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“The Spirit of Mme de Genlis”

August 19, 2015

Leskov’s story “The Spirit of Mme de Genlis” (Дух госпожи Жанлис, 1881) is built around an anecdote found in the works of the actual Madame de Genlis (1746-1830): a blind French woman is used to feeling the faces of famous people she meets in society, but when she feels the fat face of Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, she thinks she has been tricked into feeling someone’s buttocks instead of a face and exclaims, “what a vile joke!”* (you can find the original joke on pp. 310-313).

In the Leskov story, a Russian princess who swears by Mme de Genlis asks for the narrator’s help finding suitably chaste reading for her daughter. She considers Russian writers, even Goncharov and sometimes Turgenev, too risqué. The narrator (who is meant to be identified with Leskov, as he has recently published “The Sealed Angel”) stands up for Goncharov’s unobjectionableness, but she answers his arguments with an “oracle”: she has him open a book by Mme de Genlis at random so that the spirit of Mme de Genlis can show him the error of his ways. It seems to work, as he opens to a passage about how the choice of reading material is too important to be left to the taste of young people, which supports the princess’s views. Later she tries her trick again and has her innocent daughter read a random passage aloud at a New Year’s party, but this time the spirit of Mme de Genlis has the poor girl open to the story about the blind woman feeling Gibbon’s face, which the well-protected girl does not understand.

The mockery of the princess and her oracle in this story has clear connections to the satirical passages about spiritualism in Leskov’s At Daggers Drawn  (На ножах, 1870-71), but I want to mention another connection here as a note to myself: the comedy of Mme de Genlis’s spirit perhaps coming back and opening a book to a certain page echoes and inverts the tragic, eerie scene — complete with poetry hidden in the prose — in The Bypassed (Обойденные, 1865) where Dora’s spirit perhaps comes back to read Spinoza with Dolinskii.

I recommend Aleksandr Zholkovskii’s article about this story; there’s so much in it I can’t adequately summarize it here, but I want to share three points he makes about Leskov’s implied commentary on contemporary Russian literature:

  • The first of three reasons the princess takes an interest in Leskov the narrator is that “for some reason, she liked my story ‘The Sealed Angel,’ which had been published shortly before then in The Russian Messenger.”* As Zholkovskii says, the princess’s “choice of Leskov, who was noted for his free use of erotic themes, as a guardian of decency was doomed to failure.” Throughout the story we see she is a bad reader of what she claims to like, whether it’s the works of Mme de Genlis or Leskov’s own “Sealed Angel,” where she could have seen “a prefiguration of herself: a society lady who put her trust in false prophecies that did, however, come true for a time” (section 5).
  • Turgenev is actually the living Russian author the princess comes closest to approving of: “Of new authors, Turgenev alone was approved without question, but minus the passages ‘where they talk of love.’”* Zholkovskii argues that Turgenev is not singled out by accident, but that the princess in Leskov’s story is in part modeled on the widow in Turgenev’s “Faust: A Story in Nine Letters” (Фауст. Рассказ в девяти письмах, 1856), which is also about a woman guarding her daughter’s innocence by restricting her reading, and has other similarities to “The Spirit of Mme de Genlis” (section 10).
  • The princess’s objection to Goncharov? “I know he’s a great artist, but so much the worse—you must admit there are arousing subjects in him.”* Asked what she means, she whispers “elbows” and goes on to elaborate, “Don’t you remember… how that one… the hero at some point… admires the bare elbows of his… of some very simple lady?”* Zholkovskii notes that Oblomov’s housekeeper’s elbows, while “far from pornographic,” are described over many pages and “become an object of Oblomov’s amorous fixation.” Oblomov sees her bare elbows from behind, which in the context of Leskov’s story anticipates the blind French marquise thinking she is touching Gibbon’s behind (section 8). Zholkovskii also suggests there is a connection between the fictional Oblomov’s fascination with his housekeeper and the biographical Leskov’s love for his at the stage of his life when he wrote “The Spirit of Mme de Genlis” (section 13).

See Aleksandr Zholkovskii, “Маленький метатекстуальный шедевр Лескова” [A Minor Metatextual Masterpiece by Leskov], NLO 93 (2008). As you can see on my list of Leskov stories, “The Spirit of Mme de Genlis” was translated into English by R. Norman in 1944 and by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in 2013. See also Ilya Vinitsky on “The Spirit of Mme de Genlis.”

* Quotations in English from “The Spirit of Madame Genlis” are from Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation, available as an e-book or in print. Here is the Russian for each: «Какая гадкая шутка!» (in French, “Voilà […] une infâme plaisanterie!…”) /// ей почему-то нравился мой рассказ «Запечатленный ангел», незадолго перед тем напечатанный в «Русском вестнике» /// Из новейших одобрялся несомненно один Тургенев, но и то кроме тех мест, «где говорят о любви». /// — Я знаю, что он большой художник, но это тем хуже, — вы должны признать, что у него есть разжигающие предметы /// — Неужто вы не помните… как его этот… герой где-то… там засматривается на голые локти своей… очень простой какой-то дамы?

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