So the Story Goes

2024-06-17 13:03:371794
Yelena Furman , January 11, 2021

So the Story Goes

On the colloquial tales of Nikolai Leskov Portrait of Nikolai Leskov by Valentin Serov (1894). | Wikimedia
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Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Selected Stories of Nikolai Leskov, translated by Donald Rayfield, Robert Chandler, and William Edgerton. NYRB Classics, 448 pages.

As a professor of mine in graduate school used to say, there is more to Russian literature than Tolstoevsky, a witticism borne out of frustration with American readers’ familiarity with just two writers at the expense of a vast and varied body of works. You can add Chekhov, Turgenev, Pushkin, and several twentieth-century names to the list of Russian writers read by English speakers. To a large degree, this paucity is not surprising: the availability of English translations depends on a combination of financial factors and publishers’ preferences, which tend toward known entities. The field of English-language translation constitutes a kind of canon of its own.  

So the Story Goes

In the twenty-first century, when notions of canon formation have undergone significant expansion, the translation of Russian works in the United States has begun to reflect this shift. As the Russian Library at Columbia University Press states on its website, it publishes “works previously unavailable in English and those ripe for new translations.” Archipelago Books, Deep Vellum, and Ugly Duckling Presse have brought out translations of several notable contemporary Russian writers. Now, NYRB Classics has published Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Selected Stories of Nikolai Leskov(translated primarily by Donald Rayfield, along with pieces by Robert Chandler and William Edgerton), bringing together previously and newly translated works by a writer whose “absence from classic Russian literature lists must end now!” as the blurb by Gary Shteyngart exhorts. (Presumably he means in the United States, since Leskov is known in Russia, although secondarily to the nineteenth-century giants.) Rayfield recently spoke about his work on the volume for Read Russia’s Russian Literature Week.

Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895) had a tumultuous personal life and, in a related development, was a bilious human being. As Rayfield notes in his introduction, his father died when Leskov was a teenager, after which he was pawned off on relatives who did not want him. During his marriage, his wife “suffered from psychotic episodes” which Leskov “probably exacerbated,” and she lived out her days in a mental institution. Due to subsequent relationships that went awry, including one with his servant, he at a certain point “became the sole charge of four children by three different women.” Leskov did not care for most of these children and treated all of them badly; it is not difficult to see his own lack of familial love informing his parenting approach. He was also rather odd: in what has to be one of the strangest details of someone’s life, Leskov once “poured salad oil over Chekhov’s head, telling him ‘I anoint you as Samuel anointed David’” (regrettably, Chekhov’s reaction is not recorded). In this way, he is one of several Russian examples, including the gambling anti-Semite Dostoevsky and the overbearing fanatic Tolstoy, of highly unpleasant individuals who were extraordinarily gifted writers. 

The field of English-language translation constitutes a kind of canon of its own. 

Leskov wrote in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the age of Realism, in which the novel was the preferred genre as writers grappled with the “accursed questions” about the direction of Russian society. Though he, too, wrote novels, Leskov is best known for his shorter works, such as “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and “The Steel Flea.” As Rayfield points out, Leskov’s fame and critical reputation vacillated during different historical periods. In a nineteenth-century Russian society split between conservatives and radicals, he angered both, neither supporting the revolutionaries nor shying away from criticizing the government and other social institutions. His sustained focus on religious themes did not endear him to the Bolsheviks. Later, Shostakovich wrote an opera based on “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” which “Stalin famously walked out of” due to its “dissonant modernism.” Leskov’s work reappeared in the Soviet Union after Stalin died. There are Soviet film adaptations of Shostakovich’s opera and Leskov’s text.

