“I calculated once,” Vladimir Nabokov told an audience at Cornell University in the spring of 1958, “that the acknowledged best in the way of Russian fiction and poetry which had been produced since the beginning of the last century runs to about 23,000 pages of ordinary print.” Readers with a basic grounding in Russian literature will be able to reel off many of the writers in Nabokov’s notional anthology: Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov. But there was no place for Nikolai Leskov, of whom, the occasional beautiful image aside, Nabokov didn’t think much.
Those who disagree have made numerous attempts, over the last hundred years, to install Leskov in the Russian literary pantheon. The pantheon itself approved: Dostoevsky published him, Chekhov acknowledged a debt to his work, and Tolstoy admired it. Yet he has fallen, repeatedly, into obscurity. Last year saw the launch of another offensive in the long war over his reputation: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the current powerhouse of Russian-to-English translation, published a collection of his stories named for one of his great masterpieces, The Enchanted Wanderer. But despite the latest round of articles and reviews, there is no reason to believe this revival will be any more lasting than those before.
Why? What is it about Leskov that refuses to settle into consensus? Various reasons have been advanced, the most credible one being, as Robert Chandler maintains, “we English have always expected our Russian writers to be unambiguously serious. We want to be shown a character’s spiritual development; we want to be given truths to live by. But what Leskov gives us is something else: story matters more than character, and all we get by way of metaphysical insight is a sense that life’s horrors and beauties are so intermingled as to be beyond all understanding”. As Richard Pevear notes, Leskov’s first significant champion was the formalist critic Boris Eikhenbaum, who wrote in the 1920s that Leskov equalled Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy “not by resembling them, but by being totally unlike them”. A few years later, in his study of Russian literature, DS Mirsky captured the quality of this difference when he wrote, “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 colours and grotesque forms”. His stories offer few of the pleasures we find in the great Russians, but so do theirs lack many that we find in his.
Leskov writes about peasants, household domestics and their employers; about soldiers and officers and priests, pilgrims, monks and merchants’ daughters; about schoolboys, czars, Tatars and gypsies. “No one,” VS Pritchett maintained, “catches so truthfully the diversity of national character in his time.” Unlike almost every other famous Russian writer of the period, Leskov was not a member of the landed gentry; he said he came to know the Russian people by living among them, not through “conversations with Petersburg cabbies”. His settings range from his central southern home town of Orel (Turgenev’s home, too) to the Eurasian Steppe, the lakes of the north, Ukrainian Kiev, the metropolitan centres of Moscow and St Petersburg. As a young man, working for a firm that managed several large estates, he travelled all over Russia gaining knowledge that he would fully exploit in his fiction. At the outset of his story The Pearl Necklace, he reflects on the way travel generates writing material, “there’s simply no getting away from impressions. And they sit thick in you, like yesterday’s kasha stewing – well, naturally, it came out thick in the writing as well.”
Leskov’s stories are often close to folktales, moving at the sort of speeds that can be achieved when psychological analysis is jettisoned (which isn’t to say his stories lack an often acute understanding of psychology). In his masterful essay The Storyteller, Walter Benjamin draws a distinction between storyteller and novelist, asserting, “it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story from explanation as one reproduces it”. Leskov, Benjamin writes, “is a master at this”. Indeed, so consummately did Leskov disguise himself as the traditional storyteller that many readers believed his work to be a mere updating of much older folk material. Leskov played with this idea, prefacing one of his most successful stories of this type, Lefty, with the note, “I have transcribed this legend”. In fact the story was almost entirely his own invention, but his metafictional flourish was so widely accepted that he subsequently wrote a letter asserting himself as the story’s author, and not, as one reviewer put it, merely its “stenographer”.
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