The Forgotten Russian: The Genius of Nikolai Leskov

Like fossil fuel, the amount of great Russian literature still underground has to be limited. So here is Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895). Not an unknown writer, but an ignored one. His crude waits in underground caves, reeking of profit. We don't read him because he's the opposite of what we're taught to like. He's a longwinded miniaturist, a man of vague loyalties. He's vague about where he's going. He regales us. His stories pound Chekhovian humanity into a quixotic pulp. He's boring where any competent MFA grad would be interesting. And interesting precisely where all of us are boring.

Leskov was a wounded moderate. Incurring the wrath of the nihilists early, he feinted right. He limped behind Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; he was not a man to keep up a totalizing vision; nor could he, after he reached artistic maturity, put forward a novel of any length. He did everything wrong. He wrote countrified yarns of yawning length. He composed in a style called skaz, which apparently was Russian for narratological lumpiness. To make matters worse, his heroes were square. Think Gogol's "Ukrainian Tales" redone by a Boy Scout who doesn't believe in magic. Leskov's genius lies in the modesty of his narrators, their helplessness before the art of narrative. One character speaks of a storyteller's "complete frankness, which he was obviously quite unable to abandon." "There was no special story," a narrator will say, before falling into a lengthy narrative. One character complains that another "started telling me an enormous story"—as if the size of the story was not a choice of the storyteller.

Subjects that even a kindred 19th-century storyteller like Heinrich von Kleist or Giovanni Verga would burnish for human interest and high moral passion get wonderfully clouded in Leskov's telling. Consider "Singlemind," the story of a cross-country courier who, reading the Bible between towns, becomes a kind of self-taught saint, a stubbornly honest man who improbably rises, becoming a sheriff and finally a decorated nobleman. The whole thing seems like a joke. But not a joke with a point.

Leskov's greatest ambition was to write "stories of righteous men"—not because he was Pollyanna-ish, but because he resisted (and resented) the closure of satire. Insofar as he refused to clarify his politics, or at least was wounded by being labeled (as right-wing), he stood up for the jolliness of muddledom, and equated confusion with innocence.

Subjects that even a kindred 19th-century storyteller like Heinrich von Kleist or Giovanni Verga would burnish for human interest and high moral passion get wonderfully clouded in Leskov's telling. Consider "Singlemind," the story of a cross-country courier who, reading the Bible between towns, becomes a kind of self-taught saint, a stubbornly honest man who improbably rises, becoming a sheriff and finally a decorated nobleman. The whole thing seems like a joke. But not a joke with a point.

Leskov's greatest ambition was to write "stories of righteous men"—not because he was Pollyanna-ish, but because he resisted (and resented) the closure of satire. Insofar as he refused to clarify his politics, or at least was wounded by being labeled (as right-wing), he stood up for the jolliness of muddledom, and equated confusion with innocence.

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