New Yorker contributor Rachel Hurn reviews the new English edition of Leo Tolstoy’s challenging work, “How Much Land Does A Man Need.” The riddle is grim, yet true. True value does, indeed, lie in the commons. Ownership is a dead-end.
How Much Land Does a Man Need
By Rachel Hurn
Bryan Patrick Miller, the editor of Calypso Editions, which has just brought out a new English translation of Leo Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need,” welcomed us to the bi-monthly poetry reading at Pacific Standard Bar, in Brooklyn, by quoting James Joyce. “Land,” Joyce said, “is the greatest story that the literature of the world knows.”
“How Much Land Does a Man Need” is unusual for Tolstoy. It consists of nine small parts told in the skaz form—a Russian oral tradition first described in the late nineteen-tens by the Russian scholar Boris Eikhenbaum as “a literary mode inclined toward the informal expressions of oral speech by a simple rural narrator.” Calypso’s edition was translated by Boris Dralyuk, a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at U.C.L.A., and presents the original Russian alongside the English.
The story is simple but affecting. A peasant named Pakhom overhears his wife and her sister arguing about whether city or country life is best. Pakhom stands up for his wife, agreeing that “a peasant’s stomach is lean, but lasts long.” But, he goes on to say, “We only have one grief—too little land! If I had plenty of land, I’d fear no one—not the devil himself!” In true folkloric tradition, the devil just so happens to be crouched behind the stove, and overhears Pakhom’s prideful statement. He decides to tempt Pakhom, throwing him down a path of desire for land that, we fear, can only end badly.
I’d never read Tolstoy’s parable before hearing it read aloud at Pacific Standard (by Dralyuk, together with the poets Polina Barskova and Ilya Kaminsky), and I was moved by the simple answer Tolstoy gives to his question. How much land does a man need? At the end of Pakhom’s struggle, when the sun has set over the hill and he has realized that “my work is all lost,” he receives his allotment: three arshins (seven feet)—just enough to lay himself down into the soil.
This book review was originally published in The New Yorker.