The Amazon and Other Stories
The Musk-Ox and Other Tales
The Sentry and Other Stories
The Cathedral Folk
The Enchanted Wanderer: Selected Tales of Nikolai Leskov
The Enchanted Wanderer
Satirical Stories of Nikolai Leskov
The Sealed Angel and Other Stories
A storyteller is very different from someone who writes a lot of stories. A storyteller celebrates that “gusto in art” which, according to Hazlitt, is “the power or passion to define an object”—that active pleasure in composition, a kind of conquering, which the story conveys and the audience is trained to share.
Consider as an example “The Amazon,” a long story by Nikolai Leskov (1831–1895) about a procuress who deceives everyone near her without the faintest compunction, yet in her “fat little heart” finds it impossible to think anything but well of herself. At no point does Leskov excuse or grow sentimental over her vice, yet she emerges—in a sublime accumulation of hypocrisy—as the agent of an indiscriminate life force, and we end up accepting, even relishing, her as an implacable reality. Moral judgment shrinks to the imperiled or even irrelevant; the drive of narrative crushes scruple.
This is not the kind of writing that easily charms modern readers. We are, with reason, suspicious of claims to abounding zest. It can mask coarseness of mind or metaphysical incapacity, perhaps also a refusal to listen to the bad news of our time. This cultural position may be one reason why the splendid writer Nikolai Leskov—author of stories and novels, but at his best in the long story—has never caught on outside Russia. In principle, to be sure, we ought to be able to respond strongly to both Leskov and Beckett, but it takes some stretching, a deliberate effort to employ conflicting portions of one’s sensibility. It also requires what is quite as difficult, to find ways of slipping past the imperialism of taste.
There is another reason why cultivated Western readers are likely to be only slightly familiar with Leskov. “The Anglo-Saxon public,” wrote the literary historian D.S. Mirsky some years ago, “have made up their mind as to what they want from a Russian writer, and Leskov does not fit in with this idea.”1 It’s a hard fate for a writer like Leskov—to be one of the most “Russian” of Russian writers, with a deeply intuitive grasp of the customs of his country, yet to fail to satisfy those expectations of spirituality we in the West have come to impose on Russian literature.
Some attempts to promote Leskov have been made: essays by Walter Benjamin and V.S. Pritchett, volumes of his selected writings, more or less adequately translated and annotated; but if you really want to get an idea of his range and quality, you have to hunt around in obscure and out of print books, none altogether satisfactory.
Does it matter? I think so. Leskov is a writer who yields enormous pleasure, breaking past sectarian literary and ideological premises. But more: we live in a moment of lowered cultural and emotional expectations, after the fall of modernism but without anything very strong to replace it. To go back to certain earlier writers is to regain a sense of human possibility. To go back to Leskov is to regain a sense of the passion, sometimes the joy, that can be part of the human enterprise.
In Leskov’s stories you will find very little probing into motives, or shadings of character, or penetration into the inner self, or yearnings for religious transcendence, nor is there authorial play with time sequences and points of view. What then remains? A very great deal, most of all the art of telling stories and the vision of life which enables that art. Nor does this art rely on an outmoded or contrived simplicity: it draws upon both a demanding aesthetic and a “philosophy” of life. The aesthetic makes narrative the dominant element of fiction, overwhelming and sometimes even suppressing character, thematic comment, and stylistic texture. Narrative becomes, if not quite an end in itself, then an autonomous source of pleasure, somewhat in the way Pope’s rhymes can be. But for all his virtuoso’s craftiness—which, rather curiously, can approach an “art for art’s sake” aesthetic, that is, storytelling without any exterior rationale—the storyteller usually works out of, or edges back into, a belief in a solid, this-worldly reality. Bringing a sense of renewal to his audience, he turns to the world for his own renewal, and then, by virtue of having acknowledged the world’s claims upon him, he finds that moral judgments creep into his storytelling.
But not without difficulty and internal conflicts. In a number of Leskov’s stories there is a tension or clash between narrative momentum and moral intent, and this often creates a sense of unbalance. The one story of his that the English-reading public is likely to know, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”—a fierce, even horrifying account of lust, murder, and betrayal—has such a strong narrative drive that it becomes hard to find a moral theme in the story. More to the point, as one gets caught up with its rush of events, one loses interest in trying to find a moral theme. For a Tolstoyan dubious about the value of art, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” could serve as a prime instance of art’s amoral power to inflame readers into complicity with frightful desires and acts. Leskov himself wrote that in composing this grim story he often felt himself to be in a state of terror, and one can understand why. He had come up against the terror of art—its capacity, like that of physical beauty, to make everything but itself seem inconsequential.
