Leskov’s Enchanted Wanderer.

I’ve finished another of Leskov‘s most famous works, the novella Очарованный странник (The Enchanted Wanderer), and I’m having confused thoughts about my reactions to his writing that I’ll try to clarify here.

There’s no question that he’s a wonderful writer, and I enjoy his sentences and paragraphs enormously, especially when he’s in his skaz (oral-style narrative) mode. So why do I sometimes get irritated and reluctant to continue? At first I thought maybe he was just not good at telling continuous stories as opposed to strings of anecdotes, as in Смех и горе (Laughter and Grief; see this post), but then I remembered that he had done a fine job of that in Запечатленный ангел (The Sealed Angel; see this post) and in the first part of Некуда (Nekuda, conventionally translated No Way Out; see this post) — the reason I had given up on that was its turn to a tedious plot involving radicals, not a failure of storytelling per se. However, I did recently give up on Соборяне (The Cathedral Folk; see this post) precisely because it began to seem like one damn thing after another, and it was considerably longer than Laughter and Grief. The same is true of The Enchanted Wanderer, but it was shorter, so I was able to finish reading it.

I learn from the relevant Wikipedia article that my complaint is by no means original; in 1895, Mikhailovsky wrote: “In terms of fabula richness it might have been Leskov’s most significant work, but total lack of focus is more than obvious so there is no fabula as such, rather a set of fabulas, strung together, so that any bead could be removed and replaced by another, and any number of other beads could be put onto the same string.” My question is: if he was able to tell a coherent story when he wanted, why did he sometimes settle for the string-of-anecdotes pattern? Maybe that’s what he liked himself, or maybe he was just lazy. In any case, The Enchanted Wanderer has a lot of good stories; just don’t expect any coherence. As with Laughter and Grief, it’s a guy telling some other guys “Here’s how my life has brought me to where I am today.” If you’re looking for shapeliness, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Comments

  1. Leskov is storyteller. A lot of nested stories in Pelevin’s writings.

  2. I put Church folks down as well, somehow it became a drag. Might pick it up again later, the characters are very compelling. Strange, how similar things sometimes work and sometimes don’t. Gogol’s Dead souls is also an anecdote expanded to the novel length and also is character driven and it works. Maybe Leskov should have stuck to writing short and midsize stories…

  3. Yes, I subscribe to everything D.O. said. I loved the characters and would like to hear more about them, but I felt no impulse to keep reading. I’ll keep thinking about why that is, but I’m glad somebody else feels the same way!

  4. Mudbringer says:

    I think it’s definitely worth slogging through the rough parts. It’s a shame Termosesov has to hijack the midpart of the novel but once he’s gone the rest is (mostly) wonderful. If it seems impossible to keep going, you could skip ahead to ch 17 of part 3 and read from there.

  5. Thanks, that’s useful information!

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