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.
From then on, it was open war. The leftist critic Pisarev called for a boycott of Leskov’s work; magazines closed their pages to him; for some years he could appear only in conservative journals with which he was not fully in sympathy. One of these, The Russian Messenger, printed two of his best works, the novel The Cathedral Folk and the long story “The Sealed Angel.”
The contentious Leskov could not long be comfortable with the conservatives, and by 1874 he had broken with them too. His standing with the Russian reading public remained secure, but a good part of the intelligentsia, to whom his buoyant stories seemed deficient in “higher” values, chose to disparage him: he offered no answer to the heartbreak of Russia.
Leskov’s position in the literary life of his country would always be somewhat anomalous: simultaneously at home and estranged. He knew the folk culture of Russia intimately, yet there is a streak of displacement, perhaps even of deracination, in his personality. He knew the countryside at first hand, yet he was not fully at ease with any of the fixed social classes in czarist Russia. For a writer this can be a real advantage: it enabled Leskov to portray colorful segments of Russian life, such as that of the Old Believers, which his great contemporaries knew little about, and it kept him at a sensible distance from extremist intellectual tendencies such as the Slavophiles and the nihilists. But Leskov the man seems to have been always at odds. Prey to the embarrassments of the autodidact, he became an easy target for anyone who cared to taunt him about his lack of formal education.
He was something of a “musk ox” himself, and he went his own way. By the 1870s he was moving toward a modified Tolstoyism. He praised Tolstoy as the greatest man of his age but made sharp criticisms of the ascetic and fanatical aspects of the Tolstoyan movement. What appealed to Leskov in Tolstoy’s prophetic position was its “Protestantism,” the strong emphasis on individual moral judgment and responsibility. From his own version of the Tolstoyan outlook, Leskov worked up a series of biting satirical sketches about religious obscurantism and state bureaucratism, sketches written in behalf of a practical morality, a Christianity of conduct rather than spirit. Some of these pieces can be read in the Leskov selection edited by William Edgerton, which, while lively enough, do not strike me as among Leskov’s best. The great Leskov—a magician of anecdote—writes not out of polemical intent but out of a loving engagement with the habits of the Russians.
One of these satirical stories, “The March Hare,” written a year before Leskov’s death, is, however, a major success: a spoof on the hunt for subversives in which a featherbrained provincial official, Onopry Opanassovich, whose true vocation is for taking a snooze, must keep on the lookout for men who
go about wearing long hair…and women [who] cut their hair short and walk about in dark eye-glasses and they all call themselves Socialists, or which is the same thing, underminers of foundations.
Helped by his accommodating young coachman, Onopry Opanassovich gets into one ridiculous muddle after another, until he discovers that the author of the subversive leaflets that have been alarming his superiors is that very coachman. Upon learning this, the poor official loses his wits and ends up amiably babbling in an asylum, where the narrator of the story extracts from him an account of his adventures. Even while making its serious point about the absurdity of witch hunts, “The March Hare” slides deeply into farce: it’s as if the Three Stooges had declared a passion for politics.
Every editor to whom Leskov sent the story turned it down, fearing it would make trouble with the censors (as indeed it would have). Not until 1917, after the fall of the czar, did “The March Hare” see print. About this work Leskov wrote: “I am trying to show that ideas can be fought only with ideas and that the measures for the violent suppression of ideas are likely to produce the most unexpected results.” The story itself is much wilder than Leskov’s remark suggests, but his sentiment remains valuable—especially when one remembers that it came from a writer whose opinions may have been moderate but whose temperament was not.
“Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” an early work, is perhaps the most spectacular story Leskov ever wrote, though it is not really typical of his narrative approach. The story is told in the traditional omniscient voice and portrays, with a ruthlessness matched only in Verga’s short story “The Wolf,” a deliberate and untroubled abandonment to the chaos of passion.
Katerina, the bored young wife of a wealthy merchant, becomes sexually entangled with Sergei, an employee of her husband. The two young lovers yield themselves completely to their lust, and do not hesitate to kill her husband and her father-in-law in its behalf. Caught by the authorities, they are transported to Siberia, where Sergei, slipping into a weakness merely human, drops Katerina for another woman. The unrelenting Katerina, “without removing her gaze from the dark waters bent forward and seizing [her rival] Sonnetka by the legs, with one lunge pulled her overboard” to an icy grave. The appalling Katerina does not hesitate for a moment: there is no remorse, no guilt. Leskov, as the recorder of terrible events, neither celebrates nor condemns; there is not a shred of the redemptive in the story.
