There was a writer named Nikolai Leskov (1831-95)–have you heard of him? It’s possible, perhaps even likely, you haven’t. According to editor David McDuff, even though Leskov was “after Gogol, the most quintessentially Russian of writers” (8), he was also one of the least popular. Nineteenth-century Russian literary circles, it seems, weren’t notably inclusive of authors who were “neither a radical nor a conservative, neither a member of the aristocracy nor a representative of the literary and cultural establishment” (8). Leskov just didn’t fit. A damned shame, that. I’ve read only a small sampling of Leskov’s fiction–David McDuff’s translation of five long tales collected into the volume Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Other Stories–but I’m now a firm and committed believer.
I haven’t read a very great deal of Russian literature in general, actually. I’ve been alternately enamoured of and frustrated by a fair bit of Dostoevsky, some obvious but not very lengthy examples of Tolstoy, one collection by Pushkin. Still, Leskov does stand out for me, in spite of being “quintessentially Russian.” These stories together comprise the strangest messy admixture of the mystical and the shabby, the transcendent and the riotously base, I think I’ve come across. He represents it all, sometimes within the same person (the Musk-Ox, for example: a young clergyman given to philosophical debate, begging, begging off marital responsibilities, and divine contemplation). The Musk-Ox is a hard one for his friends, even for Leskov maybe!, to pin down:
When I first met Vasily Petrovich’s acquaintance, he was already known as ‘Musk-Ox’. People had given him this sobriquet because he really did look uncommonly like the musk-ox that is to be seen in the illustrated treatise on zoology by Yulian Simashko. He was twenty-eight, but looked much older. While one could not have described him as athletic or Herculean, he was none the less a thoroughly strong and healthy individual–small in stature, thick-set and broad-shouldered. Vasily Petrovich’s face was round and colourless; but it was indeed only his face that was round–his cranium displayed a curious deformity. At first sight it was reminiscent of a Kaffir’s skull, but as one examined it and studied it more closely, one found oneself unable to place it within any straightforward phrenological system. (p. 29)
Leskov’s stories are similarly unclassifiable except within such expansive and vague, although no less true for that, categories about the terrible and irresistible facts of humanity gone slightly mad. But Leskov didn’t, I think, acknowledge anything as existing within such boundaries, or as seeing such boundaries as either real or interesting. All his characters embody the strangeness and estrangement of lives lived well outside the pale of the proper, the recognizable, the safe, the easy.
I’ve told you a little about the Musk-Ox; Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a tale of adultery and murder and is full of lurid morsels, but it’s somehow not shabby–indeed, without there being one detectable element of the supernatural in the story, it somehow feels that kind of spooky. It’s passing strange rather than gossipy, even though peopled by ruthlessly gossipy characters. The Sealed Angel and Pamphalon the Entertainer dance a strange tango with the quotidian, the mystical, the absurd, and the pedantic. A Winter’s Day is an existential nightmare and society portrait almost devoid of plot but bursting with exposures, revelations, and embarrassments. They’re all wonderful.
Leskov, as an outsider, perhaps had the privilege of not being constrained by either popularity or critical expectation; I’m thankful for this freedom, for these tales are among the best fiction I’ve read this year.
The translation quality? Just fine; and I suspect that the new Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of these (and several other) stories published just about a month ago is even better.