Of the great Russian prose writers of the 19th century, Nikolai Leskov was an outsider. He was not a member of the gentry, he lacked a privileged education, and he wrote about common serfs and the country clergy in their own language. He managed to alienate both the left and right wings of the Russian intelligentsia early in his career, and though his work was popular, critics dismissed it. His work was capable of great darkness and brutal cynicism, but it lacks the angst, romantic and existential, present in so much other prose of the time. (Still, one of his stories was so controversial in its criticisms of the Russian church that it was only published decades later.) And Leskov himself was confused enough as to his own strengths that he said that his brilliant storytelling abilities would be forgotten in favor of his ideas, when, in fact, his legacy lies in the unique qualities of his stories, which are hilarious, unpredictable, surreal, and often baffling.
Walter Benjamin and Irving Howe have both paid great tribute to Leskov (Benjamin’s essay characteristically seems to have more to do with Benjamin’s obsessions than with Leskov himself), but neither of them quite characterizes the sheer peculiarity of Leskov’s best work, where the narrative material is subject to perversion along the lines of Euripides, Kleist, Gogol, or Kafka, though with far less malevolence. Leskov’s structural perversities are in service of a particular, peculiar form of morality, one not as doctrinal or particular as Tolstoy’s or Dostoevsky’s, but one that celebrates humility in the face of fate.
Sadly, one of Leskov’s most distinctive qualities is one that is not available to readers in English. Unlike most 19th century Russian writers, Leskov was not from the gentry and had a modest education, but he had a great affection and enthusiasm for the spoken language of Russian countryfolk. In defense of using spoken manners of speech, he wrote:
I am taken to task for this “mannered” language. But are there not a great many mannered people among us? All our quasi-learned writers produce their learned articles in this barbarous language. Just read the philosophical articles of our journalists and scholars. . . . For many years I have attentively listened to the accent and pronunciation of Russians at various stages in their social situation. In my works they all speak in their own way, and not in the literary way. It is harder for a writer to acquire the language, the living speech, of the man in the street than to acquire bookish language. (tr. William Edgerton)
Many of Leskov’s stories, especially the longer ones, are told as skaz, a sort of oral folklore wherein an anonymous narrator encounters the protagonist, who then relates the tale orally to the narrator. This allowed Leskov to use local manners of speech (including Ukrainian-inflected Russian, among others) that he had heard in his travels across the continent. This quality, as his translators point out, is very difficult to maintain in translation, and so the richness of language in a story like “The Steel Flea” (1882), one of his two most famous stories, is not as evident.
His other best-known story, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (1865, later adapted into an opera by Shostakovich), is a blueprint for Leskov’s narrative strangeness. Far darker than “The Steel Flea,” it tells of the sad, passionate Katerina and the wretched rake Sergey, who seduces her and leads her to murder her husband and father-in-law. The title is bizarre, as she seeks passion rather than power, but the story is most remarkable for a technique which Leskov would repeatedly use: an extended epilogue taking the story beyond its logical endpoint. When the two are found out and hauled off to prison for murder, things seem to be at a close, justice has been done, etc. But no, Katerina is still happy as the two join the same party of convicts going to Siberia, until she catches the sleazy Sergey with another woman, whereupon Katerina kills the other woman but dies in the process.
The story is dramatic and memorable in itself, but the ending unbalances the neat drama of what went before. The finality of justice is not so final. Katerina even enjoys some happiness before Sergey’s basic vileness reasserts itself. The coda is unsettling because the story seemed complete, but it takes Katerina’s death to actually end her story: her death is quite literally the last sentence. Lord knows what Sergey will go on to do, though it surely won’t be good. What they do in the epilogue isn’t surprising for their characters–they haven’t changed at all, in fact–but it’s surprising for the story. It is messy. And bringing out this messiness is Leskov’s trade.
There were other narrative manipulations in 19th-century Russian literature. Gogol’s overbearing narrators and Shchedrin’s miserable The Golovlyov Family, in which the plot is repeatedly derailed by the deaths of the main characters, come to mind. Leskov was not as temperamentally extreme as either of them, though he felt sufficiently worshipful toward Gogol to repeatedly reference him in his work, but the comparative normality of the material only offsets Leskov’s manipulations more strongly. He lacks Gogol’s absurd satirical brilliance, but as a twister of tales Leskov outdoes him.
* * * *
Leskov’s subsequent work varies wildly in tone and content, but across it all, Leskov’s characters are pretty much who they appear to be. It is rare for them to reveal hidden depths, even rarer to have epiphanies. The messiness arises instead from the placement of these simple characters in a variety of situations in which their essential character demonstrates itself in unexpected ways, contorting the plot out of typically expedient narrative shapes. Leskov claimed a greater connection with the lower classes than other writers, and even when he satirizes them, he is never condescending and takes their lives very seriously. Though his stories are sometimes rich with plot to an absurd extent, the plot is placed at the service of the character.
