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Sterne’s and Leskov’s critics

August 8, 2013

The Clockmakers Outcry against the Author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy” isn’t Russian or from the nineteenth century, but I have to link to this post on Obooki’s Obloquy because I love it, because the first fifty times I heard Laurence Sterne mentioned were by a Russian writer or professor, and because this critique of Sterne

Where design and method are neglected, be the manner of writing ever so sprightly and elegant, the whole turns out to be a mere wild goose-chace, that tends only to bewilder but conducts to no profitable end: it is an ignis fatuus whose twinkling leads us astray, but yields no serviceable light … We have never read any of the truly great humorists that neglected it [design and method] … Consult [Swift’s] Tale of the Tub: see with what art he steals you along, how complete, apposite and instructive are his digressions, not like the late flimsy imitations of them.

is the same as N. K. Mikhailovskii on Leskov:

I admit it took me no small effort to finish certain works by Leskov, so long-winded are they and so overstuffed with all manner of digressions that are in their turn excessively long-winded. Many of them are just a long series of anecdotes very feebly brought together into some semblance of a whole. For instance, Laughter and Sorrow. A certain man, Orest Markovich Vatazhkov, relates to a circle of chance listeners “the same sort of potpourri of surprises as may be encountered in a potpourri of songs.” This potpourri takes up a bit over 200 pages in volume 5, and the narrator supposes it constitutes “variations on a most interesting theme,” to wit, “Nowhere does life so abound with the very starkest multiplicities (I emphasize this as a piling up of superlatives typical of Leskov) as in Russia. At any rate I leave to go abroad precisely to calm myself from the kaleidoscopic variety of Russian life” (V, 5). And so the theme around which Vatazhkov’s unending series of stories or anecdotes clusters is “the kaleidoscopic variety of Russian life”… As a center this is rather dubious, and in any case one that gives the author the chance to twist as many kaleidoscopes as he likes and to cease this activity, again, whenever he likes, rather than in light of some internal necessity in the plot itself.

I can’t act superior. I thought the beginning of both Tristram Shandy and Laughter and Sorrow (Смех и горе, 1871) was delightful. Like Mikhailovskii, I found it a chore to finish Laughter and Sorrow. And I still haven’t quite finished Tristram Shandy.

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