Wednesday, September 7, 2011

After that things began to move fast, just as in a fairy tale. - Leskov doesn't tell his stories right

The most famous story of Nikolai Leskov, thanks, I suppose, to the Shostakovich opera, is the 1865 “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” a tale that readers with less of a cold-fish temperament than me might actually find harrowing.  The bored rural Russian Lady Macbeth falls in love with her husband’s clerk; anyone who gets in the way of their love is murdered, at least until their crimes are discovered and the murderers are sent to Siberia.

A reader with a keener eye than me might notice that this story does not sound much like Macbeth at all.  The woman inveigling her husband into crime is from Macbeth, except here the husband ends up buried in the basement, and the motive is love, not ambition.  I was on the alert for parallel scenes – Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, or the Three Witches – and with some stretching I can find some, but the exercise is basically futile.  The sad part is that Leskov had warned me not to bother, that the name was “first invented for her on the spur of the moment by someone or other.”  This is from the first page of the story.

The invocation of Shakespeare in the title, as strong a sign of “literariness” as Leskov could find, is a distraction but also a nod to his method, his blend of the literary and folk traditions.  The novella-like The Enchanted Wanderer (1872), for example, is a picaresque in the style of Lazarillo de Tormes, with the simple but tough hero touring Russia, moving from profession to profession and place to place, from the stable to a nomadic camp to a monastery, all with no discernible effect on his personality.  What a charming way to take a tour of 19th century Russia.  Bizarre elements intrude into the hero’s narration, though, dreams and prophecies and hallucinations:

For, as I swam, I saw Grusha flying above me and she was now a girl in her teens, just about sixteen, I should say, and she had large wings already, bright wings, spanning the whole river, and she protected me with them. . . (Ch. 19, 195)

Curious ellipses in the original.  The wanderer is in the army here, and under fire; he is forced out of the military because of his insistence that he was protected from harm by a ghost fairy.  By the end of the novella, The Enchanted Wanderer has become enjoyably scrambled, with no way to sort the true from the false, even in the story’s own terms.

David Auerbach emphasizes the surprises in the structures of Leskov’s stories – Leskov’s “narrative strangeness.”  What at first looks like an epilogue to “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” the punishment of Lady Macbeth and her lover, their journey to Siberia, turns out to fill a quarter of the text, and the events of the episode deepened, or perhaps upended, my understanding of Lady Macbeth’s character.  The Enchanted Wanderer has a slightly different device.  The wanderer repeatedly insists that his adventures will end in a monastery, but the monastery turns out to be only the latest episode in the bizarre string.

The central story of “Lady Macbeth,” and a number of the episodes of The Enchanted Wanderer, would be worth reading if told in a more straightforward way.  That’s part of the fun of Leskov, that his stories are strong.  The other part, though, is that he doesn’t tell them correctly.

Translations by David Magarshack.  My context-damaged title is from The Enchanted Wanderer, Ch. 16, 181.


  1. I've only heard the opera, never read the story. But my curiosity has been piqued!

    Also, this morning I ran across the following in Chekhov's "Excellent People"

    "Very nice!" she said. "But still there's a great deal I don't understand. For instance, in Leskov's story 'Belonging to the Cathedral' there is a queer gardener who sows for the benefit of all -- for customers, for beggars, and any who care to steal. Did he behave sensibly?"

    Leskov is everywhere, once you know to look.

    ~scott bailey

  2. I wonder if Leskov's naming of the story was a nod to Turgenev's short story "Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District", which had appeared in the colection "Sketches from a Hunter's Notebook". Turgenev also wrote a story later in life (after the appearance of Leskov's story) called "King Lear of the Steppes": presumably such titles were fashionable at the time.

    I wonder also if James M Cain knew of Leskov's story. Both "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity" are essentially variations - albeit brilliant variations - on Leskov's tale.

  3. Ah ha, yes! I had forgotten about those Turgenev stories, both the one I have read and the one I haven't. I just took a look at Turgenev's "Hamlet" - not much of anything resembling Shakespeare there, either.

    The guy Cain owed royalties, or at least a nod, to was Zola, to Thérèse Raquin.

    Leskov's version really is a strong story.