This can sometimes cause a problem, as in The Cathedral Folk (1872), his only translated novel, and reportedly his best. (His earlier novels are negative portrayals of radical nihilists, and do not have a good reputation.) The Cathedral Folk sets the simple, stupid deacon Akhilla next to the wise, pragmatic Archpriest Savely, and the book nearly splits in half. Whenever Akhilla comes on the scene, the novel becomes a burlesque comedy of misunderstandings and slapstick, including his inept theft and attempted burial of a skeleton to be donated to science. When Savely is the focus, the novel abruptly turns serious and reflective, as he deals with the corruption of church officials. Indeed, the two characters don’t reach any rapprochement beyond their initial situation: Akhilla worships Savely, Savely is alternately touched and exasperated by Akhilla. Who can blame him? They seem to exist in different worlds. Leskov’s characters are limited by their essential natures.
Abstract morality disappears almost entirely from The Enchanted Wanderer (1874). This brilliant novella, the greatest piece by Leskov I have read, confounds every moral generalization that could be placed on it. Passengers on a boat listen to a long tale from a simple monk, Ivan, though he is less a fool and also less holy than Akhilla. There are no longueurs as there were in The Cathedral Folk. Everything is subordinated to the story, which careens through one adventure after another, frequently taking hairpin turns over the course of a few sentences. Ivan is a young serf, a simple, large man who is now a deacon and recounts his journey to the clergy. He is still a man of raw passions, however, always engaged with the matter at hand, making him the opposite of the refined, reserved Pechorin of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. Pechorin says, “My whole life has been merely a succession of miserable and unsuccessful denials of feelings or reason.” Ivan does not try to deny anything for even a second. The possibility does not even occur to him.
Ivan’s defining moment comes early on, when he finds a monk lazing on a hay cart. Ivan hits him with a whip, which causes the horses to bolt. The monk falls off the cart and the horses drag him to his death. That night the monk appears to him in a dream:
That was the end of the affair except that the same night the monk whom I had whipped to death appeared to me in a dream and again began crying like a silly old woman. I said to him:
“What do you want of me? Clear out!”
But he replied:
“You took my life without giving me a chance of repentance.”
“Well,” I replied, “it’s tough luck and I’m very sorry, but what do you expect me to do about it now? I didn’t do it on purpose, did I? Besides,” I said, “what have you got to grumble about? You’re dead and that’s that.”
. . .
“You will suffer many hardships and adversities, but you will not die until the day appointed for your doom, and then you’ll remember your mother’s promise and you’ll become a monk.”
“That’s fine,” I replied. “I consent and I shall be ready.”
So he disappeared and I woke up and forgot all about it, nor did I even suspect that all those hardships and adversities were going to befall me immediately one after another. (tr. David Magarshack)
After this singularly ineffective haunting, the ghost does not reappear. Ivan’s impossibly blithe reaction, the monk’s odd accusation, Ivan’s shrugging response and his immediate acceptance and indifference to the prophecy: nothing quite fits. Ivan displays a total lack of remorse for the unwitting victim of his thoughtlessness, but also a total lack of malice. The man is unflappable.
Ivan’s demeanor, if anything, seems to forestall traditional conflict and character development, and this dictates the apparent haphazardness of the plot. Leskov’s aim seems to have been to set him against a series of the craziest adventures he could think of and see how this queer stoic handles them. He has a series of principles that he obeys–patriotism, love, and bravery–but he doesn’t articulate them except offhandedly. They’re pure instincts in him, just as Akhilla’s piety was.
There are at least two dozen mostly unrelated episodes that follow, some as short as a page or two. They include:
- Ivan becomes the nursemaid for a landowner’s wife and child. The wife’s lover prevails on him to let the wife and child run away with him. Ivan initially wants to beat up the lover, but decides instead that they deserve to be together. He helps them get away and then runs off from his job.
- Ivan flees from the law to the Tartar Steppe, where the Tartars imprison him by sewing painful bristles into his heels. He spends ten years there, with several wives and children, before he is able to escape.
- Ivan is cured of his alcoholism by a mysterious magnetizer who leads him through a sequence of surreal nightmares.
- A later master purchases a gypsy girl and imprisons her in a cottage. She escapes and begs Ivan to kill her, which he does, though he feels tremendously guilty about it and attempts (and fails) to get himself killed in military combat as a result.
