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“A Catastrophe at the Beginning of the Road”

December 23, 2014

Lev Anninskii wrote about contemporary Soviet literature before turning to Pisemskii, Mel’nikov-Pechereskii, and most of all Leskov, and maybe that’s why his style is so wonderfully direct that he can read aloud from his own introductions and it works as a lecture. His big idea about those three nineteenth-century not-quite-giants is that they’re underrated because their worldviews didn’t fit into the binary, polarized world of 1860s Russian tastemakers. They weren’t just slightly less good versions of Turgenev, Dostoevskii, and Tolstoi, nor were they wishy-washy moderates. Their works were skew to the main left-right line, and this destined them to more than their fair share of oblivion. (Sergei Chuprinin, introducing Anninskii’s Three Heretics, thinks he wrote about Vasilii Shukshin for similar reasons.)

Anninskii has a lot to say about the controversy caused by Leskov’s first novel, No Way Out (Некуда, 1864) — which, full disclosure, I’m co-translating with Victoria Thorstensson. It’s obvious he thinks the book is important for understanding the shape of Leskov’s career, but he’s coy about whether he likes it. He says the early provincial chapters are nothing new: if you want landscapes and elegiac manor houses, you should just read Turgenev. But if you want caricatures of revolutionaries, like in the later parts of No Way Out, you’ll get more philosophical and psychological depth from Dostoevskii (65-66). What makes No Way Out worthwhile in the end are the parts unique to Leskov, which for Anninskii means most of all the section on Moscow Old Believers, and all the other places where chaotic voices from below seep in. Leskov, according to Anninskii, had a good ear for the complicated and not entirely admirable voices of The Russian People, who are too human to be a term in anyone’s equation for one kind of salvation or another (66-68). (I’m not sure I agree about the early chapters repeating Turgenev. Something feels new to me about the way Leskov shows a young woman suffocating in a not-all-that-exceptional family. There’s a feeling of un-Turgenev-like urgency and desperation that I think Anninskii underplays.)

Though they’re peripheral to the battles in print, we see glimpses of what other writers thought. Nekrasov, as Pavel Iakushkin tells his friend Leskov, “speaks well of you but lets them write quite awful things” in his journal (40). Dostoevskii made jokes playing on the title, but refused to have serious conversations about No Way Out, according to memoirists. Petr Verkhovenskii does allude to it in a disparaging way (as he would) in The Devils. And a page in Dostoevskii’s notebook seems to show him emotionally involved in two admirable characters from No Way Out choosing ideological duty over love (27-28). Tolstoi didn’t read No Way Out until 1890, but he would praise Leskov for “demonstrating in his No Way Out the inadequacy of material progress and the danger to freedom and ideals posed by wicked people,” along the way calling Leskov a writer “with an original mind and a great store of the most varied bits of knowledge” and “the first idealist of the Christian type in the 60s” (60-62).

When it came out, No Way Out aroused negative reactions from Apollon Grigor’ev (who had encouraged Leskov earlier, and who died before the end of the serialization, 28-32); the ultra-radical Varfolomei Zaitsev (32-34); Petr Polevoi, son of the more famous Nikolai (34-37); the young Aleksei Suvorin, who had worked with Leskov in Moscow but savaged him anonymously in Petersburg (37-38 and 40-44); The Contemporary‘s Grigorii Eliseev (38-40); and famously by the imprisoned leading critic of the time, Dmitrii Pisarev (this piece is remembered as the moment when Leskov was blacklisted by the left, 50-58). Leitmotifs: insinuations that Leskov was an informer and accusations that he was an ungentlemanly ingrate for his too recognizable caricature of his onetime patron Evgeniia Tur. The novel was ineffectively defended by Petr Boborykin (44-47), who then ran Library for Reading, and by Leskov himself (47-50).

Anninskii tells us that Saltykov-Shchedrin insistently asked Nekrasov to send him a review copy when he was abroad in 1864, but luckily for Leskov, Nekrasov didn’t (38). Five years later, Saltykov-Shchedrin found an opportunity to be extremely hostile to No Way Out (58-59). Mikhailovskii used Leskov’s pseudonym as a stock example of a bad writer (59). After the revolutionary terrorism of the 1870s and the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, conservative critics including Strakhov started to argue that the author of No Way Out was a prophet, right when Leskov was becoming openly hostile to the tsarist government and conservatives (59-60).

In the twentieth century Gor’kii took Leskov’s point of view seriously, and in the same piece started the “Leskov the verbal magician” meme (63-65). The full text of No Way Out was published only once between the revolution and perestroika, in 1956. A Soviet critic complained that it was a waste of paper to publish this “revolting novel that is artistically wretched and upsettingly reactionary” (12). Leskov’s Soviet detractors cited Pisarev, and a handful of defenders countered with Gor’kii (65).

See “No Way Out: A Catastrophe at the Beginning of the Road,” the first and longest chapter of Anninskii’s Лесковское ожерелье, 2nd ed. (Moscow, 1986). The first edition (1982) was over 100 pages shorter and didn’t have sections on Cathedral Folk (Соборяне, 1867-72) or “An Iron Will” (Железная воля, 1876).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 23, 2014 8:15 am

    I have that 1956 edition of Некуда, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it, as I am the rest of Leskov (I think I’ve only read Lady Macbeth and the flea). Thanks for another interesting post!

    • December 25, 2014 9:29 am

      I hope Leskov gives you something to look forward to as you leave the 1840s – it won’t all be Saltykov-Shchedrin!

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