Katerina utters her last words not as a prayer but as an unrepentant Liebestod: “How you and I loved each other; sat long autumn nights together; sent people from the light of day by violent deaths.” In any usual sense Katerina is hardly a character, she figures for us as a tremor or upheaval of nature. And the contrast Leskov would invoke through his title is at best a partial one. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth uses her sexuality as a means to gain political power; Leskov’s Katerina—in Leskov’s conception at least, more impressive—submits unconditionally to sexuality with no other object in mind, at least until it becomes entwined for her with the thrill of murder.
Twice Leskov breaks the relentless narrative with bits of symbolic action: the first is a Hardyesque moment, when Katerina is weighed by her husband’s workers on the scale they use for animals (she weighs three poods), and the second when, in an erotic daydream, she imagines a cat is snuggling into her bed: “He stretched out his head to her, thrust his blunt nose coaxingly against her firm breasts and began to sing a soft song.” Rarely, if at all, is the narrative, in its steadily quickening pace, interrupted by any nuance of thought, or by a sense of prudential uneasiness.
The opera Dmitri Shostakovich based on Leskov’s story, Katerina Ismailova, while a powerful work, uses a libretto which significantly weakens Leskov’s story. Shostakovich “humanizes” Katerina, treating her as a social victim. In the last act, he introduces a chorus of prisoners in Siberia who sing about their plight; the song is beautiful, but in spirit far from Leskov. On the other hand, the orchestral music is stark and brutal, so that one might say that in the medium most his own Shostakovich grasped entirely Leskov’s intention.
The Leskov who wrote “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” was surely a remarkable writer, but he was not a storyteller. This is the kind of fiction 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. I suspect that Leskov’s moral sense was taken aback by what he had done here and this prompted him shrewdly to retreat a little. Leskov the writer is, for the most part, a virtuoso of good nature, the ethnologist of his tribe, not the witness to lust and murder. For what appealed most pleasingly to his imagination he had to turn to other subjects, other techniques.
Far more typical of Leskov’s work is the narrative stratagem the Russians call skaz, defined by Victor Erlich as “the mimicry of intonational, lexical, and phraseological mannerisms of a lowbrow narrator…which enacts and parodies the pattern of a bumbling, chatty narration.”3 The technique, if not the name, is familiar enough: Ring Lardner used it well, Sholom Aleichem better. But Leskov, no doubt with the example of Gogol behind him, makes something quite extraordinary out of skaz.
Leskov’s simulated oral narrative, “bumbling” and “chatty,” usually enforces a meandering pace, with amusing remarks and digressions, but the effect in his longer stories is often of an unusual combination of speeds, adagio and allegro bound together. The narrator ambles, his narratives race. We seem—is this just an illusion?—to be moving along two planes of velocity, with the narrator chattering away in customary skaz fashion while the internal stories and anecdotes, the essential material, move with a masterful briskness. The effect can be dazzling, as if a juggler were twirling two sets of balls at different rates of speed.
In Leskov’s masterpiece, the short novel or long story called The Enchanted Wanderer, he piles an astonishing number of disasters onto the back of a gentle-souled giant in whom touches of the simpleton appear side by side with a suggestion of the saint. This sort of character is ideally suited to a picaresque tale: he can endure numerous ordeals, he is too innocent to rebel, he lives forever in hope of redemption or at least recovery, and he likes to tell people about his experiences.
Born a serf, the giant Ivan Severyanovich Flyagin as a boy accidentally kills someone, and then in a dream meets a fearful vision of his fate. He will have to wander about, suffering endlessly but unable to die. (Leskov is canny enough not to stress the legendary sources of this story.) Ivan has an early brush with Gypsies (a nearly obligatory convention of picaresque narratives). He becomes a nursemaid for a kidnapped child. He witnesses a barbaric contest between two Tartars who whip each other into insensibility over the privilege of buying a magnificent horse each one wants:
The dignified Tartar told [the two contestants] to wait, handed them the whips in due order and gently clapped his hands: once, twice, thrice…. Bakchey instantly lashed Chepkun over his shoulder across his bare back; Chepkun countered with the same and they began to entertain each other in this fashion. They stared into each other’s eyes, butted their soles together and each hung on to the other’s left hand, while they flogged each other with their right ones…. Oh, they did it grandly! If one gave a good cut, the other answered him with a better one!
