I want to spend a few days writing about Nikolai Leskov, a contemporary of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and a second-rater compared to those two, which is hardly a wounding criticism. Leskov’s best work, anecdotes and tales and longish stories, is excellent, an effective blend of Gogol and Pushkin with some unique contributions from his own voice. His voice is not a strong one, which might well be a relief to readers who find the voices of T. and D. to be strong in the manner of anchovies and beef liver. Leskov’s authorial personality is mild and amiable. He was raised by an aunt who was English, and a Quaker. I’m just throwing that out there.
Leskov became a genuinely popular writer. He is a tale-teller, writing stories with strong beginnings and endings. I am comparing him here with Chekhov, with Chekhov’s ordinary people and quivering, ambiguous endings. Leskov tells a complete story about something extraordinary. I always enjoy pointing out how this or that unlikely 19th century writer prefigures this or that key aspect of Modernism. Nikolai Leskov does not.
Am I belittling Leskov? I am in good company. V. S. Pritchett, in the introduction to David Magarshack’s translation (Selected Tales, 1961, in print now as The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories) writes:
He is not, in the least, a literary writer. He appears to burst upon the reader without art in a rambling, wily, diffuse, old-fashioned way. He shambles into his tales without embarrassment, indifferent to technique. (ix)
Pritchett then proceeds, in the rest of his essay, to contradict most of this. Shambles! Indifferent to technique – nonsense! There are better and worse, duller and more lively ways to tell tales. Leskov is better, more lively, and best of all, weirder, full of surprises. But I know what Pritchett is getting at. First, delicate reader of 1961, do not expect the penetrating soul-plumbing anguish of T. and D.; second, the tales as such, the stories, really are quite good.
A wiser book blogger than I would have skipped most – all – of the above and simply pointed curious readers to David Waggish Auerbach’s fine overview at The Quarterly Conversation, excellent except for the inaccurate title, which I note Waggish tactfully corrects at his own site. I will, or at least should, refer to Auerbach’s piece again over the next day or two; I may well have nothing to add to what he has already written. Such is life on the internet.