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Leskov rewrites the What Is to Be Done? sewing co-operative

October 7, 2014

The main points of J. G. K. Russell’s “Leskov and His Quarrel with the Men of the Sixties” (1970) are now familiar. Russell looks at “The Musk-Ox” (Овцебык, 1863), No Way Out (Некуда, 1864), The Bypassed (Обойденные, 1865), “An Enigmatic Man” (Загадочный человек, 1870), At Daggers Drawn (На ножах, 1870-71), and Cathedral Folk (Соборяне, 1867-72) as anti-nihilist works and concludes that “the stronger the nihilists, the weaker the novel” (127). These days “The Musk-Ox” and Cathedral Folk are the best remembered of the six, because the positive elements in them overwhelm the negative portrayals of “new men.” It’s a bit like Protopopov’s 1891 argument about Leskov’s “sick talent,” but applied within the early works, instead of contrasting 1863-1872 to Leskov’s later efforts.

Russell also classifies Leskov’s nihilists:

(a) the Nichiporenko type, the immeasurably stupid, unbearably self-confident nullity portrayed in [No Way Out] as Parkhomenko and in ‘An Enigmatic Man’ as the original Nichiporenko,

(b) the type totally lacking in conscience which appears in [No Way Out] in the gang of St. Petersburg nihilists who leach on the hero Rayner, in [Cathedral Folk] as the double-dealing Termosyosov, and in [At Daggers Drawn] as the fine flower of nihilism, the murderous Gordanov, and

(c) the idealist revolutionary, an early version of which we find in [‘The Musk-Ox,’] the continuation of it in Rayner, and, of course, the Benny of [‘An Enigmatic Man’] who died of an insignificant wound in an unimportant and unnecessary battle. (126-27, line breaks added)

What Russell offers that Leskov scholars usually don’t is a detailed reading of The Bypassed:

It might be permissible to regard [The Bypassed] as an attempt by Leskov to repair Chernyshevsky’s clumsy structure or even to knock it down and build it again differently. In both novels the heroines set up a dressmaker’s shop and conduct this as a co-operative in which the seamstresses have as much say as the employers. The essential difference between the two undertakings is that the first is a social experiment and the second an effective apparatus for earning a living. The second version is preferable from the point of view of artistic verisimilitude. From this same point of view Leskov also felt that, in creating an egalitarian atmosphere, it was not sufficient to make a bald statement of the existence of equality between workers and owners but that the existence of this condition should be demonstrated by means of concrete examples. […] The most important difference between Leskov’s novel and its model is that the seamstresses in [The Bypassed] have individual personalities; they are not part of a flat colourless backdrop against which the main characters stand out as the only living beings on the scene. The reproach Leskov seems to be directing at Chernyshevsky is that there can be no equality between three-dimensional heroes and shadows. (120)

Other contrasts: in What Is to Be Done? Lopukhov and Kirsanov (“no flower-child either”) are “men of iron” like in “TV westerns”; they pick people up and put them in the gutter, or fight back physically when underpaid for a job. Leskov’s Dolin’skii, on the other hand, “rescues the small child of one of the seamstresses when the little boy has climbed out onto a window ledge after a pigeon,” and this non-violent bit of heroism, if “no less a cliché,” helps make “the co-operative seem a real place inhabited by living people rather than theorems” (121-22). Finally, Chernyshevskii’s new men “are superior to society, despise it rather, whereas Leskov’s heroes are, as indicated by the title of the novel, beneath the notice of society” (122).

You’d think making the rank-and-file seamstresses into flesh-and-blood characters would make The Bypassed more memorable than Chernyshevskii’s novel, but even Leskov scholars don’t care for it: Lev Anninskii says it was “half-forgotten, and rightly so” by the end of Leskov’s career, and Hugh McLean demolishes it in a couple paragraphs (“In the midst of all this sentimental balderdash […] Leskov injects his inevitable denunciation of the nihilists,” 144-45). There are apparently many reasons for its failure, including that Leskov’s “nihilists’ arguments are made to seem so silly that their opponents have no difficulty in dismissing them with a bon mot or a curt rebuttal […] The nihilists are presented here as buffoons whose every utterance provokes mocking laughter from their listeners” (119).

