THE first sentence of the inside cover sleeves boldly declares: “Nikolai Leskov is the greatest Russian writer most of us have never heard of.
The Enchanted Wanderer & Other Stories
by Nikolai Leskov
Dedalus, 292pp, £15
But without Leskov there would have been no Bulgakov, no Chekhov – his stories exploded the traditions of nineteenth century fiction.”
The first claim is defensible, though one may also dispute it; the second, more dubious. Chekhov, especially, would surely have been Chekhov, and written as he did, if Leskov had never existed or written a word.
It is always tempting, and easy, to exaggerate the influence of one writer on another. Nevertheless the young Chekhov called Leskov “my favourite writer”, though in his maturity he would never revere him as he revered Tolstoy.
Leskov himself, intensely Russian as he was, admired and confessed a debt to Laurence Sterne, and near the end of his life he wrote that he had written a story in a whimsical manner, like the narrations of Hoffmann and Sterne, with digressions and ricochets”. The phrase “digressions and ricochets” is a good one, applicable to much of his work. His narratives bounce about, apparently in haphazard or inconsequential fashion.
Leskov was a working journalist for most of his adult life. He acquired a varied experience of his huge country as a young man when he travelled “from the Black Sea to the White, and from Brod to Krasny Var”, acting as a business agent for his uncle by marriage, Alexander Scott,” who belonged to one of the many Scottish emigrant families to have settled and in many cases made their fortune in Tsarist Russia.
“These travels”, according to the admirable editors and translators of this collection, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, “gave him a great store of impressions that he drew upon all his life”.
There is always a strong journalistic, or reporting, quality to his stories; he himself said he had little power of fantasy – even though the stories themselves are often fantastical. He had little capacity for construction either. Even when there appears to be a nice twist in the conclusion, you feel it is arbitrary, and that most of the stories might have been extended endlessly, if the author had chosen to go on. Everything seems dashed off, unplanned, spontaneous.
His Russia is a land that is both familiar – from reading of Gogol especially, or indeed Maxim Gorky, who is to some extent Leskov’s heir – and utterly foreign. It is difficult to remember when reading of his priests and monks and shamans, his peasants and policemen, his merchants and local magistrates that Leskov, born in 1831, was ten years younger than Flaubert, experience of Russian and French provincial life being so utterly different.
Nineteenth-century Russia gave us some of the greatest of all literary fiction; and yet provincial Russia was backward and, to western Europeans, utterly bizarre. This is the world of Leskov’s rambling and yet engrossing stories. They portray a society which on the one hand seems unchanging even while it was experiencing profound social and political upheavals, notably the consequences of the abolition of serfdom by the Tsar Alexander II in 1861.
The manner is beguiling. Take, for instance, the opening of the story, “Deathless Golovan”, which has as its epigraph, the assurance of the Gospel according to St John that “Perfect love casteth out fear”: “He himself is almost a myth, and his story a legend. To tell about him, one should be French, because only the people of that nation manage to explain to others what they don’t understand themselves”. This is splendid and the story unfolds in a manner that is not at all French. Golovan is seen as “a special man, a man who did not fear death. How could such an opinion of him have been formed among people who walk under God and are always mindful of mortality…” How indeed? And how can people with such an awareness of the divine and the mortal commit the crimes that people these pages? There are of course those here who believe that the great sinner is closer to God than the self-righteous man.
Leskov, the editors say, is a writer who “keeps on being discovered”. This is pertinent observation.
There are other such writers and they are usually those who intrigue but don’t quite satisfy. So succeeding generations – or rather individuals in succeeding generations – discover them, delight in them, praise them … and discard them.
They never quite become part of the canon – though they are always just about to do so. This seems to have been Leskov’s fate, in his own time and subsequently: he is a nearly man, like those sportsmen who are acclaimed as the best of their time not to win a major championship.
Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in these stories, and anyone interested in the last decades of Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution will be happy to be led into its vast expanses and depths by such an intelligent and always interested guide.