Search Results for: Leskov

Leskov’s Remise.

I’ve written about Nikolai Leskov frequently (e.g. The Sealed Angel, The Enchanted Wanderer), and now I’ve read the last of his major works, Заячий ремиз, written in 1894 but not published until 1917. Leskov sent it around to journals with a cover letter saying it dealt with some touchy issues but they were well disguised by madness and Ukrainian hijinks so it should pass the censors, but the 1890s were one of the more repressive periods in tsarist Russia, so nobody was willing to try to print it, and it languished in his drawer. Finally, over two decades after his death and after the February Revolution removed essentially all censorship, the magazine Niva published it in its September 16 issue. (Happily, that volume is online, and you can see the story’s original publication here.) You will notice I haven’t translated the title, and there’s a reason for that: it’s essentially untranslatable, because nobody knows what it means. It’s been translated as The Hare Park, The March Hare, The Rabbit Warren, and even The Rabbit Carriage, although ремиз does not mean ‘carriage’ in any variety of Russian (it normally means a penalty in a card game, but it can also mean ‘a place where wild animals live and breed’), so that seems to me a particularly silly suggestion, despite the arguments in its favor by Sperrle — see my discussion with Erik McDonald of XIX век here. As I wrote at the end of that thread:

You know, actually I think using “Remise” is brilliant — it restores the sense of mystery and avoids having to pin down the sense of the word. If I didn’t believe in entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem (does the world really need yet another title for a fairly obscure Leskov story?), I’d go for it in a heartbeat. I might even overcome my purist urges regarding “rabbit” vs. “hare” because “The Rabbit Remise” sounds so great.

(There is a rare English remise meaning ‘coach house’; see this LH post.) Leskov had originally used the title for a different story, so there needn’t be any close connection with this one — he said he wanted something “sharp but unintelligible” (“то резким, то как будто мало понятным”). As for the plot, I’ll let Prince Mirsky describe it:
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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.

Leskov’s Sealed Angel.

Having advanced to the year 1873, I’ve read Nikolai Leskov‘s famous novella Запечатленный ангел (The Sealed Angel), and I have a question and a complaint. The question is a simple one, addressed to my Russian-speaking readers: how do you pronounce the word запечатленный? I had always assumed it was запечатлённый [zapechat-LYON-ny], as in the Wiktionary entry, but when I looked at the Wikipedia articles I linked to the titles above, I saw that they claimed it was запеча́тленный [zape-CHAT-lenny], the Russian one explaining that it was from the verb запеча́тывать, which as far as I can see doesn’t work morphologically (“В названии повести обыгрывается многозначность слова «запечатленный», причем основное значение — производная от «запеча́тывать» — накладывать печать”). Huh, I thought. And then I found this audio version, where the reader says запечатле́нный [zapechat-LEN-ny]. So which is it?

The complaint has to do with the ending. (Warning: spoilers!) Up till then, the story is great: the narrator tells a group of travelers at an inn his tale of a group of Old Believer traveling workmen he belonged to. When their revered icon of an angel was confiscated by officials and sealed with wax while they were building a bridge (apparently in Kiev in the early 1850s), they hatched a plan to replace it with a copy. It’s a gripping account told in a wonderful skaz style, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But then at the end an apparent miracle causes the leader of the group, and then all the rest, to give up their heresy and join the established church. It’s exactly like all those unconvincing endings where criminals go straight or (to use a Soviet example) when former Mensheviks, SRs, or other heretics see the light and join the Bolsheviks. The English Wikipedia article says: “The story’s finale, where the Old Believers’ community all of a sudden return to Orthodoxy, was criticized as being unnatural. Ten years later Leskov conceded that, while the story itself was mostly based on real facts, the end of it was made up.” The problem isn’t in the conversion per se but in the fact that it was so obviously required by both official tsarist censorship and the sensibility of the reading public of the day, and thus wasn’t artistically motivated but tacked on dutifully. I highly recommend the story, with the caveat that the ending is a letdown.

Leskov’s Laughter and Grief.