Given its subject matter of passion and murder, it is not surprising that “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” has been taken up by other artists. In the page-turning style of detective fiction, it recounts the deadly consequences of an affair between Katerina Lvovna, a merchant’s unhappily married wife, and the handsome womanizer Sergey, a worker in their household. Leskov was no feminist, but this text, unlike the majority of those by other Russian nineteenth-century male writers, features a strong female protagonist, even if her strength manifests in highly dubious ways. Stuck in a loveless marriage to an older man with whom she is unable to get pregnant, Katerina Lvovna suffers from a “Russian boredom, the boredom of a merchant house, a boredom so profound that, as people say, it makes even the thought of hanging yourself seem like fun.” With her husband away, she and Sergey begin an affair, the intense sexual nature of which differentiates her from the virginal young women who populate the works of Leskov’s contemporaries. Their coupling is depicted openly throughout the text, including in an extended scene where lush nature descriptions accentuate the sensuality: “Splashing in and out of the moonlight, rolling about on the soft carpet, Katerina Lvovna was frolicking with her husband’s young steward. Fresh white blossoms from the curly-headed apple tree rained down on them.”

This sensuality, however, is inextricable from destruction. Her father-in-law’s discovery of the liaison triggers a chain of events that leads to multiple gruesome deaths, engineered by Katerina Lvovna with help from Sergey. Their relationship is a grotesque variation on the strong woman-weak man pairing that is a staple of nineteenth-century Russian literature (as in Turgenev’s novels and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin). While Sergey initiates their affair, she is of a higher class than her lover and is the one who elevates him to a privileged position in her household. And crucially, though he actively participates in murder, Katerina Lvovna is the driving force, and on one occasion the sole instigator, of the killings, making her a more hands-on murderer than the Shakespearean prototype after whom the townspeople jokingly name her.

The aftermath of their passion and violence plays out as Katerina Lvovna and Sergey march chained to other convicts to a Siberian penal colony following the discovery of the murders. In the last few chapters, the landscape changes drastically: images of lovers cavorting under moonlit trees are replaced by “[a] joyless picture: a handful of people, torn from the world and deprived of any last shadow of hope, sinking into the cold black mud of a dirt road.” Among this desolation, their relationship goes brutally awry, with Sergey’s hatred and Katerina’s desperation and need for revenge building up to the powerful conclusion. This depiction of convicts predates the more famous one in the epilogue in Crime and Punishment(1866), and as Rayfield notes, unlike Dostoevsky, “Leskov allows [Katerina] no redemption.” Yet despite the heavy subject matter, the narrator’s tone is often humorous, signaled from the beginning in the piece’s title, which combines high English culture with a backwater Russian town, transposing Shakespearean grandeur and tragedy to the worlds of provincial merchants and criminals.

Leskov’s humor is on display in another well-known piece, “The Steel Flea,” which recounts the (mis)adventures of “cross-eyed Lefty,” a gunsmith from Tula, who becomes the unlikely savior of Russia’s national pride. On a visit to England, Czar Alexander I is awed by a wound-up dancing “nymphusoria” (the titular steel flea) so small that it requires a “nitroscope” to see it, but his traveling companion, the ultra-patriotic Cossack Platov, insists that Russians can do better. After Alexander’s death, Platov is dispatched by the new czar to Tula in order to find craftspeople to prove the Russians’ superiority. As a result, the talented Lefty’s life takes a radically different turn.

The word “Tale” in the piece’s subtitle, which is the translation of Skaz, harks to a mode of narration associated with Leskov. Related to the noun “story” and the verb “to say,” skazas a literary device refers to a particular narrative technique focused on orality. As Rayfield writes, in traveling extensively throughout Russia while working for his English uncle who ran a company there, Leskov became “exposed to Russia’s peasantry and ethnic minorities, their customs, religions, and languages, as no other writer was.” His works feature an array of characters and narrators whose stylized speech patterns, dialects, etc. are woven into the text. This way of writing is difficult to convey in translation, and William Edgerton does an admirable job, in a 1969 translation that holds up well, approximating the various speech mannerisms, e.g., Lefty’s “Why, sure, I’ll go like this and I’ll answer” and the narrator’s “two-sitter” and “Apollo Velvet Ear.” The oral quality of Leskov’s writing is noted by Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov” (translated by Tess Lewis). Benjamin maintains that the oral storyteller tradition—“Experience that is passed from one mouth to the next”—has been destroyed by the rise of the novel, and takes Leskov as a rare representative of this tradition in literature. The device is not always used effectively. In “The Enchanted Wanderer,” where a monk relates his experiences to the other passengers on a ship, Leskov’s technique of having the listeners continually pose clarifying questions such as “What was that thing, if I may ask?” feels hackneyed and grating, turning characters into a mere sounding board to the protagonist’s story.

