Life Studies

11.25.13

If You Had One Year to Live, How Would You Spend It?

If you had one year to live, how would you spend it? That’s a question most of us wouldn’t know how to answer but for one British publisher and translator it was easy: to translate Tolstoy’s great story about a dying man, “The Death of Ivan Illyich.”

Not many people would choose to spend the last days of their life translating a book that describes the agonies of a dying man, but the renowned British publisher Peter Carson, who died in January of this year, did exactly that: he was working on his version of two of Leo Tolstoy’s late works, the spiritual memoir, Confession, and the great novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which tells the story of a Russian lawyer who succumbs, slowly and painfully, to an unspecified illness, when he was diagnosed as terminally ill himself. Robert Weil, Carson’s editor at Liveright, the newly revived division of W.W. Norton, would not have blamed him if he had abandoned the task: ‘He could have gone to Cap d’Antibes,’ Weil says. ‘He could have gone to Monte Carlo.’ 

Yet Carson was determined to complete the work, and he died hours after making the final changes to the translations, which were just published in the United States. Weil believes they are a fitting epitaph to a man often described as the most influential British publisher of his generation. Carson spent most of his career at Penguin Books, where he published writers such as Zadie Smith and Simon Schama, and later moved to the independent publisher, Profile, where his writers included the classicist Mary Beard, who contributes an introduction to the new translations.

According to Andrew Franklin, Profile’s founder and managing director, one of Carson’s old colleagues used to ask people if they knew “what was the largest thing in all British publishing.  Answer: Peter Carson’s brain.” He had read “every word ever written” in Latin and ancient Greek, Franklin said in his speech at Carson’s retirement party in March 2012. He was such a voracious reader that he would get through three thrillers in an evening, before rounding off “with some Roman republican history.” He published an equally diverse range of books, from classical history to travel books, memoir, biography and gardening to commercial fiction. Mary Beard said he had “a brilliant knack of seeing what someone would be really good at writing even if they hadn't quite realised it themselves”—which she describes as “the ultimate editorial talent.” In his late fifties, he began another career as a translator of Russian literature. “Heaven knows when he fitted it all in,” says Professor Beard. “Because he also used to take some pretty long lunches.”

The Death of Ivan Illyich and Confession
The Death of Ivan Illyich and Confession By Leo Tolstoy. Translated by Peter Carson. 224 pages. Liveright. $23.95. ()

Carson grew up in a Russian-speaking household: his father, who died when he was nine, was a mixture of French and Anglo-Irish, but his mother came from a Russian family exiled after the 1917 revolution. Carson’s widow, Eleo Gordon, describes Tatiana Petrovna Staheyeff as the classic Russian matriarch: “She was very powerful, and spoke with a very strong Russian accent.  So it was little Russia. He was brought up in a French-Anglo-Russian household, with three languages all tossed around.” 

His first translations were admired versions of Chekhov’s plays and Turgenev’s great novel Fathers and Sons. He said he was not “an expert” translator, but Rosamund Bartlett, a biographer of Tolstoy who has written on Carson’s latest translations, said he had “an unerring sense for capturing the tone of an author.” When he went to see Weil in New York in early 2009, he had just finished his Turgenev translation, and Weil suggested that he translate The Death of Ivan Ilyich for Liveright. Carson agreed on condition that he could do it with Confession, in which Tolstoy describes his despair at his loss of faith and his gradual rediscovery “of the simplest moral teachings of Jesus himself,” as Mary Beard puts it in the Introduction. The two are rarely read side by side, but they have one thing in common: both “reflect on what the inevitability of death means to us, and on how we shall face our own end.” 

Carson could not have anticipated how relevant the theme would become to his own life.  For the time being, conversation concentrated on the style of translation he wanted to deliver: “Peter’s belief was that previous translations have tried to prettify late Tolstoy,” Weil says. “He said you need to translate him as he really was – less lyrical, more truncated, almost slightly harsh.” 

Weil was not surprised that the manuscript did not appear on time: “He was helping run a publishing company – and besides, he was hardly the first author to miss a deadline.” Weil did not know that other things had interrupted his progress: Carson was halfway through his translation of The Death of Ivan Ilyich when he was diagnosed with a disease called lung fibrosis. The prognosis was bleak: people are only expected to live for between one to three years. 

“It was remarkable that he was able to read his translation through in those very final months, and not collapse at the similarity of it.”

Carson told few people he was ill, and never talked about his illness, even to his wife, Eleo Gordon: “When we went on hospital visits, he often didn’t get the gist of what they were trying to tell him, and I know that was because he didn’t want to know,” Gordon says. “Maybe that was his way of keeping going.’ 

