A brief survey of the short story part 62:
Perennially falling into and out of fashion, he is a stunningly versatile writer and a very un-Russian Russian greatChris Power
Friday 5 December 2014 10.35 GMT
“I calculated once,” Vladimir Nabokov told an audience at Cornell University in the spring of 1958, “that the acknowledged best in the way of Russian fiction and poetry which had been produced since the beginning of the last century runs to about 23,000 pages of ordinary print.” Readers with a basic grounding in Russian literature will be able to reel off many of the writers in Nabokov’s notional anthology: Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov. But there was no place for Nikolai Leskov, of whom, the occasional beautiful image aside, Nabokov didn’t think much.
Those who disagree have made numerous attempts, over the last hundred years, to install Leskov in the Russian literary pantheon. The pantheon itself approved: Dostoevsky published him, Chekhov acknowledged a debt to his work, and Tolstoy admired it. Yet he has fallen, repeatedly, into obscurity. Last year saw the launch of another offensive in the long war over his reputation: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the current powerhouse of Russian-to-English translation, published a collection of his stories named for one of his great masterpieces, The Enchanted Wanderer. But despite the latest round of articles and reviews, there is no reason to believe this revival will be any more lasting than those before.
Why? What is it about Leskov that refuses to settle into consensus? Various reasons have been advanced, the most credible one being, as Robert Chandler maintains, “we English have always expected our Russian writers to be unambiguously serious. We want to be shown a character’s spiritual development; we want to be given truths to live by. But what Leskov gives us is something else: story matters more than character, and all we get by way of metaphysical insight is a sense that life’s horrors and beauties are so intermingled as to be beyond all understanding”. As Richard Pevear notes, Leskov’s first significant champion was the formalist critic Boris Eikhenbaum, who wrote in the 1920s that Leskov equalled Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy “not by resembling them, but by being totally unlike them”. A few years later, in his study of Russian literature, DS Mirsky captured the quality of this difference when he wrote, “If Turgenev’s or Chekhov’s world may be compared to a landscape by Corot, Leskov’s is a picture by Breughel the Elder, full of gay and bright colours and grotesque forms”. His stories offer few of the pleasures we find in the great Russians, but so do theirs lack many that we find in his.
Leskov writes about peasants, household domestics and their employers; about soldiers and officers and priests, pilgrims, monks and merchants’ daughters; about schoolboys, czars, Tatars and gypsies. “No one,” VS Pritchett maintained, “catches so truthfully the diversity of national character in his time.” Unlike almost every other famous Russian writer of the period, Leskov was not a member of the landed gentry; he said he came to know the Russian people by living among them, not through “conversations with Petersburg cabbies”. His settings range from his central southern home town of Orel (Turgenev’s home, too) to the Eurasian Steppe, the lakes of the north, Ukrainian Kiev, the metropolitan centres of Moscow and St Petersburg. As a young man, working for a firm that managed several large estates, he travelled all over Russia gaining knowledge that he would fully exploit in his fiction. At the outset of his story The Pearl Necklace, he reflects on the way travel generates writing material, “there’s simply no getting away from impressions. And they sit thick in you, like yesterday’s kasha stewing – well, naturally, it came out thick in the writing as well.”
Leskov’s stories are often close to folktales, moving at the sort of speeds that can be achieved when psychological analysis is jettisoned (which isn’t to say his stories lack an often acute understanding of psychology). In his masterful essay The Storyteller, Walter Benjamin draws a distinction between storyteller and novelist, asserting, “it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story from explanation as one reproduces it”. Leskov, Benjamin writes, “is a master at this”. Indeed, so consummately did Leskov disguise himself as the traditional storyteller that many readers believed his work to be a mere updating of much older folk material. Leskov played with this idea, prefacing one of his most successful stories of this type, Lefty, with the note, “I have transcribed this legend”. In fact the story was almost entirely his own invention, but his metafictional flourish was so widely accepted that he subsequently wrote a letter asserting himself as the story’s author, and not, as one reviewer put it, merely its “stenographer”.