The Tartars keep Ivan captive for several years and to prevent his escape slit the soles of his feet and fill them with horsehairs. After his escape, he declines into a drunken valet to a disreputable army officer, through whom, however, he meets a ravishing Gypsy girl. He loves the girl dearly: “This,’ I thought, ‘this here is the true beauty that they call the perfection of nature.’ ” The love affair ends badly, as by the strict rules of such narratives it must, and Ivan retires to a monastery. Even there he makes trouble, experiencing revelations of the Apocalypse. A doctor interviews Ivan:
“What a drum you are, brother,” [the doctor] said, “no amount of beating seems to settle your business.”
“What’s to be done,” I said, “possibly it must be so.”
In its external rhythm of event The Enchanted Wanderer may seem akin to Gil Blas or picaresque narratives by Smollett, but Leskov’s story is very different in tone. Leskov is less brutal than Smollett or Lesage, less concerned with an accumulation of violence and pratfalls. In his hands picaresque comes to be not just a vehicle for energy, but also a medium of values; he creates in Ivan a figure all but impervious to the world’s hardness of spirit and thereby peculiarly endearing.
Inevitably critics have seen The Enchanted Wanderer as, in McLean’s words, a “disquisition on the Russian national character,” stressing meek endurance and gaiety. Maxim Gorky, a great admirer of Leskov, wrote:
His heroes do not abandon the world for Theban deserts, virgin forests, caves and hermitages in which, alone with God, they implore him to grant them a pure and beatific life in paradise. They foolishly thrust themselves into the thickest mire of life on earth, where man has sunk deep, smothered in blood.
Such Russian wanderers, Gorky explains,
are men of inexhaustible, fantastic energy which they could find no usual manner of applying. Deprived of the possibility of making history, they created anecdotes.
Such readings are plausible, and Gorky’s fine last sentence echoes an entire tradition of Russian criticism. Yet they seem to me to miss an essential quality of Leskov’s story. What he has achieved here 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. The piling up of disasters, as in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, forms the basis for irresistible comedy: after a while there is nothing you can do but laugh. Leskov’s giant thinks he has been enchanted by an agency of misfortune, but what has really enchanted him is life itself.
Another version of the saintly simpleton appears in Leskov’s novel The Cathedral Folk, this time as Deacon Akhílla who lives with a group of priests in Stargorod. This character type seems especially attractive to writers—Dickens, Silone, among others—who have abandoned the Church but retain feelings of reverence for the moral norms of early Christianity.
The Cathedral Folk, though a less accomplished work than The Enchanted Wanderer, is still very much alive as an attack upon the sloth of the Orthodox Church and as a portrayal of the daily routine of its priests. There are fine sections dealing with one of Leskov’s “just men,” Father Tuberózov, who resists the demands of the ecclesiastic bureaucracy that he harass the Old Believers. Once, however, Leskov approaches matters of belief—theism, atheism—he is out of his depth.
Such flaws hardly matter once the mischievous figure of Deacon Akhílla strides into sight. Akhílla may be drawn, roughly, from the same general conception as Flyagin in The Enchanted Wanderer, but the two characters are treated in quite different ways, largely because of the different requirements of a full-scale novel and a longish picaresque tale. Flyagin is essentially a solitary figure shuffled from one setting to another, while Akhílla can be shown in complicating relations with other characters. The tense but charming friendship between Akhílla and Father Tuberózov reminds one, a little, of the pairing of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote—except that here it’s the serious-minded Father Tuberózov who serves as a foil for the mischievous Akhílla, a character who “exists” in memory despite all the recent warnings by critics that fictional characters cannot escape the pages in which they appear.
Akhílla serves as Leskov’s testimony to the life force, by which we mean, I suppose, that charge or flow of energy which courses through (sometimes past) individuals. The idea of the life force, sometimes sweeping past moral norms and constraints, is embedded in romanticism, but only occasionally does Leskov project it through romantic images. The natural world, either as presence or symbol, does not figure strongly in Leskov’s imagination. He admires the rational exercise of will, he loves energy as a token of sociability, and these matter for him within the movement of the material world.
Finally it is not even society as such that commands Leskov’s main attention; it’s the culture of old Russia and the behavior of its people that offer traditional delights even to a progressive who knows that it is necessary to enter the modern world. No other nineteenth-century writer, to my knowledge, provides so intimate a portrait of the inner recesses of Russian life, its customs, mores, and folk culture. Leskov’s story “A Robbery,” for instance, is a genial comedy about a quick-tempered merchant who arrives in town seeking new singers for his village church. His religion may be tepid, but he cares about the quality, or perhaps only the volume, of the singers’ voices:
“I’ll have to explain to them [says the merchant] all the sorts of singing we in Eletz admire most. We’ll listen to how they tune up and how they manage with all the different types—if they can get a really low growl when they sing the ‘Vestment’…if they put in the right wail doing ‘In her Blessed Assumption,’ and do the memorial howl. It won’t take long.”