And so on and on, for 150 pages. The whole tale has the quality of a fever dream, though when the strangeness ratchets up, as in the magnetizer sequence, Leskov’s imaginative powers appear to be without limit. There is a dreamlike quality to the pacing as well, since Ivan narrates his tale based on the rate of interesting things that happened, so the ten years on the steppe fly by while the single night with the magnetizer seems to last forever. The narrative breaks into a question and answer format periodically so that the older Ivan can answer the queries of the passengers of the boat he is on, and he always answers with total frankness and deep though simple feeling. The pace increases toward the end, and as the stories pile up it seems that there is less and less sense to be made out of what had initially been presented as a tale of sin and redemption. Ivan doesn’t say he has learned anything from his adventures. What was there to learn? He replies to the passengers:
“And when do you intend to take your monastic vows?”
“I won’t take them at all.”
“Oh? Why not?”
“Well, I don’t consider myself worthy.”
“Because of your old sins and transgressions, you mean?”
“Yes, I suppose so. But why should I, in any case? I feel very happy in my present position and I live in peace.”
It seems that his simple, stoic attitude is the only thing that could have allowed him to survive his crazy and frequently terrible adventures, but he had that all along. He is an anti-Oblomov, who by nature can take on these adventures with enough strength.
There is an extended epilogue here as well. Though not as extreme as that of The Amazon, it still comes as a surprise. When Ivan finally fulfills the ghost’s prophecy and joins a monastery, less out of divine calling than a lack of other options, the narrative seems to be closing, having come to its announced ending point. Except that it hasn’t. His adventures continue without change. There is burlesque inside the church; his character is still impulsive and prone to anger; and he accepts suffering with the same nonchalant shrug. The story ends with him announcing that he will leave the clergy to take up arms again for his country, as his spirit compels him to. The prophecy did not signal his end in life, but just one additional waypoint.
If anything, the lesson Leskov teaches in The Enchanted Wanderer is one of humility, to defy any attempt to draw a simple moral out of a story. In this he resembles a gentler Kleist, and The Enchanted Wanderer deserves to sit alongside Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas as one of the great, chaotic novels of the 19th century. To the extent that Leskov took religion quite seriously, he seems to have used narrative as an analogue to the divine, making it too complex for its precise motives to be discerned. Even as he turned against the Russian Orthodox Church, his basic attitude did not change.
* * * *
The moral question is more blatantly on display in The Amazon (1866, though later revised), a more focused and brutal story. On its surface, it is a tale of social realism, about a a middle-aged widow, Domna Platonova, who pushes the young innocent Lekanida Petrovna into prostitution. When she resists seeing the client that the matron has arranged for her and bolts herself in the house, the matron gives him the key so that he can rape her. Domna does pay Lekanida, but only after extracting her own fees. Lekanida, now a fallen women, manages to extricate herself frpm Domna and find a reasonable domestic situation, but Domna, fuming with self-righteous offense at Lekanida’s ingratitude, takes rather vicious revenge and destroys her marriage. Lekanida ends in comfortable misery, angrily excoriating Domna for her problems.
Domna constantly justifies herself as she speaks to the narrator, proclaiming the stupidity, naivete, and of course ingratitude of Lekanida. Her justifications give the story shape, as the pace is artificially slowed by Domna’s constant attempts to gain the narrator’s sympathy. The narrator cuts in periodically, reacting with fascination at her venality.
But the story is only two-thirds complete. Leskov takes the extended epilogue to more extreme lengths here, as it recontextualizes what went before. The narrator addresses the reader, saying that five years have passed since he heard Domna’s story, but he wants to tell more of her that will change our impression. He encounters Domna again, and in a moment of vulnerability, she describes how she fell from a similar state of naivete. In quick succession, she narrates a series of abuses, violations, and rapes that she has been victim to. She digresses a bit, but she speaks much more directly, as her shames pour out. The pace is far more rapid: any of the half-dozen stories she tells have as much action as Lekanida’s story. And then she dies, leaving a love note to a young rake who she had fallen for.
Skeletally, the device seems artificial: by placing cause after effect, the story can seem like special pleading for Domna. But this apparent intention is undermined, leaving the effect far more ambivalent. Her actions in the first part are far too evil to be forgiven, just as her suffering in the second part creates so visceral a pang that you forget your earlier disgust. This is the paradox of the story.
Leskov expertly captures Domna’s particular mixture of self-pity, shame, and half-realization. She does not quite repent, but nor is she left as a being of evil. Lekanida Petrovna (the similarity of the patronymics is telling) now seems an externalization of Domna’s old self, one that she exploited (a) out of disgust with the naivete that she herself showed when she was younger, and (b) in order to prove to herself that the world was as rotten in total as it had been to her. Her vicious cynicism about everything–men, women, Russia–now appears as her own method for justifying the existence of the horrors that she suffered, for being a victim is something that she cannot allow herself. Yet nor can she allow it to Lekanida. Wisely, Leskov makes no mention whatsoever of Lekanida in the extended epilogue, nor of any of the other women Domna has corrupted or of her other sins. This is Domna’s time for her own sad story, and even in revealing her shame she does not extend any sympathy toward others or regret for her sins. The closest she comes is to ask pity from the narrator and admit that she will not be missed.
