‘Here is God’s plenty,” remarked the English poet John Dryden of The Canterbury Tales. A similar comment could apply to the work of the 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895), who had much in common with Geoffrey Chaucer. Both writers travelled extensively, and both were candid observers, sharing an interest in ordinary people. Most importantly, they were originals, and whatever about Chaucer being an obvious literary pioneer, living as he did in the late medieval period, Leskov, who is so often referred to as Anton Chekhov’s favourite writer – and he certainly influenced the young Chekhov – and whom Mikhail Bulgakov frequently praised as a master, is different in style and approach from all of the major 19th-century Russian writers.
There are several reasons for this, probably the most important being that he looked almost exclusively to an ancient Russia of traditional myths, fables and quasi-religious mysticism and superstition. He made inspired use of characters coming back from the dead to help drive a narrative along. The work straddles both worlds. Gorky saw him as “the writer most deeply rooted in the people” and completely “untouched by any foreign influences”. There was one foreign influence, though, and one to which Leskov himself drew attention, that of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.
A younger contemporary of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Leskov is far less famous and has always seemed to drift in and out of fashion. It may be due to his penchant for unreliable narrators and his communal approach. His stories are just that: a narrator begins to tell a tale and gets prodded along the way by listeners impatient to know what happens next. Added to that is the richness of his vernacular, the wordplay and games and deliberate use of semi-literate speech.
Leskov knew he was impossible to translate, and he remains a challenge for any translator, because he set out to write the way people speak, regardless of the language in which they happen to be speaking. This is why his work is so exciting: bawdy, funny, human and shocking. What more could a reader want? All life – well, at least all ordinary Russian life – is here. To read the 17 fantastic stories in this magnificent volume is to wander freely, enchanted in the best possible way, enjoying the art of the storyteller.
“Storyteller” is the most apt word for Leskov. He does not invent so much as relate. His yarns are inspired by things he saw and heard while spending an intense two years travelling throughout old Russia as a young man. He was a natural sponge, eyes out on stalks, missing nothing and grasping the essential ambivalence of life and art. Structure and form did not interest him; his impulse was to hold an audience.
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