Nothing in Leskov takes very long: after some farcical maneuvers (you might suppose Leskov had watched silent movies), the story reaches a happy climax with two stentorian deacons booming away.
More complex is “The Sealed Angel,” a long story in which Leskov displays his knowledge of Russian icon painting (such as the difference between the Novgorod and Stroganov schools). The story is a triumph of skaz; its witty and talkative narrator is a spokesman for a company of Old Believers, skilled construction workers who carry their culture and their icons with them as they take on a project “on the river Dnieper.” When their most cherished icon is filched from them, they realize that guile will be their only recourse, and they send the narrator to a distant town in order to find the one painter who can still make a good facsimile of their precious icon. With this fake, they can then contrive to get back their original—a scheme Leskov adorns with some tension-making farcical business. All ends well, perhaps a bit too well. The Orthodox bishop who had appropriated the icon is deceived with the counterfeit; the Old Believers are so overjoyed that they show their respect for the bishop by returning to Orthodoxy—a dubious ending Leskov later said was tacked on to please a conservative editor.
This flaw does not prevent “The Sealed Angel” from being one of Leskov’s richest and funniest portraits of Russian life, with even an unobtrusive “class” angle (the Old Believers are honest workmen, their enemies bureaucrats, church functionaries, meddling ladies). All moves easily, smoothly, in this joyous celebration of the way simple people manage their lives, honestly by preference and through guile when necessary. It is a story, I imagine, that Russians have always cherished.
Leskov writes out of what seems a relaxed closeness to folk sources—a closeness, as well, to readers who are not of course the folk but may be supposed to share with him folk memories or at least sentiments regarding the folk. What matters is that, in the bond between writer and reader, the folk should still be felt as near.4
It may even seem at times that as a narrative strategy Leskov treats his readers as if they were the folk, though with an occasional wink to indicate we all know they are nothing of the sort. Leskov’s readers are thereby lured into a pleasant compact which enables him to assume that air of easy self-assurance that is the storyteller’s privilege and thereby to speed along without having to burden himself with moral dilemmas, psychological enigmas, troubling ideas, and other impedimenta.
In his various narrative modes, Leskov almost always depends on a principle of stringent exclusion. Walter Benjamin, in a brilliant essay on Leskov, writes: “There is nothing that commands a story to memory more effectively than the chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis.”5 The phrase “chaste compactness” suggests that the drive and economy of a narrative unperturbed by psychological analysis are gained at the price of a willed, perhaps assumed innocence. “Chaste compactness”—which in Leskov can coexist with a rambling manner simulating oral storytelling—also means that the kind of reflection we may value in Proust or Mann is excluded. A free flow of narrative is gained through the complicity of author and reader sharing a world view; not too much need be said, and less explained, so that the narrative can brush everything else aside, arrogant in self-sufficiency.
Modern writers strain for insight, but a writer like Leskov is content to float along on his little tributary to the river of received wisdom. So long as the writer remains firmly in touch with his culture, he can indeed become a channel of sorts for the wisdom of the past. Once there’s something to explain, the best such a writer can hope for is to become a novelist.
I’ve barely touched on the literary riches of Leskov. My hope, in putting down these impressions of a cultural outsider, is that some readers will be persuaded to hunt down his scattered writings in English. And I further hope that a publisher will commission a generous selection, edited by an authority like Professor McLean, from this wonderful Russian, the master of “gay confusion.”
April 23, 1987
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. ↩
Gogol (Yale University Press, 1969), p. 146. ↩
This can lead to amusing mix-ups. The Leskov story most popular in Russia, “The Lefthander,” was prefaced in its first printing with a Defoe-ish note saying, “I have transcribed this legend.” So utterly folklike did this story seem—a comic account of how Russian craftsmen, in behalf of national honor, go English craftsmen one better in the art of molding a steel flea—that some contemporary reviewers took Leskov at his word. One of them, Professor McLean reports, concluded that “Mr. Leskov’s authorial participation in the narrative is limited to simple stenography. And one should do Mr. Leskov justice: he is a superb stenographer.” Bristling at this slight to his originality, Leskov wrote a letter insisting that he had made up the entire story himself. Stenography indeed! ↩
“The Storyteller,” Illuminations (Schocken, 1969), p. 91. ↩