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“Yet the thrilling range of Leskov’s body of work keeps slipping away”

December 15, 2014

Muireann Maguire pointed me to Chris Power’s post on Leskov for The Guardian‘s short story blog, which I recommend. It’s filled with quotes from Leskov’s famous admirers: Walter Benjamin, Boris Eikhenbaum, D. S. Mirsky. It’s hard not to agree with Power-quoting-Richard Pevear-quoting Eikhenbaum that “Leskov equalled Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy ‘not by resembling them, but by being totally unlike them.’” But Leskov also isn’t like Leskov:

[…] skaz was just one technique among many, and one of the great pleasures of Leskov’s work is its diversity: A Little Mistake could be from the pages of Grimm; the short, terse chapters of The Man on Watch generate a thriller’s momentum; A Robbery is a superb comedy of provincial life. Just as you settle into a certain style, he surprises you again.

His most famous story, for example, The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, is like nothing else he wrote. It is told with a dispassion that makes its realist account of a sequence of coldblooded murders all the more shocking. It is the type of story, Irving Howe remarked, “a writer may, if he is lucky and has some genius, bring off once or twice in his career, a piece that radiates enormous narrative authority by sacrificing almost everything else”.

I think I like the way Power works through the tension between Leskov, the “very un-Russian Russian great” and the Leskov who “said he came to know the Russian people by living among them, not through ‘conversations with Petersburg cabbies.’” If I understand him correctly, he’s saying that Leskov doesn’t write like the famous authors who collectively shape our idea of Russian literature — they care about characters, and he cares about telling stories. But he is more Russian than they are in the sense of holding a (funhouse) mirror up to more kinds of people who lived in the Russian Empire at the time, not just the landed gentry and their servants.

The nitpicker in me wants to complain that “The Musk-Ox” (Овцебык, 1863) wasn’t Leskov’s first published story, but his seventh, give or take. “The Robber” (Разбойник, 1862) has even been translated into English. But otherwise I was nodding along with Power, and I only hope he’s wrong about this “serially rediscovered writer” being destined to keep being rescued from oblivion. Maybe the current revival will take.

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