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…
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