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Critics criticize, and scholars…?

April 14, 2011

Reviewers and later Leskov scholars seem struck that Hugh McLean’s Nikolai Leskov: The Man and His Art is so thorough, in particular that it spends a surprising amount of time on each minor work, as if striving for equal treatment. They also note its psychoanalytic approach.

What surprises me, reading this 1977 book in 2011, is that McLean writes about Leskov the way I’d expect another writer to. He openly evaluates, finding weak and strong works, weak and strong parts of works, and things Leskov is good or bad at across the board. This is taboo now – I feel like everyone in academia is taught not just to write, but to think a different way, to see strange or unappealing aspects of a writer’s work not as proof of a flawed talent, but as a distinctiveness that is neither good or bad, but meant to be. The default posture is not that of the author’s fellow craftsman, who can sympathize with a problem of technique but will surely notice it.

And so passages like these sound not so much old-fashioned as mildly subversive to my ear:

In Bypassed [Обойденные, 1865] Leskov fails to integrate his perennial antiradical sermon with the love story that provides the framework for the plot; and the love story itself is sentimental and lacking in psychological validity. Again there are gross implausibilities of plot and again there are semidigested autobiographical references. (144)

One interesting claim of McLean’s is that Leskov was bad at writing about people of his own milieu, and also bad at writing about other social groups that he had not lived among and studied, but very good at writing about people of other classes that he’d had the chance to observe (134, 145, and elsewhere).

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