Leskov never wrote anything again like “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” but he had plenty of other stories to tell and plenty of figures to impersonate in the telling. The world for Leskov was inexhaustible—that’s the storyteller’s signature. He has no interest in the maneuvers of the self, he enjoys imagining other people. Some of Leskov’s best pieces deal with Russian religious life, a subject about which he knows more than his religiously exalted contemporaries; but church, priest, icon, and chant all figure for him as aspects of Russian daily life. Upon becoming in his later years a convert or semiconvert to Tolstoyism, he produced a group of sketches of “righteous men.” What is remarkable about those I’ve read in English versions is their rootedness in ordinary life without any touch, or taint, of the angelic. Exuberance Leskov has abundantly, spiritual exaltation rarely.
It would be a mistake to think of Leskov as a realist of any conventional sort. He adores high colorings, fine gestures, narratives of suspense, surprise, and (his own words) “gay confusion.” D.S. Mirsky offers a nice comparison:
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 colors and grotesque forms.
And if Leskov never reaches the illuminations of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, it is quite enough that, like the shrewd Russian craftsmen he admired, he should be in command of the mundane.
In the opening lines of Professor Hugh McLean’s magisterial biography of Leskov we encounter such words as “embittered,” “irritably,” “resentment,” and “self-pity.”2 That these words are appropriate both Leskov’s friends and enemies confirm, yet so far as I can see there is very little reason to apply them to his fiction. The irritability for which he became notorious during his lifetime can readily be separated from the good-natured and often high-spirited tone of his writing. How to explain this split I do not know.
Unlike so many other Russian writers of his time, Leskov was not born into the landowning gentry. While some of his stories examine relations between land-owners and serfs in a humane spirit, these relations are not a central theme of his fiction. Born in south central Russia and raised in the town of Oryol, Leskov writes mainly with the voice of a townsman, shrewd but not conspicuously sophisticated, and apparently indifferent to the dream of a pastoral idyll that pervaded a good part of Russian literature in the nineteenth century, from the elder Aksakov to, recurrently, Turgenev and Tolstoy.
Two religious traditions compete within Leskov, and neither dominates. His father descended from generations of Orthodox priests, but had himself settled into the routine of a civil servant, professing a rather dry rationalist version of the faith; the mother, from merchant stock, was piously Orthodox. Both strains figure in Leskov’s stories, though never in a fanatical spirit; they become secularized as elements of national culture.
Leskov followed roughly the typical progress of the bright provincial boy, step by step to the capital. He dropped out of school in his mid teens, finding employment in the law courts; at the age of seventeen or eighteen he got himself transferred to Kiev, where he learned Polish and came to know Ukrainian nationalists—an experience that would temper, if not entirely quench, his Russian nationalism. In Kiev he also began to develop what would be a lifelong interest in local customs and speech; many of his stories are enlivened with bits of colloquial Ukrainian (something, of course, that cannot come through in translation).
In 1857 Leskov went to work as a traveling agent for his uncle, a Russified Scotsman named Alexander Scott, whose firm managed the estates of noblemen. Scott, who tried with varying results to introduce modern business methods in the Russian countryside, would later become a model for a number of Leskov’s characters, strong-willed, energetic fellows set up in opposition to the “superfluous man” who figures so importantly in Russian literature. (In one of his finest stories, “The Musk-Ox,” Leskov offers a deeply sympathetic portrait of a “superfluous man,” drawn more in ethical and religious than in political terms, as if to show that he can write—as all great writers must—in opposition to his own preconceptions.) Traveling for several years throughout Russia on behalf of Scott’s firm, Leskov acquired a wide knowledge of provincial life, of the Russia beyond the two major cities; and in his writings he would draw upon this accumulated store of impression, memory, legend, and anecdote—especially anecdote, a main source of his fiction.
In 1860, still not yet thirty, Leskov moved to St. Petersburg to become a fulltime journalist. His deepest inclination was to join the movement toward a moderate progressivism that began with Alexander II’s coming to the throne. This meant that sooner or later he would clash with the literary radicals who, for a brief time, seemed his natural allies. When the break came in the spring of 1861, it took on an especially venomous character.
St. Petersburg had been by mysterious fires, which, according to rumors spreading through the city, had been started by student radicals; these rumors gained credence when a proclamation breathing fire and violence was issued by an anonymous group calling itself Young Russia. In good faith Leskov wrote an article defending the students and challenging the police to produce any evidence it had that arson had been committed. Whereupon the literary left called him a provocateur, for wasn’t he really hinting that the fires might indeed have been set by some of the student radicals? To the leftist intelligentsia, or at least that part intransigently opposed to the government, Leskov now became anathema. Not being the sort of man who turns the other cheek, he retaliated with fierce polemics and a roman à clef, No Way Out, that further enraged the radicals.
A History of Russian Literature (Knopf, 1949), p. 316.↩
Hugh McLean, Nikolai Leskov (Harvard University Press, 1977). Indispensable for its scholarship, stimulating for its criticism. I am greatly indebted to this work.↩