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Heretics

October 10, 2014

All of us are the children, and the victims, of the society that has molded our thinking; and even our originality tends to express itself within the conventional patterns of thought and action that each society creates for its individualists. The rebel in nineteenth-century Russian society tended to express his rebellion through such traditional channels of non-conformism as hostility to the tsarist regime, defiance of the Orthodox Church (which he associated with all religion), and reverence for what he thought was science. In this the radical intellectual observed a standard of radical behavior that was probably as rigid in its own way as the conventions of the conservatism he opposed. Leskov’s path of development, on the other hand, was difficult just because it was genuinely independent, and led in a direction that defied analysis in terms of the thought patterns that divided — and therefore united — the conventional radicals and conservatives of his time. (527-28)

This is from a 1953 article by William B. Edgerton, whose translations in Satirical Stories of Nikolai Leskov (1969) are still drawing praise from the likes of Robert Chandler. He was also a trailblazing Leskov scholar, and his work is a pleasure to read, though a lot of what he had to say about English and Protestant influences on Leskov had trickled down to me through Hugh McLean (who translated two of those Satirical Stories besides writing the wonderful Nikolai Leskov: The Man and His Art).

Edgerton’s article is about the “literary heretics” Leskov and Tolstoi, and he makes the case that Leskov considered himself a follower of Tolstoi’s “from the time of their first meeting in 1887 until Leskov’s death in 1895,” but he also quotes both Leskov and Tolstoi as saying that Leskov got to the late-Tolstoyan ideas first (525). There was a turning point for Leskov on a trip to Western Europe in 1875. Reading books banned in Russia and talking to intellectuals with a non-Russian perspective led him to reevaluate his thinking about religion and the Orthodox Church: “had I read all the many things I have now read on this subject and heard all that I have now heard, I would not have written The Cathedral Folk as I did write it, for that would have been distasteful to me” (533-34; see this letter of July 29, 1875 to P. K. Shchebal’skii). Tolstoi’s role, Edgerton argues, is as “a sort of catalytic agent in Leskov’s philosophy, crystallizing a set of convictions, a world outlook, that had been in the process of formation since Leskov’s early childhood” (525). McLean would expand on this line of thinking, and more recently Irmhild Christina Sperrle has argued that despite both men’s claims that Leskov was a Tolstoyan, Leskov’s ideas were never as similar to Tolstoi’s as they appeared to be to many observers (see her contrast of their philosophies and aesthetic methods in two treatments of a “three questions” story).

Edgerton also touched on Tolstoi’s humorlessness:

Leskov at his best, however, was able to fulfill Tolstoy’s own requirements for good art: he was able to “infect” the reader with feelings of unity with all mankind. Moreover, he did this in stories that were suffused with a warmth and humor that have no counterpart anywhere in Tolstoy. Space does not permit the discussion that ought to be given in support of this heretical opinion about these two gifted heretics. I will say only that in addition to the works already mentioned I have in mind such stories by Leskov as “Pugalo” (The Scarecrow), “Figura,” “Tomlenie Dukha” (Anguish of Spirit), “Skomorokh Pamfalon” (Pamphalon the Clown), “The Sentry” (Čelovek na časakh), “Pustopljasy,” and “The Beast” (Zver’). (532, link added)

See William B. Edgerton, “Leskov and Tolstoy: Two Literary Heretics,” American Slavic and East European Review 12.4 (1953): 524-34. I rather wish Edgerton’s title “The One-Track Mind” had caught on for Leskov’s Однодум (1879), which I’ve seen rendered as “Singlethought” and “The Monognome.” I suppose you could argue that “The One-Track Mind” is too normal, while “Singlethought” is the same kind of easily understood but unusual compound as однодум, but it doesn’t feel the same somehow. The word однодум exists in a marginal way outside of and even before Leskov in print, and I’m not sure the same is true of “singlethought” or “monognome.”

 

3 Comments leave one →
  1. kaggsysbookishramblings permalink
    October 11, 2014 10:48 am

    I have the Edgerton translations of Leskov – and I had read Chandler’s praise of them which is what made me seek them out rather than go anywhere near P/V. It’s nice to know he was such a Leskov scholar.

  2. October 17, 2014 6:04 am

    This is absolutely fascinating – thanks very much for it. The only Leskov I have read is “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” in David Magarshack’s translation: it’s high time I got to know more of his works. I have Robert Chandler’s translations of “Lady Macbeth” and a few other stories – I’ll try to hunt out teh EDgerton versions also.

  3. October 18, 2014 2:50 pm

    There’s also The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories, translated by George H. Hanna (I have the Progress Publishers second printing from 1974; 1st ed. was 1958).

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