If you’re going to read Leskov, and you really really should, read this edition. I nearly missed out on an amazing writer due to reading ‘The Enchanted Wanderer’ in a less than fluid translation; Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky thank you so much!
One thing that I’m really starting to understand is just how homogenised Russian Literature seems when you only consider the realist classics, easily available in English. While it is true that Dostoevsky is unique and Tolstoy has a hugely recognisable narrative voice, they are essentially realist writers for the aspiring intellectual. Leskov is something else entirely. Many of the works in this collection read like fables rather than short stories, they’re often about peasants and present themselves as tales for the people by the people. Nearly all are narrated, as if heard through an oral tradition, and Pevear and Volokhonsky deserve all the more admiration because, as I understand, Leskov’s language is fittingly regional and idiosyncratic. I know I’m displaying my ignorance here, but I’d basically assumed that Russian literature would all follow the clearly laid out trail created by the writers I’d already encountered. It’s humbling to realise how wrong I was, but also really exciting to feel like I’ve discovered something new, that I never would have learned if I hadn’t decided to take on this project.
The first story in the collection is ‘Lady Macbeth of Mitesk’ which is a great title and a great story, but it got the lion’s share of all the reviews I’d read and suffered slightly from over-hype. I don’t want to ruin it for you by saying it’s the best story ever (it isn’t) but it’s very impressive for its presentation of cruelty. There’s murder, torment and psychological torture and you’ll have to read it yourself if you want all the gruesome details.
The second story is where the collection really took off for me. ‘The Sealed Angel’ is simply wonderful as a story, a metaphor and a cosmic joke. The story focuses around a group of ‘Old Believers’ (a persecuted Russian Orthodox Sect) who live life happily and calmly due to the protection afforded by their sacred icons
Due to inadvertent contact with the outside world, their icon is sealed, literally, a policeman pours sealing wax over it and then confiscates it. The rest of the story is basically a heist caper (a very religious mystical heist caper) as the Old Believers race against time to get their icon back. There are double crossings, a great example of sleight of hand and general daring dos as the Old Believers battle the bureaucracy. It’s also a story about faith, religious persecution, communal identity and the power of art. A lot of it is about layers, the layering of paint on boards, the layering of sealing wax to cover it all, and how layers can be peeled back to reveal the truth. When I read it I had a fantastic review of Leskov building in my mind, all about how he layers themes and characters and narrative tricks into an awe-inspiring whole. Then I read the rest of the book and realised that this wasn’t the half of it.
Bear with me on this – I think it’s really exciting
As you may know, I’m a massive fan of Gothic literature and, in that category, I have a special fondness for the Southern Gothic. According to study.com ‘Southern Gothic literature is a genre of Southern writing. The stories often focus on grotesque themes. While it may include supernatural elements, it mainly focuses on damaged, even delusional, characters.’ The one thing that I’d add to that definition is that Southern Gothic is set in the Southern States of America and so the legacy of slavery and the reality of poverty are crucial, if unspoken, elements. Anyway, the reason I’m so excited about this is that Leskov is, of course, writing just after the emancipation of the serfs. It’s pretty immediate, because the emancipation manifesto was issued in 1861 and the stories in this collection were published between 1865-1887. The description in ‘The Toupee Master’ of life in a serf theatre could rival Toni Morrison for its presentation of inhumanity, but, even beyond the explicit references, there is an underlying trauma in so many of these tales. I want to officially claim Leskov as a ‘Russian Gothic’ writer, and if you’ve any doubts of his right to that title, read ‘The Spook’ a story which stars a Russian Boo Radley and pre-dates ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by 75 years.
If the misery I’ve admired so much in Leskov so far hasn’t convinced you to read him, I want to share my final reason for loving his work so much. In his own words:
‘I went in search of righteous men, vowing that I would not rest until I had found at least that small number of three righteous men without whom ‘no city can stand’. But wherever I turned, whoever I asked, everyone answered me the same way, that they had never seen any righteous men, because all men are sinful, but one or another of them had occasionally met good people… I began taking notes’ In part this is disingenuous, Leskov again claiming to be recording, rather than authoring his stories, but in part it’s serious. There are some really good people in these stories and that’s a rarity in literature. They’re not superhuman and their virtue is generally highly specific (one man is assumed to be basically insane because he’s a policeman who doesn’t take bribes – that’s the whole story – he’s a policeman who doesn’t take bribes, in 19th century Russia). Still they’re a joy to read about and provide a wonderfully wholesome counterpoint to the Gothic horrors of peasant life.
It’s official, Leskov is one of my new favourite Russian writers and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are my new heroes for enabling me to enjoy him.