story "After the Ball"  had me rolling my eyes and thinking I wasn't going to get very far with the story, but I was wrong.  Ivan Vassilievich's description of a ball, the exquisitely beautiful woman he fell in love with, and her father, the colonel, drew me in immediately.

I did not look up until ten pages later when, at dawn after the ball, Ivan witnesses a brutal military act involving the colonel. He claims this chance incident changed the course of his life.
"So, do you think I decided then that what I had seen was a bad thing? Not a bit of it. 'If it was done with such assurance and was acknowledged by everyone as necessary, it means they know something that I don't know,' I thought and tried to find it out.  And not having found it out, I could not enter military service, as I had wanted before, and not only did not serve in the military, but did not serve anywhere and, as you see, have been good for nothing."
Ivan's love for the beautiful girl also dwindled away, because thoughts of her invariably lead to recollections of the colonel.  This story will cause you to stop and think.

Anna Karenina is my only previous experience with Tolstoy. I read it around the time Oprah selected it for her book club, and can remember sitting in the bookstore comparing two translations before finally choosing Pevear & Volokhonsky. Prior to that day, translation never really seemed important to me.

Pevear and Volokhonsky have now translated The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories. It was recently released in paperback by Vintage Classics, and I was lucky to receive the extra review copy sent to my daughter's college newspaper. It seems perfect for winter reading.

"After the Ball" can be read online, but in an older translation.
Short Story Monday is hosted by John Mutford at The Book Mine Set.


  1. Okay, I'm a tool. While first reading this post I kept thinking of a bouncing ball rather than a gala ball. Totally makes a difference, yes?

  2. I did the same as Christina originally!

    I can't get on with Russian literature. Maybe I should start with short stories first and build my way up to novels.

  3. LOL, I raised my eyebrows too at the first paragraph as it went way over my head. Glad to hear it got better. I am a bit scared to read Tolstoy.

  4. this story actually sounds pretty interesting. I'm currently doing the War and Peace read-a-long and at times wonder what I got myself into!!! The book was translated by Pevear so now I feel a bit better. I will have to look at my Anna book and see who did the translation on that one as I'm hoping to read it this summer!

  5. Christina - Oh, that's so funny! My daughter read the post and thought the same thing... maybe I should have used different wording.

    Sam - LOL, both of you...will take another look and see how I could have made it clearer. Short stories may be the way to ease into Russian Literature. I'm looking forward to more of these, and have Chekhov on my list, too.

    Vivienne - I really didn't think I was going to get beyond that first paragraph... somehow Tolstoy just drew me right in!

    Staci - I considered the W&P readalong. When I finally get to it, I'll need to just throw myself in and read it all at once... no other books to distract me (learned that the hard way with Bleak House). Can't wait to hear how you are getting on with Tolstoy!

  6. I'm happy that the story turned out to be able to be read and enjoyable since those first few lines were a bit rough! My heart goes out to Ivan but I also want to throttle him...just a bit! Poor, silly man.
    I have read Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Illyich by Tolstoy but have always meant to read more of his short stories. I putting the newly translated collection on my TBR list!

    ~ Amy

  7. So, is he one of those Russian masters of the short story?
    I still have to read Chekhov, and then maybe Gogol.

  8. I don't really mind that opener actually.

    My only Tolstoy experience was War & Peace, but it set off a brief love affair with Russian lit. I should read this.

  9. I have been wanting to read more Tolstoy so I will be downloading this short to my Kobo. I'll take my chances with the older translation.

    I have read 'War and Peace', 'Anna Karenina', and 'The Death of Ivan Illyich'.

    I read 'The Doll's House' this week. Another story you discovered first. Thanks for that!

  10. Amy - I know I read The Death of Ivan Ilyich in college, but don't remember a thing about it... will be reading that one next.

    Em - When I think of Russian short stories, it's Chekhov or Gogol that come to mind first, but Tolstoy must be right up there too. I'm far from an authority on anything Russian though...

    John - The opener put me off because I thought it was going to be overly philosophical, but the story to illustrate the point worked really well.

    Teddy Rose - I'll be curious to see how the old translation compares... may even have to read it myself if I have time. W&P is on my shelf, I'm waiting for just the right mood to strike before tackling it. One of the best things about SSM is discovering new stories/writers through everyone's posts. Glad you've enjoyed some that I've chosen!

  11. I am really liking War and Peace so far, and I'm guessing I'll want to read more by Tolstoy, so I'm glad to hear his short stories are good!

  12. I really want to get a copy of the new translations of the short stories-I have read there version of WP and I have their Anna Karenina on my shelves-I enjoyed your post a lot-

  13. Erin - I really like Anna Karenina, too. Hope to get to W&P one of these days - glad to hear you're liking it.

    Mel U - They did a great job translating Anna Karenina, and I have their version of W&P, too. Hope you can locate the stories.

  14. Pevear & Volokhonsky translated my copy of Brothers Karamazov. Fat lot of good they did me! ;)

    I think I have Ivan Ilynch on my shelf--but it's a wretchedly old copy so not sure about the translation. Such an interesting concept, huh? Not one I ever gave much thought to either.

  15. Trish - I never thought about translation at all until I 'met' P&V through Anna Karenina. Will still give them a chance with Dostoevsky, but maybe Crime & Punishment instead of K Bros :-)


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