Leskov’s 1871 Смех и горе (Laughter and Grief, not translated into English as far as I know) is a short novel, around 200 pages, and it shouldn’t have taken me a month to read it, but I had very mixed feelings about it and kept putting it aside. It didn’t repel me enough to reject it entirely, like the later parts of Nekuda (see this post), but it didn’t grip me either. Gabriella Safran describes it as “a series of tales united only by the narrator’s thesis that Russian life is full of unpleasant surprises,” and that’s pretty much what it is. So there’s not much of a plot line to keep you hooked, but most of the tales are enjoyable enough you want to read more of them. Since I did end up finishing it, I figure I’ll provide a public service by summarizing it so people can get a better idea of what it’s like.

It starts on a brisk March evening in Petersburg; the narrator, his uncle Orest Vatazhkov, and a couple of acquaintances have come from the Palm Sunday fair (вербный базар) where people buy gifts for the holiday, and they are discussing the meaning of such presents. Orest, an old bachelor, says the only presents children get should be whippings to prepare them for adult life, and offers to tell a “potpourri” of tales to illustrate his point. Most of the rest of the book consists of his narration; there are 92 chapters, which can be divided into various sections, and I’ll give a brief description of these, with chapter numbers in parentheses. Basically, the first half consists of random events, which I’ll present in some detail; the second half, set in Orest’s home village, is a tangled tale of corruption and stupidity that I’ll describe more briefly.
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Leskov’s Nekuda.

I remember those halcyon days (was it really only a few weeks ago?) when I picked up Leskov’s first novel, Некуда [Nekuda, conventionally translated No Way Out, although the novel itself has never been translated; the Russian word is rather ‘nowhere (to go),’ but you can’t make a good title out of that]. I knew it had been highly controversial when it was published in 1864, and its 700 pages were theoretically somewhat daunting, but I’d liked everything of Leskov’s I’d read, and I was eager to give it a go.

Then I started it, and within a couple of chapters I was bowled over and expecting great things. I had the vague idea it was about radical politics, but Leskov immediately introduces the reader to two young women, Lizaveta (Liza) Bákhareva and Evgenia (Zhenni) Glovátskaya, who have been best friends at boarding school and are now returning to their home town, a provincial city in the Black Earth region, doubtless not all that far from Leskov’s own Oryol Gubernia. Zhenni is a tall, raven-haired beauty of a quiet, peaceable disposition; Liza is shorter and fierier, eager to read, learn, and think for herself. On the way home they stop at the convent where Liza’s aunt is abbess; as Anna Bakhareva she had been a famous beauty who had once danced with Emperor Alexander I, but she had plighted her troth to a young man who was exiled to Siberia (implicitly in connection with the Decembrist revolt) and sent her a note asking her to forget him, upon which she joined the convent and became Mother Agnia. While capable of stern piety and aristocratic hauteur, she is good-hearted and supportive at every turn of Liza’s independence. At night, the girls have a talk with young Sister Feoktista, who tells them how she became a nun: she had made a love match and was happily pregnant when she had a craving for a kind of fish stew and insisted her husband bring her some, whereupon he fell through the ice on the river and drowned, his family (who’d never liked her) threw her out, and she took the veil. When they get to their respective homes, the girls settle into their family lives again, Zhenni easily and Liza unhappily — her family loves her but doesn’t understand her, and her mother uses fainting spells to get her way. Eventually they try to marry her off to an oaf in uniform, whereupon she flees to Zhenni, and after the intervention of Mother Agnia her father agrees to let her be and to order her all the magazines and books she wants.
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Early Shishkin.

In my readthrough of Russian literature, I’ve come to another author I’ve been anticipating for years, Mikhail Shishkin. I’ve now read the first three things he published, and while I’m very much looking forward to more, he’s certainly a stranger writer than I suspected.

His first published story was “Урок каллиграфии” («Знамя», Jan. 1993), translated by the wonderful Marian Schwartz as “Calligraphy Lesson” (it’s available in this collection); it made quite a splash, winning the Debut Prize for 1993, and I can see why — in only a couple of dozen pages it presents an entire world of experience and imagery. The protagonist, Evgeny Aleksandrovich, is a court clerk who describes the appalling cases he’s recorded (and, in the end, participated in) to a succession of women who are present only in brief exchanges, prompting him to further revelations, but the realia of the story are (in good modernist fashion) subordinated to the way of the telling, as you can see from the opening paragraph (Schwartz’s translation):

The capital letter, Sofia Pavlovna, is the beginning of all beginnings, so let us begin with that. It’s like a first breath, a newborn’s cry, you might say. Just a moment ago there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. A void. And for another hundred or thousand years there might still have been nothing, but suddenly this pen, submitting to an impossibly higher will, is tracing a capital letter, and now there’s no stopping it. Being the pen’s first movement toward the period as well, it is a sign of both the hope and the absurdity of what is. Simultaneously. The first letter, like an embryo, conceals all life to come, to the very end—its spirit, its rhythm, its force, and its image.

