After he had written Anna Karenina, Tolstoy reacted against literature. He wanted henceforth to be a moral philosopher, a prophet, a sage, and a saint, rather than an artist. (How often we mistake the nature of our own gifts!) And many people subsequently fell under his didactic spell, even—for a time—Chekhov, a man one normally thinks of as being peculiarly unsusceptible to the siren-call of sages and saints. Chekhov the disciple—it sounds strange in the light of our image of him, but such, for a time, he was.

In 1886, Tolstoy published his first substantial work of fiction for nearly twenty years, the novella The Death of Ivan Illych. He started to write it after he received Turgenev’s famous deathbed letter: “My friend,” wrote Turgenev, who was then very weak, in great pain and only a short time from death, “return to literature! … My friend, great writer of the...

 
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