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Steel fleas and folklore

March 27, 2012

illustration by N. N. Karavin from the 1894 edition of Leskov's "The Steel Flea" ("The Lefthander")

Skaz means a work where the narrator speaks in some distinctive way – often using language marked as substandard, regional, of the lower classes, spoken rather than written – and is thereby shown to be different from the author. The author and narrator are never the same, even in a case like Pushkin the writer of Eugene Onegin versus the “stylized Pushkin” who narrates it and shares some of Pushkin’s biography. But when the difference is extreme, and the narrator speaks like no professional writes, it’s skaz.

Often the meat of the skaz is surrounded by a frame with a narrator who does speak the language of the educated and may seem identical to the author. Hugh McLean gives a famous example of this going wrong. Leskov began his story “The Lefthander” (“Левша,” 1881) with a footnote claiming that he (the frame narrator, taken to be Leskov) had transcribed the body of the story “from the oral recitation of an old gunsmith who lived [in Sestroretsk], a native of Tula, who had moved to the Sestra River back in the reign of Alexander I.” Then critics took him at his word, giving him no credit for creating the story. Leskov got angry and wrote at every opportunity about how he had made the whole story up. When “The Lefthander” was reprinted in his collected works, he took the misleading footnote out (393-96).

It matters whether we trust the footnote and take the story as folklore collected and written down, or accurately see the footnote as a smokescreen, one step in an elaborate simulation of a folk voice and folk story. As McLean says,

…the reception of “The Lefthander” illustrates an important, if seldom noticed, fact about literature: there is a crucial difference between belief and suspension of disbelief. (394)

Why is it easy for us not to be taken in, when it was hard in 1881? McLean’s explanation is that the frame/skaz structure “collided with the naïveté and prejudice of contemporary readers and critics, and it broke down” (394). We’re less naïve in that we have more to look at: Leskov’s later protestations, his son’s memoirs, various literary critics’ searches for sources. And our prejudices are different in that we’re looking at each Leskov story as the work of a great artist, not the next magazine article, so we’re glad to see verbal artifice on his part.

I wonder if the footnote-is-true interpretation has become harder to believe in 131 years. If I think of someone collecting oral stories and publishing them, I think of U.S. slave narratives in the 1930s or the brothers Grimm. Any folklore-collecting being done today I picture happening far away. Leskov’s contemporaries might have believed his footnote as easily as we believe the label “documentary film.”

Leskov’s framing device is still there in this 1894 reissuing of “The Lefthander” by itself, though McLean says it was removed for the 1889 collected works. Boris Bukhshtab uses the 1889 text instead of the 1894 text (the last published during Leskov’s life) for this reason, saying the 1894 edition just follows the 1882 one.

See Hugh McLean, Leskov: The Man and His Art, pp. 392-406.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 28, 2012 11:50 pm

    Fascinating post! While I’ve never before heard of readers being so over-credulous, I’ve often wondered about it, especially when I teach 18th-century British literature. A lot of the canonical works of fiction from that period – Defoe’s Crusoe, Swift’s Gulliver, and Richardson’s Pamela – were framed by their “editors” as authentic documents written by the character. Was there a similar tradition among Russian writers of the eighteenth century?

  2. March 29, 2012 12:26 am

    Thanks! I can’t think of an eighteenth-century Russian example, but similar things were done by the early nineteenth century. I’m thinking of Pushkin’s The Tales of Belkin, where a certain “A.P.” introduces, in a note “from the publisher,” the fictitious author Ivan Petrovich Belkin. Also Gogol’s Evenings on a Farm near Dikan’ka, which start with a hilarious introduction by their ostensible publisher, the imaginary Rudyi Pan’ko. As far as I know, readers and critics got it in both these cases.

    Maybe Pushkin and Gogol were more obviously theatrical than Leskov, or writing for audiences more aware of the European tradition of casting fiction as authentic documents. Or, again (though I’m not very sure of my ground here), maybe the appearance of actual, playing-it-straight, transcribed folk tales in the mid-nineteenth century made it seem more likely that Leskov’s footnote wasn’t a literary game. McLean mentions in the book that Leskov had in fact traveled to Sestroretsk in 1878, and it’s only Leskov’s later denials and his then-12-year-old son’s denials in his memoirs that make us think there was no gunsmith from Tula feeding him (some version of) the story.

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