Chekhov’s less famous master - Nikolai Leskov

By 1888, when Anton Chekhov published the short story that made his name, the writer from whom, perhaps, he had learnt more than any other had advanced far along the path of his own Enchanted Pilgrimage. Nikolai Leskov (1831–95), who had begun as the conservative-minded celebrant of the Russian provinces and the Russian Church, had moved to the Left. His series of portraits of pravedniki, righteous ones, which had been appearing throughout the 1880s, were literary icons depicting in close-up detail not the saints of Orthodoxy, but the marginalized. While living in Russia, Leskov had always sympathized with those on the fringes of its society – Jews, Old Believers, gypsies. A spell as a journalist in Paris had given him a different perspective on the mother country. Affectionate as he would always remain towards Russian superstitions, folk tales and provincialisms, Leskov came to hate the cruelty of the regime.

Today, only Chekhov is famous. In preparing for this article, I consulted Leskov’s complete works in the London Library, and noted that one of his most famous stories, “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, was last withdrawn in 1979, and many of the volumes have never been taken out at all. Chekhov’s works, understandably enough, have been in constant use. Yet anyone reading “The Steppe” in the March 1888 number of Severny Vestnik (The Northern Herald) would have recognized the young Chekhov’s debt to the celebrated master of the Russian short story, Leskov. The travellers on a britchka rumbling across the hot, stultifying plain – the long-haired priest Fr Christopher, munching doughnuts and remembering his own boyhood, the boring merchant Kuzmichov in his straw hat – have walked out of the pages of Leskov. Chekhov borrows, too, from Leskov’s superb technique as a painter of landscape and setting, and learnt from him the ventriloquist’s trick of letting provincial Russians appear to speak for themselves. What remains with us from the tale, nevertheless, is the reason for the journey: the callous grown-ups, with their inconsequential chatter, are taking a little boy to a boarding school, and it is the child’s heartbreak which Chekhov immortalizes. In Chekhov’s world, readers of any nationality immediately feel at home, because the emotional world he depicts, though localized, is universal. His master Leskov remains pungently and overpoweringly Russian. When you have read him, you really feel you have been abroad.

The almost simultaneous publication of two translations of Leskov’s novella The Enchanted Wanderer – one by the celebrated duo Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and one by Ian Dreiblatt – might not in itself make Leskov as famous as Chekhov, but it may awaken anglophone readers to the pleasures they have been missing. And in the first volume, they will also be able to savour sixteen other tales by Leskov, including his comic masterpiece “Lefty”, which concerns a mechanic in an armaments factory who manages to outwit his English peers in the manufacturing of a mechanical flea. Throughout the Soviet era, Leskov’s tale of the left-handed Russian craftsman was a benchmark, helping, now to feed Russian paranoia about the West, now to bolster a feeling of technological superiority even to the English fathers of industrialization. Yet, from a Marxist point of view, it was always a difficult tale to stomach, since it is a celebration of individualism against the system, of persons against machines. No writer in Russian is less Marxist than Leskov.

Pevear and Volokhonsky’s generous representation of Leskov’s work begins with “The Lady Macbeth of Mtensk”, better known in the West in Shostakovich’s operatic version than in the prose original – though a fine translation by Robert Chandler appeared a decade ago. It is a gripping yarn, though its title could scarcely be less apt. Katerina Lvovna Izmailovna, far from zealous in her ambition on behalf of a merchant husband who bores her both in and out of bed, starts a passionate affair with one of the serfs, Sergei. Lust becomes an obsessive, all-consuming love. The only Lady Macbeth-like thing about Katerina is the readiness with which she commits murder, but one of her victims, inevitably, is her husband. As with Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the reader has an instantaneous physical awareness of the heroine. Thomas Hardy might well have enjoyed this story, for Leskov never loses his sympathy with Katerina in her uncontrolled emotional needs. Especially touching – once the murderers have been exposed, gruesomely punished, and sent on the long road to Siberia – is Katerina’s heartbreak when the fickle Sergei betrays her with one, and then another of their fellow convicts. She gets her magnificent revenge in a ferry boat crossing the Volga, with wet flecks of snow falling from a grey sky. Very typically of Leskov, her last moment of consciousness, this side of death, is a visionary one. She sees her dead husband as if he were coming out of the water, and knows that she should be praying. Instead, with a physical adroitness and presence of mind which delights the reader (for any reader of the tale is in love with her), Katerina trips her trollopy rival, Sonetka, into the relentless river and herself is borne off by the water. Leskov sees the two women in his final sentence as two fish – a strong pike finishing off a soft-finned little roach.

The Enchanted Wanderer himself, in the longest tale in the collection, has also perpetrated quite casual acts of killing. Most notably, he has impatiently thrashed at a sleeping old monk, asleep on a cart-load of hay, and unintentionally killed him. And it is the spirit of this dead monk who surfaces from time to time in the life of Ivan Severyanych Flyagin, drawing him, against all his carnal and brutal instincts, towards the life of monastic dedication which God requires of him. Whereas “The Lady Macbeth of Mtensk” depends for its intensity on Katerina’s single obsession – her love for Sergei – “The Enchanted Wanderer” is an expansive story, covering the whole of Ivan’s life. Its theme is nothing less than the operation of divine grace in a seemingly intractable soul. Western Christians, as well as non-Christians, will probably be shocked by the way in which Flyagin both accepts the reality of God’s call while doing everything he can to escape it. His love of horses, and the callousness with which he can subdue them, is only one of the passions which keep him from the cloister. There are long years living among the Muslim Tartars with multiple wives (one as young as thirteen), followed by a stint in the Caucasus, fighting in the Russian army against his old Tartar friends. Flyagin is an irrepressibly humorous man – as are the semi-corrupt and often physically disgusting clergy in Leskov’s longer fiction.

Towards the end of Leskov’s tale, the monastery doctor says to Flyagin, now Fr Ishmael, “What a drum you are. They beat and beat on you, and still can’t beat you down”. To this extent, the Enchanted Wanderer who narrates Leskov’s story of 1873 is very deliberately made into an archetype of the suffering, irrepressible Russian – drunken, strong, violent, intensely religious, bloodied but unbowed by what history throws at him.

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