Nikolai Leskov -The Forgotten 19th-Century Russian Great

Nikolai Leskov, 1894, Valentin Serov

Of the great Russian prose writers of the 19th century, Nikolai Leskov was an outsider. He was not a member of the gentry, he lacked a privileged education, and he wrote about common serfs and the country clergy in their own language. He managed to alienate both the left and right wings of the Russian intelligentsia early in his career, and though his work was popular, critics dismissed it. His work was capable of great darkness and brutal cynicism, but it lacks the angst, romantic and existential, present in so much other prose of the time. (Still, one of his stories was so controversial in its criticisms of the Russian church that it was only published decades later.) And Leskov himself was confused enough as to his own strengths that he said that his brilliant storytelling abilities would be forgotten in favor of his ideas, when, in fact, his legacy lies in the unique qualities of his stories, which are hilarious, unpredictable, surreal, and often baffling.

Walter Benjamin and Irving Howe have both paid great tribute to Leskov (Benjamin’s essay characteristically seems to have more to do with Benjamin’s obsessions than with Leskov himself), but neither of them quite characterizes the sheer peculiarity of Leskov’s best work, where the narrative material is subject to perversion along the lines of Euripides, Kleist, Gogol, or Kafka, though with far less malevolence. Leskov’s structural perversities are in service of a particular, peculiar form of morality, one not as doctrinal or particular as Tolstoy’s or Dostoevsky’s, but one that celebrates humility in the face of fate.

Sadly, one of Leskov’s most distinctive qualities is one that is not available to readers in English. Unlike most 19th century Russian writers, Leskov was not from the gentry and had a modest education, but he had a great affection and enthusiasm for the spoken language of Russian countryfolk. In defense of using spoken manners of speech, he wrote:

I am taken to task for this “mannered” language. But are there not a great many mannered people among us? All our quasi-learned writers produce their learned articles in this barbarous language. Just read the philosophical articles of our journalists and scholars. . . . For many years I have attentively listened to the accent and pronunciation of Russians at various stages in their social situation. In my works they all speak in their own way, and not in the literary way. It is harder for a writer to acquire the language, the living speech, of the man in the street than to acquire bookish language. (tr. William Edgerton)

Many of Leskov’s stories, especially the longer ones, are told as skaz, a sort of oral folklore wherein an anonymous narrator encounters the protagonist, who then relates the tale orally to the narrator. This allowed Leskov to use local manners of speech (including Ukrainian-inflected Russian, among others) that he had heard in his travels across the continent. This quality, as his translators point out, is very difficult to maintain in translation, and so the richness of language in a story like “The Steel Flea” (1882), one of his two most famous stories, is not as evident.

His other best-known story, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (1865, later adapted into an opera by Shostakovich), is a blueprint for Leskov’s narrative strangeness. Far darker than “The Steel Flea,” it tells of the sad, passionate Katerina and the wretched rake Sergey, who seduces her and leads her to murder her husband and father-in-law. The title is bizarre, as she seeks passion rather than power, but the story is most remarkable for a technique which Leskov would repeatedly use: an extended epilogue taking the story beyond its logical endpoint. When the two are found out and hauled off to prison for murder, things seem to be at a close, justice has been done, etc. But no, Katerina is still happy as the two join the same party of convicts going to Siberia, until she catches the sleazy Sergey with another woman, whereupon Katerina kills the other woman but dies in the process.
The story is dramatic and memorable in itself, but the ending unbalances the neat drama of what went before. The finality of justice is not so final. Katerina even enjoys some happiness before Sergey’s basic vileness reasserts itself. The coda is unsettling because the story seemed complete, but it takes Katerina’s death to actually end her story: her death is quite literally the last sentence. Lord knows what Sergey will go on to do, though it surely won’t be good. What they do in the epilogue isn’t surprising for their characters–they haven’t changed at all, in fact–but it’s surprising for the story. It is messy. And bringing out this messiness is Leskov’s trade.

There were other narrative manipulations in 19th-century Russian literature. Gogol’s overbearing narrators and Shchedrin’s miserable The Golovlyov Family, in which the plot is repeatedly derailed by the deaths of the main characters, come to mind. Leskov was not as temperamentally extreme as either of them, though he felt sufficiently worshipful toward Gogol to repeatedly reference him in his work, but the comparative normality of the material only offsets Leskov’s manipulations more strongly. He lacks Gogol’s absurd satirical brilliance, but as a twister of tales Leskov outdoes him. ...

Essay by David Auerbach

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