Thursday, September 8, 2011

The story is worth telling - new Leskov translations in The Hudson Review

A couple of Nikolai Leskov stories are featured in the Summer 2011 issue of The Hudson Review, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  The stories are early signs of a fat Leskov collection that P&V are assembling, due who knows when.  It will, of course, include redundant versions of “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” and The Enchanted Wanderer and the bizarre faux folk tale “The Steel Flea,” but it should also have new, or at least rare, stories.  Once the book is available, we can also expect to enjoy more of Richard Pevear’s usual misplaced contempt for other translators.

The two stories in The Hudson Review are of a different character than the standard Leskov classics I looked at yesterday.  They are anecdotes, really, stretched and decorated and adapted to the standards of magazine fiction.  They are cousins of the stories of contemporaries like Maupassant and the young Chekhov, compact, light, set in a recognizable, nominally “realistic” world.

“The Pearl Necklace” (1885) does have a curious introduction, in which Leskov and his friends briefly discuss the “perceived impoverishment of literature” caused by “the multiplication of railroads,” which leads them to the praise of Dickens, and to a criticism of the monotonous, formulaic nature of his Christmas stories.  A Christmas story follows, presented as a perfect example of the form, a twist-ending piece about a father who is skeptical of his daughters’ choices of husbands.  The necklace in the title is his questionable wedding and New Year’s gift to his youngest daughter:

He deserved to be reprimanded for the gift of pearls, because pearls signify and foretell tears.  And therefore pearls are never used as New Year’s gifts.
However, Nikolai Ivanovich deftly laughed it off.  (227)

That’s the loving husband; his reaction is the moral of the story, embedded in the middle.  Marry for love, don’t worry too much about money, tread lightly in the world, laugh off worry.  “The Pearl Necklace” presents a light and active model for his great theme of humility and resignation to the cares of the world.

“A Flaming Patriot” (1881) is surprising for its setting (Vienna) and its guest star:

Franz Joseph took the mug in his hand but didn’t drink from it; while the dance lasted, he went on holding it in his hand, but when the czardas was finished, the emperor silently held out his mug to his neighbor.  The man understood at once what he must do: he clinked with his sovereign and, immediately turning to his other neighbor, exchanged clinks with him.  Thereupon, as many people as were there, they all stood up, all clinked with each other, and breathed out over the whole lawn a concerted unanimous “Hoch!”  This “hoch” is not shouted loudly and boomingly there, but like a good, heartfelt sigh.

The emperor drained his mug in one breath, bowed, and left. (237)

I typed this out because I like it, and because the story is actually about a group of Russians who witness the scene and disagree about its meaning.  It’s not a big story, but “[t]he story is worth telling,” Leskov declares.  Worth reading, too.


  1. a fat Leskov collection that P&V are assembling

    Sweet! And doubly so, because now I don't have to feel guilty about not reading Leskov for a while yet.

  2. Not long ago I did my first venture into secondary Russian Czarist writers-I read comic short stories by Ivan Krylov and Mikhail Saltykov-I enjoyed them both a lot-my understanding that in 19th century Russian the fables and stories of Krylov were, next to the bible, the best selling books. Frank O'Conner in his study of the short story mentions "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" several times as one of the best short stories ever written.

  3. P&V's book will have more Leskov than anyone else, which I guess is good. Pevear mentions the difficulties of translating Leskov's speech, his inventive folk talk, but there's not a hint of that in these two stories.

    O'Connor's opinion is plausible, although he may also be pushing back on the short story norms of his time. "Lady Macbeth" is not written like a well-made story of 1962, which to O'Connor is probably part of the attraction.

  4. Thank you for this and previous Leskov posts, Tom! I wonder whether Pevear and Volokhonsky should be allowed anywhere near Leskov's prose? I was reading their translation of Dostoevsky's 'Notes from Underground' yesterday and noticed, with horror, that they had completely undone the wonderful rhythm of the first three sentences by stripping the third of its verb. Right after this, they translated the narrator's tirade beginning thus, 'I know nothing about', as 'I don't know a fig about...' - yet surely in English we [don't] 'give' or 'care' a fig, rather than 'know'? One sighs for Hugh Aplin or Robert Chandler's ultra-precise work, or even for Constance Garnett!

  5. Russian Dinosaur - first, thanks for visiting. Second - ouch! That bit of P&V you quote is painful. I suppose it is part of their artificial "make it strange" agenda. And to the extent that Leskov is full of colloquialisms, that's just where P&V might make their oddest decisions.

    The translations in The Hudson Review seemed good - clean, regular English - but I suspect that those particular stories were built out of unusually clean, straightforward Russian.