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“For heaven’s sake, what she’s sacrificing is other people’s lives…”

December 30, 2014

The second bead on Lev Anninskii’s “Leskovian necklace” is a chapter on “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (Леди Макбет Мценского уезда, 1865), mostly about films, theater productions, constructivist poetry, visual art, and one very famous opera (73-80) inspired by Leskov’s “sketch.” There are interesting stories on the side about the internal politics of early Soviet cinema (81-83) and the battle between Mikhail Chekhov and Aleksei Dikii inside the Second Moscow Art Theater (85-90). It’s natural for directors etc. to make changes when they “transpose” a text into a non–written word form, but Anninskii finds a pattern that cuts across forms:

Dikii’s idea turned out to be related to Shostakovich’s, even though Dikii’s “clear-minded,” “earthly,” “commonsensical” talent was worlds away from Shostakovich’s nervous and agitated spirit. But they were united in one thing: a desire to vindicate the heroine. To chalk all her crimes up to her accursed environment while showing her as a beautiful woman yearning to escape the fetters of the Domostroi. The same thing that Shostakovich leaned on to attack the stupid and spiteful mob, Dikii leaned on to attack the effete intelligentsia and warmed-over mysticism. Such coincidences do occur on culture’s twisting paths. The two masters were all the more unanimous in reading Leskov in the “Ostrovskii-Dobroliubov” manner since they could not have found a single other interpretation of this sketch about Katerina Izmailova in the criticism of the time. Only the one. (87)

(By the “Ostrovskii-Dobroliubov” manner, Anninskii means that in the USSR many read Leskov’s Katerina as if she were similar to the Katerina of Ostrovskii’s play The Storm [Гроза, 1859], as famously interpreted by Dobroliubov in “A Ray of Light in the Kingdom of Darkness.”)

Boris Kustodiev's illustrations (1922-23, published 1930) are ambiguous, Anninskii says

Boris Kustodiev’s illustrations (1922-23, published 1930) are ambiguous, Anninskii says

Again and again twentieth-century reimaginings of Leskov make Katerina Izmailova sympathetic — they reduce the number of murders, or show her as a passive instrument led by her lover, in clear opposition to the text and even the title of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” A rare exception is a diptich by Georgii Iudin (b. 1943), who makes her tall though she’s a very small person in the text, because “evil can’t be small/short, it’s enormous” (101-02). Anninskii calculates that there were 23 Russian editions of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” from 1928 to 1980, and many more by 1985, so that there was one on average every 22 months since 1945. This is in addition to a wave of foreign translations, starting with a German one in 1921 (102-03). But from 1865 to the 1920s, the silence around the work was unbelievable. Leskov had attracted a lot of attention just the year before with No Way Out (Некуда, 1864), but in January 1865, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” is published in Dostoevskii’s journal The Epoch and ignored (103-05). (Anninskii compares No Way Out and “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” to an open game and a closed game of chess, respectively.) The only contemporary critic to mention “Lady Macbeth,” Anninskii says, was Saltykov-Shchedrin. In his 1869 review of a Leskov collection, S-S was mostly interested in bashing No Way Out, but he found time to take exception to this passage from the end of chapter 13 of “Lady Macbeth”:

Sonetka had taste, chose her dishes, and maybe even chose very strictly; she wanted passion to be offered to her, not blandly, but with a piquant, spicy seasoning, with sufferings and sacrifices; while Fiona was Russian simplicity, who is even too lazy to say “Go away,” and who knows only one thing, that she is a woman. Such women are very highly valued in robber bands, convict parties, and the social-democratic communes of Petersburg. (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

Сонетка имела вкус, блюла выбор и даже, может быть, очень строгий выбор; она хотела, чтобы страсть приносили ей не в виде сыроежки, а под пикантною, пряною приправою, с страданиями и с жертвами; а Фиона была русская простота, которой даже лень оказать кому-нибудь: «прочь поди» и которая знает только одно, что она баба. Такие женщины очень высоко ценятся в разбойничьих шайках, арестантских партиях и петербургских социально-демократических коммунах.

S-S didn’t like the reference to communes. In a footnote Anninskii observes that Soviet editors took that one sentence out of all editions of the story from 1923 until 1956, often not even adding an ellipsis. See chapter 2 (“World Fame from the Mtsensk District”) of Anninskii’s Лесковское ожерелье, 2nd ed. (Moscow, 1986).

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 31, 2014 9:17 am

    But from 1865 to the 1920s, the silence around the work was unbelievable. … The only contemporary critic to mention “Lady Macbeth,” Anninskii says, was Saltykov-Shchedrin.

    Fascinating, I had no idea! I think Lady M. was the only Leskov I read as a Russian major; I just assumed it had always been one of Leskov’s Greatest Hits.

  2. December 31, 2014 9:19 am

    I just checked my edition (in Vol. 1 of the 1956 Collected Works) and was relieved to find the sentence there.

    • January 5, 2015 2:38 pm

      I think that whole 1956 collected works is pretty well-respected, in spite of some political limitations even during the thaw (for instance, they left out At Daggers Drawn, which I think is the longest thing Leskov ever wrote, because it’s too anti-nihilist).

  3. December 31, 2014 11:23 am

    Katerina is sympathetic no matter what. She is the only female character in the entirety of Russian literature who experiences desire and pursues it actively and unapologetically. Obviously, Leskov hated women who experienced sexual desire, and the the entire corpus of his work is filled with this hatred. But in spite of himself, he created a very seductive character who is a lot more attractive than the weepy Annas, the infantilized Natashas, and the pathetic Tatianas.

    Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is my favorite work of Russian literature after Chekhov’s “Duel.”

    • January 5, 2015 3:38 pm

      Obviously, Leskov hated women who experienced sexual desire, and the the entire corpus of his work is filled with this hatred.

      There’s something to this, but Leskov was no Tolstoi. Polina Petrovna in No Way Out, a widow who takes up with a married man, experiences sexual desire and it’s portrayed as healthy and unremarkable. Young women feel desire that the narrator and author approve of in “The Toupee Artist” and “Ancient Psychopaths,” even as male sexual desire shows up in those stories as a man raping a series of terrified slaves. In The Bypassed, a pious character is mocked for her unworldliness when she seems confused about how her late servant’s widow could have had a baby five years after her husband’s death, but the widow herself is not condemned.

      Leskov does create a lot of negative female characters who manipulate men into marriage and then manipulate their husbands by criticizing them in public, which scholars seem to take as Leskov settling scores with his biographical first wife. These characters seem motivated more by a desire for psychological control or money or status than by sexual desire. There are also a lot of Leskov stories where no one’s sexual desire is important, and/or where women are an afterthought.

      As for “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” your reading is different from Anninskii’s, but I think you and he would join in despising any interpretation where Katerina is a positive hero, a victim of social circumstances, and a passive innocent led astray by a man.

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