JGKR was also struck by the same quote about Gordanov from At Daggers Drawn as I was last year, where the narrator contrasts him to earlier models of literary nihilists. See J. G. K. Russell, “Leskov and His Quarrel with the Men of the Sixties,” Canadian Slavonic Papers/Revue canadienne des slavistes 12.2 (1970): 108-27.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. vikathoria permalink
    October 7, 2014 8:04 am

    I personally think the book is heavy on both reference to Chernyshevsky and to Turgenev. The protagonist is a Turgenev-style character and the romance there is very much in the style of Turgenev. I think the Turgenev-like moments weaken it but I do like the novel overall.

    • October 7, 2014 9:53 am

      It’s next in my Leskov pile after Мелочи архиерейской жизни. I just finished the chapter where the devout landowner N. suspects an unpretentious and unaffected bishop of the “nihilist heresy.”

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings permalink
    October 7, 2014 10:14 am

    Once again I’m stymied becauses there is no English translation – I will just *have* to learn Russian…..😉

    • October 7, 2014 10:37 am

      You should definitely learn Russian🙂

      In the meantime, you can find “Musk-Ox” trans. David McDuff in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Other Stories (1987) and The Cathedral Clergy: A Chronicle (=Cathedral Folk) trans. Margaret Winchell (2010). Victoria Thorstensson and I are working on translating No Way Out. Unfortunately I think it’ll be a while before anyone does The Bypassed or At Daggers Drawn (and we’ll probably have five more very good translations of “The Steel Flea” and “The Enchanted Wanderer” by then).

  3. October 7, 2014 12:30 pm

    So Leskov was writing a proper novel, with dramatized action and believable characters? No wonder it’s such a contrast to the Chernyshevsky. I like the idea of someone taking NCh’s sewing collective and writing a real story around it, though. I add my lament that it’s not available in English. My Russian is very weak; I wouldn’t want to read a novel written in the sort of Russian I can read.

    I guess it’s no surprise that the more intense the politics, the less the novel works as a novel. Dickens has that problem, too.

    • October 7, 2014 12:51 pm

      It seems like some writers make their political/topical novels simultaneously and inseparably universal/psychological, though. It would be hard to take the politics out of Fathers and Sons, Crime and Punishment, or The Devils, but they work as novels, and not in a “despite” or “even though” kind of way.

      People do sometimes take Cathedral Folk as a good novel in spite of the politics. I see what they’re getting at, but even in that case I think it wouldn’t work as a novel if the clergy, provincial nihilists, and big-city nihilist opportunists didn’t get to play off each other.

      • October 7, 2014 12:57 pm

        Hmm. I’ll have to think about what I consider a “political” novel, because I don’t think of the Turgenev or those FD novels as being political. Hmm.

      • October 8, 2014 8:39 am

        Like Scott, I’d be curious to know what makes Crime and Punishment a political novel in your view.

      • October 8, 2014 10:43 am

        I’m remembering Joseph Frank, who came to Dostoevskii by way of the French existentialists, thinking of him as a timeless philosophical writer, and found that all his psychology and universality came out of polemics with people like Pisarev about the issues of the day. So in Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov writes a Pisarev-like article “On Crime” and takes his ideas to their logical endpoint, while the decent but buffoonish Lebeziatnikov demonstrates what comes out of Chernyshevskii’s way of thinking. The ex-revolutionary Dostoevskii is showing why both halves of the schism among the nihilists are wrong, for all their cleverness and/or good intentions.

        You could think of the dispute between Pisarev and Dostoevskii as social or philosophical or religious instead of political, but I see Dostoevskii in Crime and Punishment as joining an argument about what kind of world people in 1860s Russia should want, and what they could do to try to get it.

        It’s the same intergenerational argument that Turgenev, Chernyshevskii, Leskov, Pisemskii, and Tolstoi were contributing to from the early 1860s to the early 1870s, leading up to Leskov’s At Daggers Drawn and Dostoevskii’s The Devils being serialized in Katkov’s journal one after the other. I’d claim that either none of these books are political or all of them are, depending on how you want to define the term.