Заглавная буква, Софья Павловна, есть начало всех начал, так что с нее и начнем. Если хотите, это все равно что первое дыханье, крик новорожденного. Еще только что ничего не было, абсолютно ничего, пустота, и еще сто, тысячу лет могло бы ничего не быть, но вот перо, подчиняясь недоступной ему высшей воле, вдруг выводит заглавную букву и остановиться уже не может. Являясь одновременно первым движением пера к точке, это есть знак и надежды и бессмыслицы сущего. В первой букве, как в эмбрионе, затаена вся последующая жизнь до самого конца — и дух, и ритм, и напор, и образ.

This establishes the primacy of writing over everything else, which is a constant theme with Shishkin. Another thing to note is the name Sofia Pavlovna, which happens to be that of the female lead in Griboedov’s immortal play Горе от ума (Woe from Wit); as it turns out, there’s no happenstance about it, because the other named women are Tatyana Dmitrievna (from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin), Nastasya Filippovna (from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot), Anna Arkadievna (the heroine of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina), and Larochka (presumably Zhivago’s Lara). This sort of thing will either send readers running for the hills or enchant them; I am in the latter camp. Shishkin has said that this story contains the germ of everything he has written since, and I believe it.
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Aksyonov’s Search for a Genre.

I’ve just finished Aksyonov’s В поисках жанра [In search of a genre], which Mark Lipovetsky and Eliot Borenstein in Russian Postmodernist Fiction: Dialogue with Chaos call “a kind of sequel to ‘Barrelware'” (see my Surplussed Barrelware post); as they say, though, it’s a sequel in a much darker key: “In the beginning, Durov, who has spent the night at the highway patrol station, intrudes upon the quiet discussion of the ghostly victims of car crashes, and in the end, Durov, who has been killed by an avalanche, awakens in the Valley of Miracles. […] utopian motifs appear only and without exception in relation to death.” It’s neither as cheerful nor as coherent as the earlier book (it reminded me of Leskov’s adventure-on-the-road books like Смех и горе [Laughter and Grief]), but it’s a good read, and has some bits well suited for quoting here:

So Mamanya [an elderly woman who has hitched a ride with Durov] was usually muttering some nonsense to herself […]. Mamanya loved words. She didn’t admit this secret even to herself. In her youth she almost cried thinking of how enormous was the beautiful world of words and how little of this world was given to her. These days she sometimes surprised her relatives by turning on the Spidola and sitting and listening to any old foreign gibberish, looking as if she understood. Naturally Mamanya didn’t understand a damn thing, she was just feeling joy at how enormous the world of words was. My, how they do chatter: esperanza, verboten, multo, opinion… the individual words flew from the radio to Mamanya and joyously astonished her.

Так Маманя обычно бормотала себе под нос какую-нибудь несуразицу […]. Маманя любила слова. В этой тайне она и сама себе не признавалась. В молодости, бывало, чуть ли не плакала, когда думала о том, как огромен красивый мир слов и как мало ей из этого мира дано. В нынешние времена родичи порой удивлялись: включит Маманя «Спидолу», сидит и слушает любую иностранную тарабарщину, и лицо у нее такое, будто понимает. Никакого беса Маманя, конечно, не понимала, ее только радовала огромность мира слов. Экось балакают: эсперанца, ферботен, мульто, опинион… — отдельные слова долетали из радио до Мамани и радостно изумляли ее.

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Eighteen Years of Languagehat.

You know, this blog has always been a comfort to me, first when I was working for Hideous Soulless Corporation and then when I had left the familiar environs of New York City and was trying to establish myself as a freelancer, but in these pestiferous times it’s more important to me than ever. I hardly see anyone but my wife from week to week, but I have all you good folks to keep me company and carry on lively conversations (many of which I can only understand scraps of, but that’s good for me). It no longer seems quite so amazing LH is still around — one does get accustomed to things — but it’s even harder to imagine giving it up. My deepest appreciation to all of you; thanks for hanging around and chatting so companionably!