This seesaw structure, where the main narrative and the epilogue each leave out what the other foregrounds–Domna’s sins and her suffering, respectively–is what keeps the story three-dimensional and allows it to transcend being a morality lesson. The two sides join awkwardly. She is a victim and a monster both, and even the narrator admits to only seeing her as a pathetic clown at the end, not some lost soul. Domna’s life makes sense and her essential characteristics remain the same across both parts, but it remains difficult to keep the two halves of her character in mind simultaneously. This is exactly the point of the story, which grows beyond simple moral to demonstrate how facts and stories grow beyond the analysis that can be placed on them (including my own above).
The character of Domna helps to explain why Leskov’s holy simpletons are so problematic. Incapable of creating a character like Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkyn, who is an idiot only pejoratively, Leskov creates well-meaning simpletons who do harm as well as good. Though Leskov shared with Tolstoy a seething contempt for the political ambitions of the aristocracy and clergy, Leskov is more respectful toward the lower classes by refusing to subject them to the exigencies of thematized plot development.
* * * *
By the mid-1870s, Leskov began to turn fairly strongly against the Russian Orthodox church and its institutions in favor of a more personal Christianity along the lines of Tolstoy’s Christian anarchism. Leskov would become a great adherent to Tolstoy’s cause, though he called it a case of parallel development. Toward the end of his life, he rejected the casual Russian anti-semitism to write on behalf of equal rights for Jews. Yet Leskov remained resolutely empirical in his treatment of religion, and wry enough to write of Christians and Jews in “Fish Soup without Fish”: “The religious smugness of both is just about equal.”
Though a work like “On the Edge of the World” (1876) has many religious references, they are mostly historical, and the level of theological discourse is thoroughly practical. Despite his own criticism of The Cathedral Folk, its values do not differ from his later work in any paradigmatic way, because he had never been dogmatic to begin with. This leads to the perversely uplifting end of “On the Edge of the World,” in which a eager young bishop sent to the far reaches of Siberia tries to get his lazy deacons to get up and convert the locals. With the help of a wild-eyed mystic priest who refuses to proselytize, he learns that rather than trying to convert the locals only to have them misunderstand Christianity anyway, his diocese should do nothing. While there is something of Tolstoy’s Christian anarchism to this message, it’s a strange sort of belief that preaches the virtues of clerical lassitude, and a strange sort of mystic whose only advice is not to proselytize.
His aggressive criticism of the Church makes itself more felt in “The March Hare,” (written 1895, published 1917) the tale of a oafish priest who, desperate to receive a commendation that a fellow priest has gotten for rooting out a dangerous nihilist in the community, struggles to conjure up a similar threat, to the neglect of his actual duties. The story is a basic morality play, but the lesson falls into competition with Leskov’s usual burlesque antics, and by the end the antics have won, which makes the didacticism easier to take. It lacks the ambiguity of his best work because the message is so clear, but he can’t give up entertaining.
Ultimately, though, he was at his best when dealing with the question of fate. Unlike Tolstoy, Leskov was not enough of a mystic to talk about spirituality at any great length, and so his faith comes across in how he explains his characters’ worlds. Since these worlds are so unpredictable and difficult to comprehend even by their readers, the religious message is that one simply must accept the paradoxes that he so vividly depicts. In “The Sentry,” a good-hearted soldier abandons his post to rescue a drowning man, and gets three-hundred lashes for it, though he’s grateful it’s not a worse punishment, while a self-promoting officer gets the credit and a commendation. The story ends with a direct address to the reader proclaiming that good must be its own reward. Perhaps, but this unsubstantiated hope easily leads to the dark nihilism of a work like Sologub’s The Petty Demon, which stars an egocentric buffoon like the priest of “The March Hare,” except that here, the world has turned relentlessly sour and nasty. This vision was never too far from the darker shades of Leskov’s world, and in Leskov’s unwillingness to make things neat, you can see the struggle with fate and the reality of the world. He was a populist who could not believe in the goodness or wisdom of the people, and a Christian who could not bring himself to express his faith in the creator’s master plan. In these tensions lies the greatness of his work.
David Auerbach writes about literature and philosophy at Waggish. He has been a graduate student in English and philosophy, a software engineer at Google, and a feuilletoniste. He continues to write fiction and criticism.
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