Friday, 15 March 2013

The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories by Nikolai Leskov


In his 1924 History of Russian Literature, the critic D.S. Mirsky complained that Anglo-Saxon readers knew what they wanted out of a Russian writer, and that Nikolai Leskov was not it. But to read Leskov, he continues, is to experience a Russia that Russians themselves would recognize, a vast and haunted steppe populated by vagabonds and righteous men.
Mirsky’s judgment is related in the introduction to Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s new translation of The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories, stories by a writer who has long been adored in Russia but whose greatness has never been fully acknowledged in English. With Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation, Leskov should at last receive the recognition he deserves. “Enchanted” is precisely how Leskov’s stories come to us, and enchanted is how we, his readers, leave them.
Pevear and Volokhonsky’s ambition in bringing Leskov and all his stylistic peculiarities into English is impressive, and all the more so for how it contrasts with their previous role as translators of Russian. The pair are justly famous for their renditions of the great nineteenth-century Russian novelists; their editions of Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment have become the standard versions, and have won consistent and well-earned praise. The importance of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, however, has never been questioned, nor really has the belief that a new translation could illuminate aspects of the writer’s style that earlier efforts had somehow obscured.
With Leskov, the situation is different. Although he was highly respected in his lifetime (Chekhov named him his favorite writer), Leskov’s posthumous reception abroad has alternated between periods of neglect and periods of critical appreciation. And although his work has appeared in English before, he has never been regarded by Anglophone readers as equal to his great contemporaries. Part of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s task in translating him, then, has been to introduce us to a voice not so much new as unfairly ignored.
The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories includes seventeen tales that span nearly the whole of Leskov’s career. The world they reveal may indeed come as a shock to those who, as Mirsky implied, believe that all of Russia is contained in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Leskov’s Russia is windy and wooded, a cruel, magical place, filled with demons and saints, gypsies and kings. The stories are arranged chronologically, with several early novellas, such as “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and “The Enchanted Wanderer,” at the beginning, and the shorter, denser “stories of righteous men” at the end. The selection itself already deserves praise, for it demonstrates that nothing was foreign to Leskov; he was as at home in a Moscow living room as in a Tartar tent on the steppe, as deft in comedy as in tragedy, as funny as he was wise.
As Walter Benjamin observed in his essay “The Storyteller,” Leskov’s work combines the two oldest categories of yarns: those told by the wandering sailor (that is, by someone who comes from elsewhere) and those by the “resident tiller of the soil” (a native grounded in local tradition and lore). Part anecdote, part drinking song, part fable and part myth, Leskov’s stories are illiterate in an ancient sense. They are profoundly oral events; they take their substance from the voices of characters and not from the conventions of genre, and may in fact pass through several generic types on their way to completion. “The Spook,” for example, might for a while seem like Russian magical realism, though it is later a disarmingly simple story of loneliness and misunderstanding.
“The Enchanted Wanderer” is similarly surprising: it begins as a rollicking bandit tale and ends in mystical ecstasy. The eponymous wanderer meets a band of workers near the border with Finland, and is eventually coaxed by them into telling his life story. He reveals that a moment of accidental but unrepented cruelty has been the cause of his enchantment: after killing a bystander by mistake, the wanderer was cursed to keep dying, but never die, all his life. And so he encounters, and perpetuates, one death after another (each in its own right a hair-raising tale), but always escapes, always endures, moving only slowly and painfully toward peace and absolution.
The plot of this long, breathtaking tale proves nearly impossible to predict. The reader is, like the wanderer, tossed haphazardly across time and space, and the experience is partly so striking because the structures that hold it together come from the oral tradition and not from the novel. Perhaps this is what Mirsky meant when he said that Leskov was not what Anglo-Saxons expected out of a Russian writer: Leskov was no novelist. Although he did try his hand at the form, “his genius was not suited to the genre of the novel,” Pevear explains, “and he knew it”.
“The Enchanted Wanderer” is much less concerned with psychological interpretation than with the performance of narration (though it certainly does not lack psychological depth). The story thus becomes a theatre of voices: “astonished listeners” interrupt the storyteller constantly, never in order to interpret, but only to demand confirmation of what they have just heard: “What … you and that Tartar … whipped each other? So you beat the Tartar? Yet it must have been terribly painful.” They provide opportunity for repetition; they encourage the development of thematic refrain, allowing the story to settle into itself and allowing us, isolated readers, to exist as some among many listeners. In this respect, as Benjamin remarks, Leskov undermines our readerly solitude by offering us a communality of experience.
One reason for Leskov’s lesser visibility among the great nineteenth-century Russian authors is his highly distinct use of language, which he himself identified as “untranslatable.” His Russian is so polyphonic, so well-tuned to local dialect, idiom, and wordplay, that it can’t help but suffer in the journey to English. But according to Pevear and Volokhonsky, Leskov has perhaps been made to suffer too much. Previous translations, they feel, have tended to smooth out the intentional oddness and playfulness of Leskov’s style. Their own version has made a great effort to preserve these qualities, and it has succeeded to such an extent that those who encounter this new Leskov will find themselves continually surprised by the writer’s inventiveness, by his subtlety and unexpected humor. Readers can look forward to stumbling upon such collocations as “the most internecine conversations” carried on by a travelling sovereign, or the “fatal appearance” of a character in “The White Eagle.”
Pevear and Volokhonsky have proven sensitive translators throughout their joint career, and for the most part, they handle Leskov as expertly as they have handled his contemporaries. They have given him space so that all his clamoring voices may speak for themselves, and when we Anglophone readers come across them, the Shandyesque digressions and the holy benedictions, we can recognize this Leskov, in English, as a king among Russian storytellers.
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