A quick update on my literary adventures: I had been reading Tessa Hadley novels to my wife at night (I particularly recommend The Past), but we’re taking a break to read something both of us, George Eliot fans that we are, have been wanting to try, Daniel Deronda. So far it’s a delight (and reminds me of Russian novels set in German spas where gamblers congregate). In Russian, I read a bunch of Andrei Bitov stories (recommended: «Большой шар” [The big balloon], about a little girl who falls in love with a big red balloon, and «Инфантьев» [Infantyev], about a guy mourning his wife); then I went back to the 19th century and read Chekhov’s famous «Палата № 6» (“Ward No. 6”), which is very good indeed, and Leskov’s 1893 «Загон» (The cattle pen), which is frustrating in the same way so much Leskov is frustrating: the writing is excellent, the individual anecdotes are often hilarious, but the thing doesn’t hang together. Leskov had no sense of form — it starts with stories of Russian peasants refusing to accept Western improvements in farming and ends with stories about thievery, fakery, and Baltic churches, all supposed to be somehow connected with the idea of Russia as a cattle pen walled off from the world. Now I’m going to return to the 20th century and read my first Trifonov, the 1969 «Обмен» [The Exchange].
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Chekhov and Bunin.

In my reading of Chekhov stories I’ve gotten up to Степь [The Steppe], a convenient divider between his early and later stories, and it seems like a good time to post about a couple of those early stories and things they made me think of. One of them is Перекати-поле [Tumbleweed, 1887], translated by Constance Garnett as “Uprooted.” It’s from Chekhov’s Gogolian/Leskovian period, when he wrote a good bit about religion and very little about women; here the narrator is at the Sviatogorsk Lavra in eastern Ukraine, named for the Holy Mountains (Святые горы) among which it was built, for the feast-days of John the Apostle and St. Nicholas the Wonder-worker, presumably May 8/21 and 9/22 (though Garnett’s footnote absurdly says of Nicholas “his day was December 6” — the story is clearly not set in winter, and Nicholas, like all major saints, had several feast-days). Because of the huge crowds, the monk in charge of sleeping quarters asks if he would mind letting a young man, “a short figure in a light overcoat and a straw hat,” share his room; he agrees, and the story is mostly about the interactions between the two. The young man turns out to be a converted Jew, and he tells his life story, from his difficult childhood (he loved learning and longed to read newspapers, but his parents wanted him “to know nothing but the Talmud” and he ran away from home) to his peripatetic life (“when my uncle tried to catch me in Shklov, I went off to Mogilev; there I stayed two days and then I went off to Starodub with a comrade… Later on he mentioned in his story Gomel, Kiev, Byelaya Tserkov, Uman, Balt, Bendery and at last reached Odessa”); now he’s passed his examination as a village schoolmaster: “In Novotcherkassk, where I was baptized, they took a great interest in me and promised me a place in a church parish school.” The narrator says, “Up to the time of my departure we strolled together about the Monastery, whiling away the long hot day. He never left my side a minute; whether he had taken a fancy to me or was afraid of solitude, God only knows!”

As I read, something was nagging at my mind, and it turned out to be one of Bunin’s earliest stories, Святые горы [Holy Mountains] (1895), which I read during my Bunin marathon last year (1, 2). Bunin’s narrator is also visiting the monastery, but his tale is entirely different: half the story is about his attempt to get there on foot, he interacts with no one except a Ukrainian peasant he asks for directions (and gets answers in Ukrainian: “Тодi чума на скот була, так казали, що там пробував такий монах, що знав замовляти…”), and when he arrives he walks past the cathedral and heads straight up the steep stairway to the top of the hill above the monastery, where he meditates on nature and history:

Меня тянуло туда, к меловым серым конусам, к месту той пещеры, где в трудах и молитве, простой и возвышенный духом, проводил свои дни первый человек этих гор, та великая душа, которая полюбила горный гребет над Малым Танаисом. Дико и глухо было тогда в первобытных лесах, куда пришел святой человек. Лес бесконечно синел под ним. Лес глушил берега, и только река, одинокая и свободная, плескала и плескала своими холодными волнами под его навесом. И какая тишина царила кругом!

