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Three questions

June 30, 2013

Alexei K. of The Dilettante’s Winterings was skeptical in the comments that anyone thought late Leskov was a follower of moderately late Tolstoi. I think the conventional wisdom really is, or was, that starting in the late 1880s Leskov wrote stories with a particular Christian position that owed a lot to Tolstoi, in ideas if not in style. Then Leskov scholars come along to say that Leskov got there first and was writing in that mode while Tolstoi was still on Anna Karenina. After that Irmhild Christina Sperrle offers the further corrective that their ideas never were similar, even if Leskov himself claimed they were.

Leskov Chas voli Bozhiei audiobook coverThe heart of her argument is a comparison of Leskov’s “The Hour of God’s Will” (Час воли Божией, 1890) and Tolstoi’s “The Three Questions” (Три вопроса, 1903).

In both stories a ruler seeks the answers to three questions, some variation on what the most important time, person, and thing to do are. The answers: right now, whoever you’re with, and doing something nice for them. But the two authors handle this differently: “we have a meandering twenty-seven-page story by Leskov versus Tolstoy’s terse text of four pages” (77).

According to Tolstoi, he made up the plot and three questions, gave them to Leskov, thought Leskov made a mess of a good idea, and wrote his own better version of the story (76-77). On the other hand, Leskov says that Tolstoi himself got the idea from “a certain old book” (108). No one has found that old book, so Leskov may have made it up, or Tolstoi may have given himself too much credit.

What matters most to Sperrle is not the origin but the difference in ideas expressed. The rulers reflect the authors: Tolstoi’s “ruler knows exactly the source of his problem and how to correct it” and “shows great confidence, refuses all advice, and chooses on his own where and to whom to go to for the conclusive answers,” while Leskov’s “does not have the slightest idea which questions are the most crucial ones” until, well into the story, “he by chance overhears the three questions from three wise hermits” (78-79). Other aspects of the stories show Leskov’s skepticism about Tolstoi’s key idea of nonresistance to evil (80-87) and Tolstoi’s “fixation on the present” versus Leskov’s “organic” interest in taking in and transforming the past (87).  Tolstoi’s ruler is concerned with self-perfection, while Leskov’s ruler thinks of others. This is why Tolstoi is drawn to hermit characters and why in Leskov’s story virtue is not rewarded (good deeds are done not for personal advantage, but for others) and the answers to the three questions are not put into use but “hidden away ‘under seven seals’” (88-91).

“Unlike Tolstoy’s, Leskov’s moral positions are not always immediately evident” (101). This “muddiness,” along with the “meandering” treatment of simple plots, are not, as Tolstoi believed,* a flaw in Leskov’s writing that would be easy to cut out, but the whole point, a formal feature that cannot be separated from content. The way Leskov wrote was wrapped up in his keep-changing-or-die philosophy, his belief that “a person should not fix himself in a role, but constantly keep his or her mind open to new ideas” (101).

See chapter 2, “Leskov, Tolstoy, and the Three Questions,” in Sperrle’s The Organic Worldview of Nikolai Leskov (2002), pp. 73-103.

* On p. 77 Sperrle gives this excerpt from a letter of December 3, 1890, from Tolstoi to Leskov about “The Hour of God’s Will”: “I began to read and [at first] I very much liked the tone and the unusual mastery of the language, but… then your particular shortcoming came to the fore, which, it would seem, could be so easily corrected and which in itself is a [positive] quality and not a shortcoming—an exubérance of images, colors, distinctive expressions which intoxicate and distract you. There is much that is unnecessary and disproportionate, but the verve and the tone are astonishing. The tale is still very good, but it is annoying that it could have been better were it not for an excess of talent.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 4, 2013 8:03 am

    Leskov’s king seems a precursor to Averchenko’s well-meaning ruler, the one who wished to help the blind.

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