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Late Leskov against the censors

April 18, 2014

Boris Bukhshtab:

It was possible for Leskov to create a shield against censorship through the special genre of “skaz” that he cultivated. This genre is marked by the failure of the views and opinions of the narrator and those of the author behind him to coincide. The narrator’s position is clear in these cases, but the author’s is not always clear; frequently it must be guessed at, and this cannot always be accomplished by readers, or even critics and literary scholars. Behind a right-thinking narrator may be hidden the far from innocent thoughts of the author. (239)

Skaz, however, wasn’t just a way to get around the censors. Bukhshtab’s summary is that Leskov first used skaz for aesthetic purposes, starting with “The Battle-Axe” (Воительница, 1866). He had little trouble with censorship until the mid-1880s and 1890s. Then he began to use skaz as a form of Aesopian language, a way to say something publishable that could possibly be interpreted in an unpublishable way by at least some readers, as with “Night Owls” (Полунощники, 1891). In that story there’s a conflict between John of Kronstadt and a young woman who’s fallen into the Tolstoyan “heresy”; by having the narrator thoroughly on John’s side, the author shows that he is (and the reader should be) on the other side (241).

On the other hand, skaz wasn’t the only weapon Leskov had to deploy against the censors. “A Winter’s Day” (Зимний день, 1894) used a lot of dialogue and a minimally intrusive narrator, which was unusual for Leskov — unlike, say, Dostoevskii, who did use a lot of dialogue and direct speech (242). Since people leave a lot implicit when they talk to each other, vague and ambiguous insinuations seem realistic in dialogue, and they’re especially hard to pin down when the clues about what unexplained references might mean are a few dozen pages apart. Such references are seen as comprehensible to the characters talking, and “become clear to the reader to the extent the author wishes them to.” Taking advantage of this, “Leskov clarifies some themes, allows us to guess about others, for yet others he merely points the reader’s thoughts in a general direction, with others still he creates the possibility of dual interpretation, while he makes still others completely obscure, evidently to take away sap the unwanted reader’s willingness to decipher a jumbled-up piece of fiction” (242-43).

Bukhshtab traces in some detail the insinuations that — along with the many more obvious kinds of corruption and immorality described in the story — two of the characters are paid police informers. This is evidently subtle enough that many readers miss it, but it’s still in the first category or two of themes Leskov makes clear or at least lets us guess. But Bukhshtab also gives even trickier examples. There’s a running “Persian” theme, where one of the informer characters is repeatedly driven to hysterics by other characters’ allusions to the Shah of Persia or a fragrance called lilas de perse. One of these scenes was cut from the journal publication. Bukhshtab isn’t sure what the significance of Persia is, but he thinks the journal cut that one scene because contemporaries would indeed have understood the reference — but he’s not even sure about that, and allows the possibility that the editors took out that scene because they thought it would be annoyingly mysterious to readers (247-49).

In one case Bukhshtab quotes himself getting one of these veiled references wrong. Earlier he had taken a line saying something like “we have to bring in another miracle-worker” (in a conversation about a will) as meaning “we need to find an expert forger and have a false will made in our favor.” In this reading it would have alluded to the real-life Sollogub trial. But now Bukhshtab, looking at all the evidence, including an oblique reference to John of Kronstadt and another popular religious figure, thinks that the line should be read literally, with “wonder-worker” meaning a religious leader adored by the crowd, like John of Kronstadt  (249-51). This shift from a plausible reading to a straightforward one reminds me of one of my favorite pieces of literary criticism, when Kuzmin scholars found a clever explanation for why a certain character, Mikhail Aleksandrovich Dem’ianov, had that name, which convinced everyone until in 2005 Nikolai Bogomolov argued that the character was named that because Kuzmin knew a Mikhail Aleksandrovich Dem’ianov.

See Boris Bukhshtab, “Тайнопись позднего Лескова (Рассказ ‘Зимний день’)” [“The Codes of Late Leskov (The Story ‘A Winter’s Day’)”] in Фет и другие: Избранние работы (St. Petersburg, 2000), 239-252. The article doesn’t seem to be available online, though there’s a snippet view of its original 1977 publication here or the 2000 one here.

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