[Reviewed by Bruce Roberts]
Count Lyev Nicolayevich Tolstoy has long been acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest novelists, author of War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, among others, in a lifetime of writing.
In 1886, he also published a short story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need.” Now newly translated by Boris Dralyuk, a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic languages at U.C.L.A., this simple story speaks volumes about the world throughout history in general, and about modern America in particular.
“How Much Land Does a Man Need” is a folktale. The characters are Russian peasants, people who actually work and derive sustenance from the land. In this story though, their simple life is complicated by a character with other motives, the Devil.
Born into Russian nobility, Tolstoy became less and less satisfied with his wealth and talent and good fortune as he grew older. He even wanted to renounce the royalties from his famous novels, feeling strongly that no man should have so much while others starved.
This renunciation of wealth is ironically the unwritten message of this folktale. The title question is a universal metaphor for greed. Pakhom, a peasant farmer, is relatively successful and content with his life—except for this question.