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Leskovian informer of the week

August 28, 2012

That won’t really be a regular feature of this blog, but I don’t want to forget provincial priest Father Markel’s denunciations of provincial priest Father Ivan in Leskov’s Laughter and Sorrow. It’s at first unclear why Ivan calls Markel “a very tricky colleague” (коллега очень щекотисты, with the honorific use of the third-person plural about one person applied to a short-form adjective), but he immediately explains

К криминациям они имеют ужасное пристрастие: всё кляузничают ужасно.

Father Markel has a terrible weakness for criminating [sic] people: he’s a terrible one for telling tales.

Markel and the deacon Viktorych, Ivan claims, want to inform on him so he loses his post and they remain when a new law reduces the number of clergy.

Markel’s reports get Ivan in enough trouble that he is called before his superior. Here he tells Vatazhkov (the narrator) about his ecclesiastical boss making him read Markel’s denunciation aloud, and even through all this narrative displacement the clash between Markel’s official style and the pettiness of his spying is something else:

“Читай, — говорят, — гласно”.

Я читаю в предстании здесь секретаря и соборного протодьякона. Пишет, — это вижу по почерку, — коллега мой, отец Маркел, что: “такого-то, говорит, числа, осеннею порою, в позднее сумеречное время, проходя мимо окон священника такого-то, — имя мое тут названо, — невзначай заглянул я в узкий створ между двумя нарочито притворенными ставнями его ярко освещенного окна и заметил сего священника безумно скачущим и пляшущим с неприличными ударениями пятами ног по подряснику”.

“Read it aloud,” says his worship.

I read it with the secretary and the cathedral archdeacon present. By the handwriting I see it’s my colleague Father Markel writing that “on such and such a date, during the autumn, at the later part of twilight, passing by the windows of such and such a priest — here my name is mentioned — I accidentally glanced through the narrow gap between the two deliberately closed shutters of his brightly lit window and noticed said priest madly galloping and dancing, striking his heels improperly against his cassock.”

Ivan explains that what Markel saw was his attempts to comfort his crying infant, whose hunger couldn’t be relieved because Ivan’s wife was off milking the cows. Markel also informs on him for playing cards, but Ivan says he was just beating his niece and wife at durak to prove the superiority of men over women, as taught by the church in the Adam and Eve story but doubted by his modern-minded niece, and his own wife as well.

In the next chapter Vatazhkov gets the deacon’s side of this story:

Они, отец Маркел, видя, что отцу Ивану ничего по их доносу не вышло ни за плясание, ни за карты, впали в ужасную гневность и после, раз за разом, еще сорок три бумаги на него написали.

Father Markel, seeing that nothing happened to Father Ivan from his denunciation for either the dancing or the cards, fell into a terrible rage and afterwards wrote another forty-three papers against him one after the other.

Markel goes on to denounce his own wife and the deacon, suspecting them of adultery for a ludicrous reason. Several recurring features of informer stories: Markel is unsuccessful, persistent, prolific, imaginative, motivated by self-interest, and in time motivated by obsession with the denunciation process as well. His claims get more and more outlandish, but he seems to believe his accusations are true and fair, and keeps making the flimsy allegations that hurt him after the more plausible attempts have already failed.

See chapters 51 and 52 Laughter and Sorrow (Смех и горе, 1871).

Looking through my old notes, I see that Hugh McLean discusses Captain Postel’nikov (224-25) and the priests in this post (227) in Nikolai Leskov: The Man and His Art.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2012 10:05 am

    I’m more and more looking forward to reading Leskov. (Typo alert: in your second excerpt, “the the” should presumably be “and the.”)

  2. August 29, 2012 7:40 pm

    Fixed it – thanks!

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