I was drawn there, to the gray chalk cones, to the site of that cave where the first man of these hills, simple and elevated in spirit, passed his days in works and prayer, that great soul who fell in love with the mountain ridge above the Lesser Tanais [the Donets]. It was wild and deserted then in the primeval forests where the holy man came. The forest stretched out beneath him, dark blue and endless. It choked the shores, and only the river, lonely and free, lapped and lapped with its cold waves against the overhang. And what silence reigned all around!

At one point he says “все думал о старине, о той чудной власти, которая дана прошлому… Откуда она и что она значит?” [I kept thinking about olden times, of that wondrous power that is given to the past… Where is it from and what does it mean?]. It’s pure Bunin, and the contrast with Chekhov is characteristic: the older writer solitary and meditative, the younger social.

Though Chekhov could include philosophizing as well; in his Свирель [The Pipe], also from 1887, Meliton meets an old shepherd who keeps saying “Всё к одному клонится” [Everything’s heading the same way] and expands thus on his depressing thought (Garnett’s translation; in the Russian text, it’s the passage starting “— Не одни птицы, — сказал пастух” and ending “цветик ли какой, всё к одному клонится”):
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The Embezzlers.

I’ve finished Kataev’s Растратчики (The Embezzlers — see this post), and once again I’m reminded of the vast difference between knowing about something and actually experiencing that thing. I had known of the book for decades as a famous NEP novel, a satire of Soviet bureaucracy in which two bozos steal money and travel, and that indeed is what it is, but that tells you nothing about the experience of reading the book, any more than knowing someone is a hockey fan who works at a coffee shop tells you anything about what it’s like hanging out with them. It starts out pretty much the way you expect (chief accountant Filipp Stepanovich Prokhorov goes to work, the messenger Nikita mentions a spate of recent embezzlements, Filipp Stepanovich and the cashier Vanechka go to the bank to get cash for the payroll, and the suspicious Nikita follows them to make sure he gets paid before they take off with the money), but then it descends into a maelstrom of drunkenness and madness. Filipp Stepanovich and Vanechka wind up on a train to Leningrad with a pair of adventuresome women (when I read “Здрасте, – ответила Изабелла, – с Новым годом! К Ленинграду подъезжаем” [“Hello,” answered Isabella, “Happy New Year! We’re going to Leningrad”] I immediately thought of Ирония судьбы [The Irony of Fate]) and wind up being fleeced in an increasingly wild series of venues, culminating in a club where actors and actresses playing imperial personages in a film about the downfall of Nicholas II pretend to be their characters for paying customers — the kicker is that many of them actually were the generals and courtiers they’re playing, and were initially afraid to get involved but were seduced by the high pay. This part was reminiscent of Двенадцать стульев [The Twelve Chairs] minus Ostap Bender, and as soon as that occurred to me I remembered that Kataev was the brother of Petrov (real name Evgeny Kataev) of Ilf and Petrov, the authors of that greatest of Soviet satirical-picaresque novels.

After they finally extricate themselves from the clutches of Isabella and Leningrad, they wind up getting off another train at the provincial town of Kalinov because Vanechka remembers the town he grew up in is near there (there’s a lyrical patch of reminiscence straight out of “Oblomov’s Dream”); it’s cold and there’s no vodka to be had in Kalinov, but they find a cabman who’s willing to drive them to Vanechka’s house where he’s sure they’ll find plenty of moonshine, which they do. At this point it swerves into a more and more nightmarish version of Gogol (who is namechecked in chapter 9), with touches of Dostoevsky (Vanechka tries to hang himself); they skip town just ahead of the police and wind up on yet another train, getting off at Kharkov because a fellow traveler tells them they should buy tickets there for the Caucasus. However, they discover they have barely enough to get them back to Moscow (and the increasingly befuddled and miserable Filipp Stepanovich has to sell his fur coat even to manage that); by this point I was thinking of a more recent and more hellish novel of alcoholic train travel, Venedikt Erofeev’s Москва — Петушки [Moscow-Petushki]. They even return to Moscow via Kursk Station.

It’s not a perfect novel — it lurches from one chronotope and style to another in a somewhat undisciplined manner — but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. I’m currently reading Leskov’s famous Левша [The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea]; after that, who knows? Maybe more Strugatskys (I hear good things about За миллиард лет до конца света [Definitely Maybe]). As always, I follow my nose.