The unresolved interplay between recorded events and other possible versions of the protagonists’ lives mirrors the process of writing.

On a thematic level, “The Steel Flea” reflects Leskov’s general tendencies, including his tolerance for foreigners, specifically the English, in contrast to several other Russian writers’ views of Westerners as Others. In this story, part of the humor comes instead from its gentle ribbing of Russians. In London, where the czar sends him to show off the steel flea improvements, Lefty is unable to communicate in English, so “he just tapped on the table with his finger and pointed to his mouth,” after which he refuses to eat anything unfamiliar. When his English hosts suggest that, as a craftsperson, he would benefit from knowing simple arithmetic, he maintains that Russians “didn’t get very far in book learning, but only faithfully serve our fatherland.” Ironically, it is precisely his being Russian and returning home that ultimately dictates a negative turn of events. Lefty makes a drinking bet with a friendly Englishman on the trip back to Russia; while both arrive equally drunk, the treatment each receives because of his nationality is such that, as the narrator wryly observes, “their destinies became very different.”

As signaled by the mix of historical figures with fictional characters, the story also showcases Leskov’s technique of blurring fact and fiction. The narrator remarks that even though “Lefty’s real name” is unknown, “he is interesting as the embodiment of a myth in the popular imagination, and his adventures can serve to remind us of an epoch whose general spirit has been portrayed here clearly and accurately.” The assertion of accuracy coupled with the idea of being turned into a myth is a tongue-in-cheek undercutting of the distinction between them—a suggestion that creatively reimagining the world is the way human beings apprehend and engage with it. This theme also appears in “The Unmercenary Engineers,” where a fictionalized Leskov explains in the foreword that this story is the rendition of “oral accounts” he heard “in which not everything perhaps is true and a few things are definitely untrue; but this fact does not prevent them from being significant.” The unresolved interplay between recorded events and other possible versions of the protagonists’ lives mirrors the process of writing, whereby writers produce compelling stories by subjectively interpreting the material at hand.

Religion was another of Leskov’s preoccupations; it connects several of the pieces in the Selected Stories. Along with “The Enchanted Wanderer,” telling of how a former “horse expert” joined a monastery, there is “The Sealed Angel,” which despite its subject matter reads like an adventure story. The latter tells of the attempt by Old Believers, with help from their English boss, to retrieve their most precious icon of an angel, as well as the lesson the icon teaches them about their “true path.” (The rather unexpected ending, which undercuts the overall tenor of the story, was according to Rayfield mandated by “conservative editors.”) “The Unmercenary Engineers” is, as the subtitle indicates, a story of “Three Righteous Men,” who find themselves unable to exist alongside corrupt and morally bankrupt human beings. And “The Innocent Prudentius” is a tale of religious piety triumphing over a worldly existence; while morally predictable, the piece is interesting for its setting in antiquity on the Mediterranean and for a strong, albeit two-dimensional, female character.

Some aspects of Leskov are less than palatable today. His portrayal of Tatars in “The Enchanted Wanderer” reflects a nineteenth-century Russian colonial attitude toward Muslims. His depiction of Jews, while not rising to the level of anti-Semitism, still relies on cultural stereotypes. And the abundance of texts with religious themes can feel overwrought to modern readers. Yet Leskov tells compelling, linguistically lively, often humorous stories, and his “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” is a Russian literature standout in its raw picture of the underside of sexual passion. Thanks to the translators of the Selected Stories of Nikolai Leskov, he can perhaps now join some of his better-known compatriots in the minds, and on the bookshelves, of English-speaking readers.