  4. October 9, 2014 12:18 pm

    I think that FD’s purpose behind Raskolnikov’s article comes at the end of that scene with Razumihin’s comment: “You are right, of course, in saying that it’s not new, that it’s like what we’ve read and heard a thousand times already; but what is really original in all this, and is exclusively your own, to my horror, is that you sanction bloodshed _in the name of conscience_, and, excuse my saying so, with such fanaticism…. That, I take it, is the point of your article. But that sanction of bloodshed _by conscience_ is to my mind… more terrible than the official, legal sanction of bloodshed….” The idea that ‘great men’ transgress the law in order to bring about change, going even so far as to commit murder, has long been part of human history, but that to believe one is above all moral law is a new and terrible thing.

    It’s been some time since I read C&P but I see it as the same sort of novel as all of FD’s mature works: an exploration of Christian faith within the sinful world. I see FD as a writer who points out the ways man attempts to control his own fate and is always tempted down the road to horrible sins by an active Satan, and that every single road taken by man is the wrong road unless it is the way of Christian faith. So while FD engages in politics, it’s primarily because political activity is another of the wrong roads, a dangerous way to be avoided, a sin to be rebuked publicly. Dostoevsky as Christ at the temple, if you will. The politics is simply the loudest voice of contemporary sinfulness against which FD battles.

    There’s certainly more to it than that, and surely FD had is specific quarrels about ideologies, but in large I think FD is an evangelist, and not so much a politician. The Devils is therefore no more political than The Idiot. Maybe I’m talking out of my hat. Everything certainly reads differently to me after What is to be Done?, but I keep coming back to the idea that the “Grand Inquisitor” scene in Brothers Karamazov is the distillation of every novel FD wrote.

  5. October 9, 2014 1:02 pm

    I see it as the same sort of novel as all of FD’s mature works: an exploration of Christian faith within the sinful world.

    I agree with this, but I don’t agree that “FD is an evangelist”; his deeply felt Christianity is part of a complex worldview that I would say might be summed up by Montaigne’s “When I confess myself religiously to myself, I find that the best goodness I have has some tincture of vice,” and I don’t think he’s trying to evangelize but to explore life according to his lights and share the results with us. (Tolstoy, on the other hand, evangelized like crazy.) His discussion (Дневник писателя, 1876 год/Май) of the notorious Kairova case, in which a woman who attacked her husband’s lover with a knife and was acquitted, is pure Dostoevsky, and his insistence that (contrary to the court’s assumptions in its questioning) it is impossible to know what her intentions were, and might have been impossible for her to say even as she was raising the knife, has little to do with Christianity and much to do with his radical notions of freedom of the will. I commend to everyone’s attention Gary Saul Morson’s Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, which focuses mainly on Russian literature and has brilliant things to say about both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

    • October 9, 2014 1:34 pm

      Is the discussion of the Kairova case in FD’s “Writer’s Diary?” We have that at home, so I could look it up.

      I don’t claim that FD had a single and well-crafted novelistic approach and I’m certainly not well read in the literature of his time, but I do think he’s evangelizing in his novels, pointing an accusing finger and knocking his reader about to get him back on the path of righteousness. It’s all filtered through Dostoyevsky’s acute awareness of his own many shortcomings and his awareness of the messiness of real life, etc. But I guess I picture a sort of Russian Elijah. An Elijah who wants to want to be Alyosha Karamazov, maybe. I know this is based on sort of reading FD outside of his own context. But it’s what I got. Thanks for the Morson recommendation.

      • October 9, 2014 3:28 pm

        Is the discussion of the Kairova case in FD’s “Writer’s Diary?”

        Yes, the first section of May 1876. Kairova, by the way, is Ka-EE-rova (her husband, of course, was Kairov).

    • October 10, 2014 12:03 am

      From Diary of a Writer, December 1876: “Undeniably, there lives in the people the firm belief that Russia exists for the sole purpose of serving Christ and protecting ecumenic Orthodoxy as a whole.”

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