Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The great Nikolai Leskov

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.


  1. The thing is, "to burst upon the reader without art in a rambling, wily, diffuse, old-fashioned way" is a great thing to do. "He shambles into his tales without embarrassment, indifferent to technique" makes me want to read these tales. I mean, hooray for High Modernism and emotional realism and all that, but also give me a writer who is delighted to be foremost a teller of tales. Today I'm reading Chekhov's novella The Duel, and while you get all the usual Chekhovian emotional/critical action, I am struck yet again by how much fun Chekhov has with the story itself, with the frenetic motion of his characters and the breathless action. Mr Leskov sounds like fine stuff.

    ~scott bailey

  2. Except it's not true - Leskov bursts upon the reader with art. He is different to technique. I guess that was not really English, although I do not know why it isn't.

    It's just not an art or technique that is a link in the chain of innovations that gets us to Faulkner or Bely or whomever. Pritchett defensively makes Leskov sound primitive, which he is not.

    But - I think you're right that Pritchett wants Leskov to sound like fun, which is entirely accurate. Amusingly, I've seen Chekhov get the same treatment - simple, artless Chekhov. And there's a bit of truth in there, too.

  3. Surely Faulkner "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," although you can probably find art even in Faulkner if you look hard enough.

    I read this collection many years ago, but must admit I don't remember much about it now.

  4. Come to think of it, who do you think Pritchett has in mind who shambles into his tales with embarrassment? That whole passage may mean less than I first thought.

    I generally think of Faulkner - at his best, at least - as new-fangled, not old-fasshioned. Unembarrassed, certainly. I actually mentioned him because I wanted a post-Dostoevsky Dostoevskian.

  5. "who shambles into his tales with embarrassment?"

    I immediately thought Hemingway. I love his writing but certainly he's a self-conscious writer and he sometimes strikes me as almost apologetic, as if he needs my assurance that I don't really mind him telling me a story.

    ~scott bailey

  6. Ah, that's a good one, a likely interpretation: embarrassment = fussy self-consciousness.

    That is certainly not Leskov, not in the stories I read.

  7. Yay, glad to see more press for Leskov! And thanks for the link. I still stand by what I wrote in the article. I think of Leskov as *pre-modern* and *post-modern* (but not postmodern), but definitely not modern. He comes out of the realm of the colloquial and the folklorish, which he venerates without sanitizing, and so that puts him out of the "literary" tradition, in the class sense.

    He wrote some early didactic novels about the evils of nihilist revolutionaries which haven't even been translated, but it seems he learned to go more off of influence as he went on. The results are frequently bonkers, but because his oddness lies generally in the realm of plot structure (again, like folklore), it set him aside from modernist innovations.

    His use of verbal colloquialism may have had an influence on Bely, however; I'm not sure.

  8. Funnily enough, there's a reference to Leskov ("a story of a conscientious Danila who found a leper outside of town...") in the Chekhov I'm reading. A few chapters later there's a hilarious reference to Lermontov, Turgenev and Bazarov when it turns out that nobody present actually knows how to conduct a duel and the seconds try to reconstruct the rules of honor from stories they've read.

    ~scott bailey

  9. Verbal colloquialism - exactly the aspect of Leskov I am least likely to see in translation.

    I'm happy to be able to refer to your essay, David. It is almost too useful. You will see today where I parrot it.

    I might - no, I will! - describe Leskov's innovation as adapting the colloquial and folklorish to modern magazine writing.

    I think I will switch over to Chekhov on Friday. Chekhov must have read Leskov with great interest and understanding. That bit of "The Duel" is a scream.

  10. Thanks for this post. WONDERFUL!!!

    Currently, I'm reading "Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk District," and I must say, so far it feels like I'm reading "commercial fiction." While it's fun to read, the sheer narrative technique, compared to, say, a Tolstoy or a Dostoevsky, is simply not there. Chekhov is even more introspective than Leskov. It's a little disappointing.

    I'm a short story writer, and I'm always interested in finding stories that deal with the human condition - so I'm looking to see HOW those authors actually WRITE IT OUT, what does it look like in PARAGRAPH FORM.

    It's one thing to say I want to write a story about a wealthy man's outlook on death, and it's another to actually put into what we now know as the Death of Ivan Ilych.

    So while Leskov is no Tolstoy, it does feel rather swashbuckling. And I am still getting some fun and enjoyment out it. I could certainly do worse.


  11. Commercial fiction - that's right. Leskov wrote top-class magazine fiction for his time. But as a stylist or thinker, he was nowhere near Tolstoy. Perhaps he got close in inventive power, pure imagination.