The Riddle of Life and Death

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  • Paperback Edition
  • ISBN: 978-1-55861-536-6
  • Publication Date: 03-01-2007
  • Page Count: 240
  • Categories: Fiction

The Riddle of Life and Death

"Tell Me a Riddle" and "The Death of Ivan Ilych"
Tillie Olsen & Leo Tolstoy

Introduction by Jules Chametzky

These two literary classics dare to pose difficult existential questions: What is the meaning of life? Was my life of value? Why am I dying? The narrative employed in Tolstoy's novella is linear and realistically detailed. The style of Olsen's story, set in the United States about a century later, is allusive, moving in psychological time, from the senses, voices, and scenes in the present to memories of the past.

Other differences are sharper still: Tolstoy's Ilych is a self-satisfied czarist official; Olsen's protagonist, Eva, once a proletarian revolutionary, is a sixty-nine year-old dissatisfied working-class housewife, mother, and grandmother. Tolstoy focuses entirely on the life of a "model" man of his generation, who is successful professionally, though less so in his private life. Ultimately, though, Olsen and Tolstoy demand that readers examine their lives, and consider questions about pain, suffering, inequalities, fate, and one's life work.

"A treasure. . . . The pairing [is] nothing short of inspired."

—Mary Gordon, writer and professor, Barnard College

"Tolstoy's greatness is present in every word: a greatness of mind and understanding. But Olsen's greatness is in no way less significant: her vision includes the body, the world of history and politics, the tender and exhausting pulls of maternal and sexual love. She touches on areas of human experience that Tolstoy's piercing vision cannot show us. The Riddle of Life and Death is indeed a treasure."

—Mary Gordon, writer and professor, Barnard College

"The Feminist Press is doing it again, bringing readers imaginative and surprising books. Reading Olsen and Tolstoy together will juxtapose two classic explorations of the meaning of life as it approaches an end."

—Catharine R. Stimpson, dean, Graduate School of Arts and Science, New York University