In Lefty, as in many of Leskov’s stories, events succeed one another at a breathless pace. It seems the story might end, only for another flourish to extend the action (the great digressor Laurence Sterne was one of his favourite authors). Nowhere is this indefatigable quality more prominent than in The Enchanted Wanderer, the story of Ivan Flyagin, who as a boy is responsible for the death of a monk, receives a visitation from the monk’s ghost, and is cursed to die “many times”. So begins a lifelong odyssey across Russia, packed with a lifetime of incident: Ivan cares for pigeons and cuts off a cat’s tail, turns nursemaid, gets embroiled in a flogging contest, is held hostage by Tatars for many years, becomes a father, becomes an alcoholic, falls in love with a gypsy, performs a mercy killing, finds himself down and out in St Petersburg, kills a cow and goes to war.
In an essay arguing that Leskov’s obscurity was unjust (plus ça change), Irving Howe noted that The Enchanted Wanderer “no doubt has its distinctive national significance, but to a non-Russian the story asks to be read as an evocation, both cheering and saddening, of the necessary absurdity of human effort”. In his misfortune and toiling, his ricocheting from one event and emotional state to another, Ivan’s journey through Russia can be seen as representative of our journey through life: ragged, exhausting, wondrous and sad; an eternal pursuit of an elusive goal.
Following Gogol’s lead, Leskov often wrote in the “skaz” form, where the text recreates a storyteller’s nonstandard, dialect speech. This is a difficult effect to translate, and according to some commentators Pevear and Volokhonsky’s attempts (puns of mixed quality) fail to capture the originals’ ingenuity. Earlier translations by David Magarshack and David McDuff don’t even attempt to recreate them. But skaz was just one technique among many, and one of the great pleasures of Leskov’s work is its diversity: A Little Mistake could be from the pages of Grimm; the short, terse chapters of The Man on Watch generate a thriller’s momentum; A Robbery is a superb comedy of provincial life. Just as you settle into a certain style, he surprises you again.
His most famous story, for example, The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, is like nothing else he wrote. It is told with a dispassion that makes its realist account of a sequence of coldblooded murders all the more shocking. It is the type of story, Irving Howe remarked, “a writer may, if he is lucky and has some genius, bring off once or twice in his career, a piece that radiates enormous narrative authority by sacrificing almost everything else”. There is certainly nothing else like it in Leskov’s work, and, according to David McDuff, nothing like it “elsewhere in 19th-century Russian literature, not even in Dostoyevsky”.
How different this Leskov of the 1860s is to the writer who, between 1886 and 1891, devoted himself entirely to didactic, religiously-themed stories. By this time he had become a Tolstoyan, and in stories such as Pamphalon the Entertainer his descriptions of ancient Byzantium – “At both its upper and lower levels, the entire state was filled with vice” – are clearly swipes at modern Russia. But, ever protean, his output changed tone again before his death in 1895. A story he wrote the year he died, A Winter’s Day, is a merciless evisceration of Russian society that reads more like the script of a play than a prose work, so pared back is the writing. It begins in a deceptively light register, which sours into bitterness as the story progresses. Through a series of conversations we discern several mysteries and scandals, but Leskov never brings them fully into the light. The impression is an eerie one of a family, a town, a society, riddled with corruption and a terrible coldness of heart. David McDuff calls it “one of the bleakest works in Russian literature”, which, national cliches aside, really is saying something. Leskov may have written to a friend that “the real strength of my talent lies in the positive types. Show me such an abundance of positive Russian types in another writer,” but both this late work and his first published story, the extraordinary, despondent Musk-Ox, are intensely pessimistic.
Yet the thrilling range of Leskov’s body of work keeps slipping away. In a 1978 review of Hugh McLean’s biography, the translator Richard Freeborn wrote: “Our ignorance of Leskov can never again be advanced as a reason for ignoring him.” But McLean’s book is long out of print, and when Pevear and Volokhonsky published their new translations it represented yet another rediscovery of this serially rediscovered writer. Will he persist this time? Or will he, like one of his open-hearted wanderers, disappear for another decade or two, only to return again from the wilderness to enthral another generation with his uncommon stories?
• Translations from the work are by David McDuff, and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
042 Danilo Kiš
043 Flannery O'Connor
044 Frank O'Connor
045 John Cheever
046 Roberto Bolaño
047 Machado de Assis
048 Angela Carter
049 Guy de Maupassant
050 Ivan Turgenev