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.

He begins by describing his family’s return to Russia from Italy, where he spent his boyhood; they encounter at an inn a haughty general’s wife who orders a turkey and is forced to pay an exorbitant price (2-4); see, help, and laugh at an Armenian who has been shot through his huge nose (5), and wait at a station while the stationmaster refuses horses to all comers until a man in a bearskin coat beats him unmercifully (6-7). They visit his mother’s brother Semyon Odolensky, an embittered liberal of the 1820s; he receives them hospitably but puts them up in a side building and ignores them. When he finally visits them, he and the mother argue about a gilt Cupid she wants to give Orest. When he wakes up the next morning, he sees the Cupid hanging above his bed holding a birch rod, with which his uncle then beats him to teach him that “who expects joys for nothing will get nastiness.” When his mother finds out, she removes him to a pansion (a boarding school; 8-9).

Life at the pansion (10-17): Orest doesn’t go home for a year; he studies well but makes no friends. Everyone is anxious to go home for Easter week, but the students are not dismissed; an older student, Kalatuzov, proposes a daring plan which young Lokotkov agrees to carry out: to smoke up the place so they will have to be sent out. But it goes badly wrong, and Orest wakes up weeks later sick in bed, with his mother telling him he will never have to go back there. She takes him to another pansion in Moscow, where at 17 he prepares for the entrance exam for the university.

University life (18-33): Orest is a diligent freshman but meets the strange Leonid Postelnikov, who practically forces him to rent a room in his mother’s house and inveigles him into a life of drinking and womanizing. Finally Orest is arrested for possessing a forbidden book, Ryleev’s Dumy, which Postelnikov had lent him. It turns out Postelnikov is a police agent who needed to show he could catch criminals and thus had entrapped Orest, who spends ten days in jail, is expelled from the university, and then is put in a troika and taken to “our provincial city.” There his uncle greets him; after learning the whole story, he says he won’t let the matter rest but will go to Petersburg and try to see that he is allowed to enter another university.

Interlude (34): Orest is only briefly happy; he wakes up to find his mother dead. His uncle had played a “joke” on her by locking her out and intoning a prayer for the dying, and her heart had given out. He falls into a fever and is unconscious for weeks; when he comes to, his uncle has somehow managed to get permission for him to finish his education in Petersburg. When he is about to leave, his repentant uncle, now unrecognizable in a coarse cassock and with a gray beard, throws himself at his feet and begs his pardon; they kiss and part forever.

Petersburg (35-43): Orest lives quietly and studies diligently, and begins to look at life benevolently again; suddenly Postelnikov appears, asking for forgiveness, and gets him in trouble again — this time he is forced to enter the army, becoming a cornet in the hussars. In early 1855 Postelnikov shows up joyfully at his door and says “Rejoice, you’re free, we’re all free, Russia is free!” (Nicholas I had just died.) Orest tells him to leave him alone. He offers to get Orest out of the army so he can go abroad: “Just pretend you’re crazy and give me 100 rubles.” Orest agrees and goes abroad — not to Paris or London, but to a small German city where he hopes to live in peace.

Return to Russia (44-48): From abroad, he doesn’t take the Russian reforms very seriously, but when his uncle dies (apparently at the end of the 1860s) he has to return to Russia to settle the estate, and he looks forward to seeing their effects. Of course he is disillusioned. He visits old friends in Petersburg and learns that nobody spends time on their official jobs any more—they all have lucrative deals on the side, including “philanthropy.” He is talked into contributing ten rubles to the Committee for the Discussion of the Uselessness of Various Societies. He asks to meet writers, but is advised against it: “They’ll just ask for money, and then abuse you in print.” He goes to the theater to see a play (Leskov’s own 1867 Rastochitel′ [The Spendthrift]) and when he asks people why they abuse the author, they say “So he won’t tell the truth.” He talks to a poet who agrees that the truth is no good because the government can use it as well. Then he leaves Petersburg. He spends only a day in Moscow, where he visits two old friends who gripe about the university, eats a bad meal, and leaves for his village.

Return to the village (49-83): He finds the roofs in better repair and the peasants in shoes, but there are no landowners around—they’ve all gone to work in local administration (created by the new reforms). Vasiliev, a district police officer, comes to visit and brings a letter from the marshal of the nobility inviting Orest, in view of his time spent abroad, to present to the zemstvo a report on how to improve health care in the villages; most of the rest of the plot is devoted to his attempts to produce this report. He talks to various people, all of whom tell him it’s a fool’s errand but point out other people who might help if he really wants to try. (Vasiliev was born a Roman Catholic and had become a Lutheran and a member of the Reformed Church before converting to Orthodoxy; now he’s discovered that he’s not allowed to convert away from Orthodoxy—“If I’d known, I’d have waited and tried another couple of faiths first, and saved it for last.” His attempted apostasy is another plot line; he winds up in the madhouse, where he is perfectly happy.) Dr. Otrozhdensky tells Orest peasants don’t like to go to doctors; when things get too bad, they prefer to hide out and wait for death without being bothered. He says what the peasants need is to be cured of stupidity, which requires schools adapted to the mores of the people, with beatings. Orest meets his old schoolmate Fortunatov, who is very close to the governor; he advises Orest to see the governor, but warns him that though the governor claims to want the best people to work for him, he fires them all as soon as he realizes that they’re not going to perform the impossible. That’s how he himself has gotten to do all the work—he’s not especially capable, so the governor trusts and relies on him. This turns out to be true, and after much fruitless effort Orest is told to leave the guberniya.

