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Anger makes boring art

April 19, 2011

The intrigues, disguises, and trap-door disappearances, the forgeries, blackmail, and extortion, the adulterous and nonadulterous promiscuity, the fake marriages in Moldavia and the true marriages never consummated, the duels, poisonings, knifings, and suicides—all lose meaning and relevance. (219)

This “long, immensely complicated plot crumbles to nothing” because we can’t believe Leskov’s diabolical nihilist characters, according to Hugh McLean. Thus he dismisses the 800-plus-page novel At Daggers Drawn (На ножах, 1870-71), which appeared in Russian Messenger (Русский вестник) immediately before Dostoevskii’s Бесы, a more successful treatment of a similar theme (217-19).

At Daggers Drawn, the movie

Leskov, in McLean’s telling, was so furious with the nihilists at this stage of his career that his antinihilist novels and stories were boring and awful, not just At Daggers Drawn but also No Way Out and Bypassed and part of Cathedral Folk, where a nihilist character is “a comic-strip villain who nearly wrecks the novel by his presence” (202).

After At Daggers Drawn he settled down and moved on to other themes, and the result was a series of masterpieces in the early 1870s.

Even if McLean couldn’t stand it, At Daggers Drawn was republished several times in the nineties and aughts, as recently as 2005. There was also a movie version directed by Aleksandr Orlov in 1998

See Nikolai Leskov: The Man and His Art.

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