In March 2012, Carson stopped going into work, though he did not stop working: “Authors would come round to our flat,” Gordon says. “It was like the office coming to him—and he carried on right to the end.” As well as working with authors such as Rosamund Bartlett, who said that she would spend the rest of her life trying to justify his faith in her, he resumed work on the two translations. “We can hardly begin to imagine what it must have been like to translate the grim tale of Ivan Ilyich as one’s own life slipped away,” Mary Beard writes. Yet Carson was not put off by the disconcerting parallels: “Of course, he wasn’t in writhing pain, like Ilyich, but the whole thing about the slither down into death is totally the same,” says Eleo Gordon. “It was remarkable that he was able to read his translation through in those very final months, and not collapse at the similarity of it.”

In fact, it was not The Death of Ivan Ilyich that caused him the most difficulty: Gordon says he finished the translation “quite smoothly” but when he started work on Confession, he found himself “blocked” in a way he had never been before. By then, he had been diagnosed with lung cancer, as well, though Gordon doesn’t know whether the illness was responsible for the “block.”  In July 2012, she made a deal with her husband: “We would go on holiday, and he would wake up early, as he always did and start—and he did, and he suddenly got unblocked.”

Nonetheless, his condition was getting worse, and by the autumn of 2012, he was seriously ill: “I thought he wasn’t going to last much longer,” Gordon says. “But he would sit at the computer working at it, even when he was really, really bad – he had lost his voice, he could barely speak, but he had this desire to finish it.” His wife never queried his drive to keep working, because she thought it would “keep him sane”: the only concession they made to his illness was to bring their daughter’s wedding forward. 

He finished the translations ahead of his revised schedule, and delivered the manuscript on November 27th 2012. Weil, who was aware of the state of his health, sent back a list of amendments and revisions on December 2nd: “He got a full letter,” Weil says. “Other people might have said, leave me alone, I’m sick, but that wasn’t Peter.” Carson answered Weil’s questions, and Weil and a colleague began another edit. Weil was still working on the text on Christmas Eve, when he was the only person in the Norton office on 42nd St., and Fifth Avenue was filled with last minute shoppers.  “I left at 10pm,” he said. “I’m a crazy.” An hour later, Peter Simon sent Carson a second set of questions. 

Weil said Carson seemed untroubled by the prospect of working through Christmas—he sent Weil an email at 9am London time on Christmas Day, wishing him ‘compliments de la saison”—but Gordon says he found the new set of questions difficult. One passage in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, when Ilyich seems to refer to his undiagnosed illness as ‘It’, caused him particular problems.

“I know for a fact that Peter struggled with that terribly,’ Gordon says.  On the night of January 7th, 2013, she went online to look at other translations, and see if she could find anything that might suggest a new approach: “I don’t speak any Russian, but I was desperate to see if we could answer all the questions. I knew the sand was running out, but I didn’t know how quickly.”

Carson made the final changes to the text over breakfast on January 8th.  If Gordon had felt he wasn’t entirely satisfied, she would have suggested that they look at it again the next day, but she was convinced the work was done: “It was good—I was really relieved.” She went to work, taking the amended manuscript, and leaving Carson with his sister. “He wasn’t too bad.  I knew he would die pretty soon—but not then.”

Eleo Gordon delivered the manuscript to the London office of W.W. Norton at 5.30pm, and Carson died the next morning from a lung hemorrhage, with his wife beside him. Gordon says the timing was extraordinary; Robert Weil says it “was almost like a miracle”: “I genuinely believe that he knew the task was done, and he could die,” he says. Weil felt privileged to have played a part in the story of Carson’s final days, though he is keen to emphasize the literary merit of his translation, as well. Carson’s version of The Death of Ivan Ilyich will be included in the 9th edition of the Norton Anthology of Western literature, which will be published in January 2014. “This is a man who had read everything, and this translation will live on,” Weil says. “It will be read for generations.”

The last words of his version of Tolstoy’s story were read out at Carson’s funeral.  Ilyich’s descent into death is agonizing, but at the last moment, he seems to achieve some kind of spiritual transcendence: “’Death is finished,’ he said to himself. ‘It is no more.’”  Mary Beard says that Carson “would not have entirely approved of parading this alignment of literature and life,” but Robert Weil hopes he found some consolation in Tolstoy’s work: “I often recommend Ilyich: if you’re facing a serious illness, it offers a lot of philosophical and spiritual understanding. It says that no matter how emotionally barren or squalid or meaningless your life has been until then, you can still have a great life. Ilyich dies fufilled.”