He goes to Moscow (84) and Petersburg (85-6), where he waits for money from the village and is dreadfully bored. He decides to make an etching portraying the late Dmitry Zhuravsky, who had dedicated his whole career to easing the lot of the serfs, but is told by the editor of a journal that it “isn’t interesting.” When Orest objects that he was a great man, he is told that if he wasn’t hanged and didn’t escape from prison, he’s of no interest. His estate isn’t sold, so he has to stay the winter in Petersburg. Around Christmas Fortunatov comes to visit him, very happy, and tells him the governor isn’t there any more and he’s waiting to see what the new one is like; Vasiliev has been released and is living off locusts and honey and conversing with the spirits. “I could end there, dear reader, but I have to tell you one last story.”

Final story (87-90): Uncle Orest’s narrative is interrupted by a servant who announces that two officers had come from General Postelnikov to see him. They had been upset not to find him home, and had said they’d come again the next morning. Orest leaves in bad shape, and the narrator accompanies him; they decide to go somewhere for a drink. They go to a tavern and get very drunk; the talkative Orest tells stories until his nephew falls asleep, waking up the next evening to find a note saying “Sorry for getting you drunk, but it was important for your own safety that you not know where I was. Come to my apartment and wait to hear from me.” He goes there and is found by the officers; he is terrified, but it turns out they just want someone to edit some bad verses the general wrote to impress a dancer. Relieved, Orest does so. They leave, telling him to pass on the general’s respect for Orest’s work on hospitals.

End (91-2): But Orest, frightened, has left for the south intending to flee to foreign parts; it turns out that he was in Odessa during the “battle of Greeks and Jews” [the pogrom of April 1-3, 1871], was beaten on the street by an army captain, went back to his hotel room, and died “a natural death,” leaving on the table a steamship ticket for that very evening. In his final letter to the narrator he says he is dying at the hands of his own countrymen and is thus quits with his dear motherland. The narrator says Orest died as he lived, among the strange unexpected events of Russian life, and it is time to end the tale, wishing his readers strength, patience, and love of country: “Let other lands grow with praise; ours will become strong with abuse.”


  1. ‘The Gryphon never learnt it.’ [said the Mock Turtle]

    ‘Hadn’t time,’ said the Gryphon: ‘I went to the Classics master, though. He was an old crab, he was.’

    ‘I never went to him,’ the Mock Turtle said with a sigh: ‘he taught Laughing and Grief, they used to say.’

    ‘So he did, so he did,’ said the Gryphon, sighing in his turn; and both creatures hid their faces in their paws.

  2. Very apposite indeed!

  3. All this in just 200 pages ! and yet not yet translated ? ! This must be seen to, like, pronto . . .
    absolutely not volunteering, because absolutely not capable. Can barely sound out Cyrillic.

    but seriously, folks:
    An entire ‘state of the nation’ opus magnum, nay, magnificum in 92 crisp (?) episodes + frame. – combined with a Bildungsroman, a contribution to the history of mentalities, and who knows what other treasures in this Decameron. Anchored to datable public events, a la maniere de J. A. Joyce ? narrative terminates in Babel’s Odessa !!! What’s not to wonder at, Hat ?

    The ‘Committee for the Discussion of the Uselessness of Various Societies’ – is in session to this day. surely ? Anyone have the web-dress ? CDUVS google-yields nothing whatever.

    Anyway, Орест Маркович Ватажков and his entourage sound much more ‘worth-spending-time
    -with/on’ than Oblomov in his dressing-gown, still a bad influence/model rather than the awful warning Goncharov doubtless intended.

    “Waiter, there’s far too much egg in this pudding.”
    “Yes, sir, you will get this. The vomitorium is down the hall, third door on the left.”

    BTW Apposite to any and every mention of ‘Laughing & Grief’ and of Classics generally
    is the ‘dedicace’ to Jules Valles’ autobiographical novel Le Bachelier :

    « À ceux qui,
    nourris de grec et de latin,
    sont morts de faim,
    je dédie ce livre. »

    That will have to do, for now, for ever probably [hopefully, sez you]

  4. Thanks very much for that thoughtful and encouraging comment — don’t go away! I agree it should be translated; it may not be a beautifully rounded piece of fiction, but it is, as you say, a well-packed compendium of Russian life circa 1870 and of various literary tropes and tricks. I hope someone gets on the job (rather than making the 999th translation of Anna Karenina).

  5. Incidentally, I’ve been reading Bunin’s 1901 story Сосны [Pine trees], and this bit about the dying Mitrofan resonated with Dr. Otrozhdensky’s telling Orest that peasants don’t like to go to doctors:

    – За траву не удержишься! – говорил он мне, снисходительно улыбаясь, когда я советовал ему съездить в больницу.

    “You can’t hold out/on by [holding on to] grass [also ‘medicinal herbs’]!” he told me, smiling tolerantly, when I advised him to go to the hospital.

  6. Dmitry Pruss says

    I don’t think it was about a medicinal herb, as it would require plural in Russian. More like grasping a straw when drowning

  7. The vomitorium is down the hall

    Vomitorium, n.

    1. each of a series of entrance or exit passages in an ancient Roman amphitheater or theater.

    2. a place in which, according to popular misconception, the ancient Romans are supposed to have vomited during feasts to make room for more food.

  8. I don’t think it was about a medicinal herb, as it would require plural in Russian. More like grasping a straw when drowning

    True, but I don’t think the medicinal meaning can be entirely irrelevant in the context of being urged to seek medical treatment.

    according to popular misconception

    You’re not going prescriptivist on us, are you?

  9. The Kiwi Hellenist, on vomitoria. As always, the last word you’ll need on the subject.

  10. An excellent discussion:

    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use the word when talking about modern theatres: whatever the word may or may not have meant in the past, that doesn’t dictate its present-day usage. It just means that, so far as we know, it wasn’t a standard term for the Romans.

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