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A Sick Talent

September 24, 2011

M. A. Protopopov (1848-1915)

I’ve just read Mikhail Protopopov’s “A Sick Talent” (Больной талант, an 1891 article reprinted in a 1902 collection). It’s cited often, since there weren’t as many critical articles devoted to Leskov written in the nineteenth century as one would wish. Protopopov’s thesis is that Leskov was a good storyteller (and especially strong on the less explored aspects of daily life and the psychology of unusual people), but his stories were marred by his need to work in his personal grudge against the whole 1860s generation whether it belonged or not. His talent was “sick” in the 1860s and 1870s, when he was angriest at the progressive writers who had unjustly blackballed him as a reactionary and possible informer, and “healthier” in the 1880s, when he left his enemies alone, avoided everything topical, and wrote short fiction with a universal moral message.

In passing Protopopov outlines three branches of Russian prose. Among writers interested “not so much in types as in exceptions” and in “not general, normal human qualities, but deviations from the norm, whether better or worse than it,” Leskov is a second-tier writer in the branch headed by Dostoevskii. Take a moment to guess who is at the top of the other two branches, and which writers are at Leskov’s level in each. That’s right: there’s the branch where Pisemskii is followed by Mel’nikov-Pecherskii, and the branch where Turgenev is ahead of Avdeev. Hugh McLean quotes this passage to show that Leskov was underrated in the period, but I suspect it says as much about how many rungs Avdeev, Mel’nikov, and even Pisemskii have slipped as it does about how Leskov’s position in the canon has improved.

Taking a look at the table of contents of Protopopov’s book, you can’t help thinking about life as a Russian critic in the 1880s and 1890s. After the deaths of Nekrasov (1877), Dostoevskii (1881), and Turgenev (1883), and with the clear exceptions of Chekhov, Leskov, and the older Tolstoi and Fet, it was a comparatively bleak time until modernism got going.

Speaking of Leskov, the wonderfully named Wuthering Expectations has a series of posts on Leskov in general, some of Leskov’s most famous works, and two Leskov stories newly translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky. (Hat tip to Lizok.) Amateur Reader (author of W.E.) defends Leskov against the charge that he was un-literary and “indifferent to technique.” Leskov certainly is “different to technique,” as A.R. puts it, and it’s not only that he tells good stories in unusual ways – it’s also his language. I believe contemporary critics sometimes complained that Leskov paid too much attention to the aesthetic side of words, when a writer’s job was to depict important psychological types in sparse realist language (though I can’t immediately track that down).

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