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“If they were re-read, it was with distaste and trepidation, almost as curiosities”

October 21, 2013

From Vika Thorstensson, here’s a televised lecture on Leskov by Lev Anninskii (in Russian). To judge by the current events references, it must have been filmed in late 2001 or 2002. It’s an overview that for my taste is long on generalities, though as sweeping statements go this is nice:

…first of course we read, as college students and in the upper grades of high school, Tolstoi and Dostoevskii. First Tolstoi, and you’d think “my God, Tolstoi is the starry sky, this is like an endless void above us,” And you’d read Dostoevskii and think, “Lord, this is like an endless void below us.” And how could you connect these two voids, Tolstoi’s above and Dostoevskii’s beneath? Where’s the path between the two voids? And when I started to read Leskov I understood: here it is! (1:24-2:02)

It goes into the reception history, with Tolstoi predicting Leskov would be better appreciated in the future, and Gor’kii presciently shielding Leskov from future Stalinist attacks by stressing his positive portrayals of revolutionaries, his personal motives for attacking revolutionaries, and his verbal artistry. I liked this part on how Leskov’s career must have looked to him at the end of his life:

His heritage? It was on the verge of disappearing at that moment, of disappearing from active literary memory. Second-tier novels like The Islanders and Bypassed were half-forgotten, and rightly so. His programmatic novels No Way Out and At Daggers Drawn, obviously first-tier in the author’s framework, were not at all forgotten, but placed in a category of scandalous, impure [works?]. If they were re-read, it was with distaste and trepidation, almost as curiosities. The brilliant novel Cathedral Folk did seem to be recognized, but in a somehow muted way, in some kind of condescending extra category: “Sure, it’s well-written, but you’re talking about priests!” And for 150 years, since Peter the Great stuck his knife into a table in front of the longhairs and said “here is your patriarch!” not one self-respecting member of the Russian intelligentsia had taken priests seriously. (12:05-13:14)

Anninskii’s picture of Leskov as a man unwilling to be limited by the orthodoxies of the political left and right fits well with Sperrle’s organic “keep changing or die” Leskov.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Vika Thorstensson permalink
    October 21, 2013 6:45 pm

    Ok, I have always wanted to say this: Is Cathedral Folk really that superior to No Way Out? To me, it drags too much. The depictions of Savely are over the top positive (I understand, it is meant to be a sort of novel-length modern hagiography–but still…). The nihilists are recycled and not original compared even to At Daggers Drawn. I fully agree that the genre and, often, the language of Cathedral Folk is inventive and experimental but looking through all the multiple drafts and versions (Чающие движения воды and others), I get a strange feeling that the novel was, perhaps, too “labored.”

    No Way Out, on the other hand, is well-constructed, reads and flows great, is filed with deep philosophical and moral discussions and is fully original. I am not ready to say that it is superior to Cathedral Folk, it has its own little problems, perhaps–I just do not feel good about such a drastic difference in judgement about these two novels.

  2. October 21, 2013 11:15 pm

    For me Cathedral Folk is one of those books I’ll push myself to read, then enjoy looking back on what I already read, then not pick up again for months. I still haven’t finished it. I felt the same way about Laughter and Sorrow, though I did finish that one. No Way Out is pleasantly like other people’s novels in that I want to know what happens next.

    So, based on what I’ve read so far, I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. I feel like No Way Out is a middle ground between an ordinary novel of its time and Leskov’s later works, which seem to go out of their way not to appear well-constructed. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t have the reputation Cathedral Folk has?

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