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Captain Postel’nikov

August 13, 2012

Title page of Laughter and Sorrow with an inscription to Leskov’s brother Aleksei

Besides the schoolboy Kalatuzov, there’s another, rather strange informer in Leskov’s Laughter and Sorrow. I’m not sure what to make of him, but I’m putting this post in as a placeholder to come back to after I read more Leskov.

It’s clear that something is odd about Captain Leonid Grigor’evich Postel’nikov. He has an affected and comic way of speaking, with a catch phrase, “I offer you a hundred pardons,” the number increasing every time it’s repeated. Though he’s a captain, he’s un-military and un-masculine. And he’s eager to rent a suspiciously nice room to the narrator. When the narrator Orest Vatazhkov first sees him in chapter 20, he insists on his androgyny:

[…] turning around, I saw, at the kind of dressing-table I was used to seeing in my mother’s bedroom… what can I call what I saw? I can put it no other way than that I saw Cupid in the flesh. I saw this and… was entirely at a loss, and with good reason. You remember, of course, that I was supposed to meet a captain here; but imagine my surprise when I saw at the dressing-table some blue creature [какое-то голубое существо] […] I just could not make up my mind whether it was a man or a woman. (421)

Cupid is a motif tied throughout the story with the idea of an unpleasant surprise, so when Postel’nikov looks like Cupid and later leaves a wax cupid hanging over the narrator’s bed, it is even more clear that he is bad news.

It’s hard for me to read this passage without an anachronistic interpretation of голубой ‘light blue’ as “gay, homosexual,” a meaning which apparently dates from the early 1980s, or more than a century after Laughter and Sorrow. I kept telling myself to ignore the coincidence, and I later read in I. Z. Serman’s commentary that contemporary readers may have had a more appropriate association with the color term: a reference to the uniform worn by “soldiers and officers of the corps of gendarmes, the political police.” But the color term appears six times in a row in one sentence while the narrator is emphasizing how androgynous, even feminine, Postel’nikov is; while it is clear there is some secret about the captain; and while Postel’nikov is given a marked and theatrical manner of speaking. (I’m probably being anachronistic again by wondering if Leskov or his narrator expects me to take this as stereotypically gay speech.) Moreover, his last name is formed from a root meaning “bed,” something like Bedman. [UPDATE: Hugh McLean explains the “bed” root in the name with the “Palm Sunday cupid” theme. These were hung over Vatazhkov’s bed by his mother as well as Postel’nikov himself. See page 224 of Nikolai Leskov: The Man and His Art.]

Postel’nikov repeatedly compromises the narrator so he can denounce him, exceed his quota, and move up the secret police hierarchy. He gives Vatazhkov a book by the Decembrist Ryleev, informs on him for having the book, then apologizes to him. A poet friend of Postel’nikov’s gives Vatazhkov the nickname Filimon, which Postel’nikov reminds the authorities is suspect since the name-day for Filimon is the same day as the Decembrist uprising. Finally he tries to give Vatazhkov papers to take to Gertsen in London. This series of betrayals by Postel’nikov leads to the narrator being expelled from the university and coerced into military service, and indirectly causes the death of his mother.

Postel’nikov has a sustained and then recurring part in chapters 1932, 36, and 4143 of Laughter and Sorrow (Смех и горе, 1871), though most characters come and go pretty quickly in this “potpourri.”

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