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“Elaborate literary packaging” and the “malevolent core”

July 23, 2013

Thanks to Alexei K. of The Dilettante’s Winterings I spent a good part of yesterday reading “Yid Somersault” (“Жидовская кувырколлегия,” 1882). I’ve wanted to read it for a long time because Hugh McLean dismisses it so fiercely, and when Alexei K. took the opposite position I had to see for myself – I usually find both of them persuasive.

McLean calls the story “the most offensive and morally tainted product to come from Leskov’s pen” (380-81), “the infamous ‘Yid Somersault’” (382), and “the most vicious thing Leskov ever wrote” (422); he says it “exudes the offensive odor of anti-Semitism” (384) and that Leskov’s “reputation as an anti-Semite chiefly rests on […] ‘The Melamed of Österreich’ (1878) and ‘Yid Somersault’ (1882)” (419). That “Yid Somersault” “could be included in a Christmas volume and accepted there without demur by reviewers and apparently by most readers indicates the extent to which anti-Semitic prejudice had become endemic in the Russian consciousness” (381). To sum up: “It is a stupid anecdote. The tone of swaggering ‘humor’ and of malicious satisfaction in the Jews’ painful punishments and humiliating defeat is hard to forgive Leskov. His elaborate literary packaging, the side trips, the funny subsidiary characters, the verbal tricks—none of them can hide the malevolent core of this story” (425).

On the other hand, Alexei K. sees all this anti-Semitism as belonging to the skaz narrator and other characters, not the frame narrator or the author’s point of view:

Кувырколлегия opens with strong “sarcasm on” markers – it’s hard to miss or ignore them. The narrator is twice removed from the author: someone else relates the retired colonel’s tale. The colonel is a career military officer from the second half of Nicholas’ reign, which probably did not endear him to a 1880s Russian audience. He likes nothing as much as a wicked joke at somebody’s expense and whoever cannot strike back is fair game. No wonder the Jews in his tale are a caricature. For the smart and sufficiently detached reader though, the truly despicable characters are not them but their persecutors.

If one is to judge characters by their ugliest actions, the brutal Polish soldier and the German officer suggest a certain anti-Polish and anti-German prejudice on the author’s part because his narrator seems reliable in recounting the beatings. But the most interesting and potentially the most evil figure is Mamashkin. He is an artist of sorts, a comedian, a young man of wit and practical imagination, although of a nasty type, akin perhaps to an imaginative torturer. He’s a shadowy relative of Pamphalon and Razlyulyay and more distantly of Levsha – the nasty practical joke he plays on the Jewish soldiers is a work of art or artisanship perhaps. His devises his trick for the fun of it, for art’s sake as it were – the money promised is next to nothing. As a soldier, he knows well why the Jews are so eager to avoid 25-year conscription slavery, but he does not care. Like a boy from one of Leskov’s parables, he does not sell his soul to the devil – he just gives it away for the thrill.

I like this reading of Mamashkin and also of the Jews’ persecutors. There is a parade of beatings: to teach them not to pretend they can’t shoot rifles, the Russians beat the Jews’ backs, the Pole their fronts, and the German their faces. It is ugly when a Ukrainian batman tells his Russian superior that Russians don’t know how to deal with Jews, and the best thing is to put a Pole in charge of them, since the Poles do know. Whether we take this as anti-Polish prejudice or shorthand commentary on the treatment of Jews in Eastern Europe, it does seem like the author’s and narrators’ points of view line up here and condemn the brutality of at least the Ukrainian, Polish, and German characters.

If there’s anything I’m not sure I agree with, it’s the point that a military officer from late in Nicholas I’s reign is automatically unsympathetic to an 1880s Russian audience. It seems to me that Leskov is constantly looking back at that period and making heroes out of policemen and officers.

In any case, the point about narrative displacement is spot-on. Almost a quarter of the story goes by just getting to the skaz narrator in chapter 1. How could McLean, who knows plenty about skaz, have missed it? But McLean has anticipated Alexei K.’s argument and just doesn’t agree:

To be sure, the language of the [frame-narrator’s opening] passage, the element of hyperbole, and particularly the manner of making outrageous statements in a calm, matter-of-fact tone—all this indicates some authorial distance from the attitudes expressed. This is erlebte Rede, not the author’s own voice. Nevertheless, the tonal distance does not seem great enough to force the reader, as in “The Battle-axe,” to negate the moral attitudes of his narrator. (422)

I think there’s no way to reconcile the two views. In support of McLean’s position, I think the way the beaten Jews are described is troubling – they do their off-duty dressmaking work first sitting, then (after the Russians) lying on their stomachs, then (after the Pole) standing, then (after the German) not at all, but simply kneel while holding their unrecognizable faces in the air. The torment seems to have no effect on their minds, and the physical consequences seem like what would happen to Wile E. Coyote, not a human being. Alexei K. would point out that we hear of this through the frame narrator reporting an unnamed military officer’s retelling of Colonel Stadnikov’s story. Fair enough, but it’s not clear to me that the author is covertly undermining Stadnikov at this particular moment. Or to McLean – I assume this is exactly what he means when he says the “elaborate literary packaging” can’t hide the “malevolent core.”

For now I’m going to file this under “unlike Tolstoi’s, Leskov’s moral positions are not always immediately evident.”

One thing I’m still thinking about: Stadnikov has three officers. One is the German who has the Jews’ faces beaten. One is a comic character who talks in a mixture of Russian and broken French. The other is a Russian named Roslov who “was always praying to God and had a blessing of holy water the first of every month at his house” and “did not consider Jews people.” What does it mean that he’s in the story but doesn’t have a turn trying to defeat the Jews? Are we invited to make up our own episode that would have made religious Russian nationalism look bad but couldn’t have cleared the censor?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 18, 2013 1:39 pm

    Thanks for the detailed response! I was away for a long vacation so I read this with a two-week lag. I would say that the clarity of Tolstoy’s moral positions is a problem for the sophisticated modern reader – the old count comes across as an authoritarian schoolmaster. It was a problem for some contemporary critics too – see Scherbina’s epigrams.

    • August 18, 2013 7:48 pm

      Ooh, I don’t know the Shcherbina epigrams you mention, but I’m eager to learn them. A quick search turned up this one (“По прочтении IV тома “Войны и мира”): В его художничьей натуре Какой-то странный Вавилон: Он генерал в литературе, А в философии – Бурбон. Are there others?

      My favorite epigram on Tolstoi is Nekrasov’s “To the Author of Anna Karenina“: Толстой, ты доказал с терпеньем и талантом, Что женщине не следует “гулять” Ни с камер-юнкером, ни с флигель-адъютантом, Когда она жена и мать. I love how much work “с терпеньем” is doing.

      And I agree with you about the clarity of Tolstoi’s moral positions – the chapter in AK where the narrator echoes and redoubles Kitty’s shame at undressing for a male doctor grates on me. The thing is, there’s a forcefulness about Tolstoi that makes me admire him even as he tediously and repetitively advocates for things I disagree with.

      • August 26, 2013 11:12 am

        My memory failed me again: I thought the epigram by Nekrasov – actually my favorite too – was by Scherbina. Sorry about that.

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