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Revising “The Musk-Ox”

October 27, 2014

The old idea of Leskov’s “sick talent” — that in his early works he was so angry at the radicals that it got in the way of his art — doesn’t explain everything, but there’s something in it.

You might expect that if Leskov revised an 1860s story late in his life, he would make the nihilist characters more appealing. He did sometimes bring an earlier work in line with his later thinking, as by inserting Tolstoyan ideas into “A Family in Decline” (Захудалый род, 1874; see Edgerton 529n25).

But James Muckle finds the opposite trend in “The Musk-Ox” (Овцебык, written 1862, published 1863, revised 1867 and 1890). The main character of that story, Vasilii Petrovich Bogoslovskii (who looks like a certain picture of a musk-ox), is a complicated virtuous eccentric who doesn’t quite fit in the everyday world, and he’s often classified as one of Leskov’s heroic, idealistic revolutionaries. But Muckle shows that “the 1863 Musk-ox is a slightly more sympathetic study in character, while the 1890 Musk-ox is a rather more stark embodiment of certain ideas” (359, and see also 355-59). The 1890 Bogoslovskii feels more antipathy for the Russian Orthodox clergy and the wealthy than the 1863 one.

Overall Muckle finds that

The style of the 1890 edition is tighter than the reader expects from Leskov in the early 1860s. Leskov’s was a vivid and variegated genius, but the 1890 version, while still being lively and colorful, is disciplined and controlled. Characters, incidents, and anecdotes do not occur in quite such wild profusion as in the earlier versions or in some of the other works of the sixties. In the last edition gossipy digressions and sententious sermonizing are curtailed, while interesting side-issues are still explored to some extent. (359)

Other changes Muckle finds: The author’s nostalgia for his youth appears to increase as he gets farther from it: a time from the narrator’s boyhood is qualified веселое in 1863, милое, милое in 1867, and беззаботное, милое plus an additional sentence-long outburst in 1890 (353). Passages that show “the spirit of Russian patriotism (linked with a tendency to belittle foreigners)” are cut or toned down in successive editions (353-54). A priest who talks to a young Jewish boy who has been conscripted into the Russian army becomes less sympathetic in 1890 (354-55). Minor characters are removed or made even more minor (355).

On the whole it seems as if the 1890 Leskov’s desire to make the story “disciplined and controlled” changed Bogoslovskii more than Leskov’s waning anger did. Maybe making the musk-ox into a “stark embodiment of certain ideas” served the same purpose as pushing the minor characters in the background.

See James Y. Muckle, “The Author As Editor: Leskov’s ‘The Musk-Ox,’” Slavic and East European Journal 24.4 (1980): 349-61.

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