Two Cheers for Leskov

Nicolai Leskov: The Man and His Art

by Hugh McLean
Harvard University Press, 780 pp., $30.00

Nicolai Leskov
Nicolai Leskov; drawing by David Levine

Nikolai Semenovich Leskov (1831-1895), somewhat younger than Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Goncharov and a contemporary of Tolstoy, was a minor star in the brilliant constellation of the writers of fiction in nineteenth-century Russia. He published over a hundred stories, as well as several novels and collections of sketches. He won little fame in his lifetime—he confronts us, wrote Chekhov, with a “mixture of virtue, piety, and fornication.” Countess Tolstoy, who detested him, recorded, after reading one of his stories to her husband, that “his filthy soul shows through his supposed humor,” and even the great novelist himself criticized Leskov as “untruthful.”

Leskov was a difficult man whose life was unhappy and disturbed. “Generally speaking,” wrote one contemporary who knew him well, “many of Leskov’s friendships went sour, which was not surprising considering the unquiet biliousness of his temperament, It was much more remarkable that he should in some cases have succeeded in preserving the outward appearances of friendship, by very skillfully, as it were, managing to soothe the wounds caused by his malicious tongue…. Leskov was a man of spontaneous talent, which was raw, clumsy, innocent of taste or moderation, but with a great power of inspiration….” One of his editors, who was also as close a friend as any, described him as a

clever, temperamental old man with piercing black eyes, and with a complex and whimsical soul…. He was full of rebellious passions. His intelligence was powerful, restless, and cavilling. He never knew spiritual or mental comfort. He inveighed against all that was old and was coming to an end and ridiculed the new, without waiting for it to bear fruit….

Truth to tell, there was some element in Leskov of what seems a peculiarly Russian form of buffoonery, or at any rate one familiar in Russian fiction—Gogol’s Nozdrev, Dostoevsky’s Karamazov Senior and Captain Lebiadkin come to mind. This is not the buffoonery of the simple-minded humorist playing the fool, but malevolent and calculated mockery, while putting on an act of sincere feeling. The critic Rozanov perhaps falls into this category, and the right-wing politician Purishkevich, who used at times when in the Duma to sport a red carnation in his fly.

In Leskov it took the form occasionally of irresponsible writing, designed to relieve his feelings against someone or something, or simply to shock or to draw attention to the lack of recognition of his talents. How else is one to explain, for example, the publication of several grossly anti-Semitic stories (two of them of such vulgarity that they would not be out of place in Der Stürmer) by a man of, generally, liberal inclinations, who was capable of writing quite serious and objective articles about Jews? It is impossible to imagine Turgenev or Chekhov indulging the baser side of his nature in this way, and it was, no doubt, of this kind of moral flaw in Leskov’s…

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