“If I were a poet…”
So far reading No Way Out (Некуда, 1864) I have not been shocked at any raging anti-nihilism but I am having trouble recognizing the Leskov I know. I’m more or less used to the skaz Leskov, with layers of narration and often lots of idiosyncratic language, and the quasi-autobiographical Leskov. But in this early novel I’m running into a would-be playful, “I’m writing a novel and you’re reading one, and aren’t we both clever?” storyteller. In book 1, chapter 2, he pretends that “we” are in the carriage with some characters he is introducing, but we won’t be noticed because the coachman is busy and the others are asleep, which means we can’t see Lizaveta’s eyes because they’re closed, and so on. A few chapters later there was this:
It was a little after eight o’clock in the evening. If I were a poet, and a good poet, I would certainly describe to you what the air was like on that evening and how good it was at such a time to sit on a bench beneath the high fence of the Bakharevs’ garden, looking at the mirror-like surface of the peaceful river and the late-returning sheep, bleating as they ran across the now untraveled bridge. (book 1, chapter 8)
I hear this as Leskov trying for a Gogolian manner, but Gogol in 1834 pushes things to unpredictable mad excess:
Night came… Oh, if only I were a painter, so that I could portray the wonders of night! I would paint the whole town as it slept; the countless motionless stars looking down on it; the almost visible silence, broken by dogs barking nearby or in the distance; the lovelorn sexton climbing over the fence with the boldness of knights of old; the white walls of the houses caught by moonlight shining even brighter than by day, and the trees overhanging them turning even darker and casting deeper shadows; the flowers and silent grass smelling more fragrant; and the crickets, those restless cavaliers of the night, singing their friendly chirruping songs in unison all over the town. I would paint the black-browed village maiden tossing about on her lonely bed in one of the tiny low-roofed cottages, her bosom heaving as she dreamt of some hussar’s moustache and spurs, and the moonlight laughing on her cheeks. I would paint the black shadows of bats flitting along the white road and settling on chimney pots blanched in the moonlight. But to paint Ivan Ivanovich as he went out that night, saw in hand, is beyond my powers. His face registered a hundred different expressions. (translation by Ronald Wilks)
That has a punchline that’s missing from Leskov. With Leskov there’s just the standard rhetorical device of “I can’t possibly hope to describe in words [description of something in words].” (Cf. “I pass over in silence [long list of my opponent’s faults].”) Gogol starts with that, and when you’ve completely forgotten what he’s talking about it turns out he really can’t describe the one thing that’s connected to the story.
Early Dostoevskii does this too in 1846, and looks pretty derivative of Gogol (in Russian Gogol keeps saying я бы изобразил, and Dostoevskii я изобразил бы):
Oh, if I were a poet! such as Homer or Pushkin, I mean, of course; with any lesser talent one would not venture—I should certainly have painted all that glorious day for you, oh, my readers, with a free brush and brilliant colours! Yes, I should begin my poem with my dinner, I should lay special stress on that striking and solemn moment when the first goblet was raised to the honour of the queen of the fete. I should describe to you the guests plunged in a reverent silence and expectation, as eloquent as the rhetoric of Demosthenes; I should describe for you, then, how Andrey Fillipovitch, having as the eldest of the guests some right to take precedence, adorned with his grey hairs and the orders what well befit grey hairs, got up from his seat and raised above his head the congratulatory glass of sparkling wine—brought from a distant kingdom to celebrate such occasions and more like heavenly nectar than plain wine. I would portray for you the guests and the happy parents raising their glasses, too, after Andrey Fillipovitch, and fastening upon him eyes full of expectation. I would describe for you how the same Andrey Filippovitch, so often mentioned, after dropping a tear in his glass, delivered his congratulations and good wishes, proposed the toast and drank the health… but I confess, I freely confess, that I could not do justice to the solemn moment when the queen of the fete, Klara Olsufyevna, blushing like a rose in spring, with the glow of bliss and of modesty, was so overcome by her feelings that she sank into the arms of her tender mamma; how that tender mamma shed tears, and how the father, Olsufy Ivanovitch, a hale old man and a privy councillor, who had lost the use of his legs in his long years of service and been rewarded by destiny for his devotion with investments, a house, some small estates, and a beautiful daughter, sobbed like a little child and announced through his tears that his Excellency was a benevolent man. I could not, I positively could not, describe the enthusiasm that followed that moment in every heart, an enthusiasm clearly evinced in the conduct of a youthful register clerk (though at that moment he was more like a civil councillor than a register clerk), who was moved to tears, too, as he listened to Andrey Filippovitch. In his turn, too, Andrey Filippovitch was in that solemn moment quite unlike a collegiate councillor and the head of an office in the department—yes, he was something else… what, exactly, I do not know, but not a collegiate councillor. He was more exalted! Finallly… Oh, why do I not possess the secret of lofty, powerful language, of the sublime style, to describe these grand and edifying moments of human life, which seem created expressly to prove that virtue sometimes triumphs over ingratitude, free-thinking, vice and envy! (translation by Constance Garnett)
That “such as Homer or Pushkin” is a lot like Leskov’s “and a good poet.” And Leskov’s evening is like Gogol’s night and a little like Dostoevskii’s day.
(I’m sure this trope goes back centuries before Gogol, but I suspect Gogol is where Dostoevskii and Leskov get it.)
While writing this post I’ve come to appreciate the passage in No Way Out much more. The narrator moves on to how objects look strange at twilight, how it’s hard to believe there are people indifferent to nature, how country people always do appreciate nature, except perhaps noblewomen… The “if I were a poet” opening is abandoned so quietly you can’t tell where it’s supposed to end, unlike in Gogol and Dostoevskii. He’s not doing Gogol badly, he’s doing something different.
A slightly different use of “if I were a poet” as rhetoric is Turgenev, not in his fiction but in a letter to Fet:
If I were a poet, I would compare your happiness to a flower — but which? I bet you will not guess — a rye flower. Bring to mind a flowering ear on a hillside on a brilliant summer day, and you will be satisfied with my comparison.
The pretend poet in Gogol, Dostoevskii, and Leskov is there to spout standard observations on “poetic” subjects; with Turgenev there’s the same pretense of modesty, but the poet’s job is to say one elegant, unexpected thing.