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:

To his last years belongs also The Hare Park, which was published only posthumously in 1917. It is one of his most remarkable works and his greatest achievement in concentrated satire. It is the story, told for the greater part in his own words, of Onópry Opanásovich Peregúd, an inmate of a lunatic asylum. In his former life he was the son of a petty Little Russian squire and was made police inspector through the influence of the bishop, who happened to be a schoolfellow of his father’s. Onópry Opanásovich, who is a quite unusually weak-minded and imbecile creature, got on all right with his responsible post until the beginning of the revolutionary movement of the sixties, when he succumbed to the ambitious desire of catching a nihilist. He gets hold of several nihilists, who turn out to be law – abiding citizens (and one of them even a detective who is himself hunting for nihilists), and is ultimately hoodwinked by his own coachman, who turns out to be a genuine nihilist. The unexpected result unhinges him and so he comes to the lunatic asylum. The story contains all the best features of Leskov’s manner: wonderful racy diction, boisterous farce, extraordinary anecdotes; but it is subordinated to a unifying idea, and the figure of the hapless police-inspector grows into a symbol of vast historical and moral significance.

I’d make a slight emendment in that “he succumbed to the ambitious desire of catching a nihilist” implies it was his idea; actually, he was happy catching horse-thieves until his boss said he needed to stop that and concentrate on locating “overturners of the social foundations” (the word “nihilist” is never used). Anyway, you get the idea: it’s a satire of religion and politics in tsarist Russia, mocking policemen and bishops alike. No wonder he had a hard time getting it published! But none of that is what I care about, not to mention that it’s told in his patented style of endless digression and faux-naif storytelling (“But I won’t tell you about that yet…”), which made me impatient. So what kept me reading? In a word, the language. Last November, Varvara Babitskaya had a very interesting interview (in Russian) with Maya Kucherskaya, who recently came out with a long-awaited biography of Leskov and who had things to say about the conflict between his sense of himself as a didactic writer (“Literature has to be useful”) and his actual practice (I’ll translate passages starting with “Кроме того, он, конечно, был очарован языком”):

Besides that [i.e., his ambivalence], he was, of course, enchanted by language, by sounding speech: his earliest essays show what a keen ear he had. […] Naturally, he couldn’t refuse this enchantment and the spell it cast over him, so he was always playing with language, from his earliest texts to his latest. Take “Rabbit Remise,” his last long story: to judge from it, it seems Leskov wanted the word of love and truth not to disappear, to shine eternally for everyone. The main hero of the story, a madman, thinks up a “heavenly printing press,” so that books printed directly on the heavens would always shine for humanity. This attraction to form, it seems to me, is fully modernist. It makes sense that Khlebnikov, who had never read Leskov’s story, has a similar metaphor, “skybooks.”

Babitskaya: No wonder the modernists valued him.

Kucherskaya: They immediately felt him as one of their own. The head of the Leskov fan club, of course, was Aleksei Remizov. […] Remizov, Zamyatin, Zoshchenko, Olesha, and other ornamentalists — everyone who in the 1920s and ’30s was thinking about language, its sturcture, the internal form of words, in one way or another were paying attention to Leskov.

She points out that his contemporaries took him at his word and expected the fulfillment of his didactic program; Tolstoy complained about his “excess of talent” and profusion of images, just what we value him for today. How could educated people with refined taste not appreciate him? She goes on (I translate from “Но кажется, его сложную игру с языком”):

But it seems they couldn’t appreciate his complicated games with language because they didn’t have the optics (excuse the expression) that the 20th century developed. If an author in that day played with language, he was automatically assigned to ethnographic prose […] It fell under the heading of folklore rather than art: it’s not we ourselves but the speech of the common people that’s being portrayed.

There was no understanding that language apart from meaning and content could be an object of representation and that this could seize an artist more strongly than social and psychological questions […].

She goes on to mention that popularity is fickle, pointing out that Pisemsky, much more popular than Leskov in his day, is practically forgotten, and says things don’t look good for Leskov: there was a brief surge of interest in the 1990s, but then it dried up, and a great many of his texts have never been reprinted. When Babitskaya asks why, she says for the common reader Leskov is too exotic, intricate, and complicated (“слишком экзотичен, затейлив, сложен”). The reader wants to be entertained and to feel empathy, but Leskov is monstrously wordy (“чудовищно многословен”) and his protagonists are not the sort to inspire much empathy:

Leskov isn’t really that interested in people; he takes much more pleasure in weaving a variegated cloth of colorful, refined narrative. But how can you feel empathy for language? You can’t.

Или же Лескову вообще не до людей, гораздо веселее ему ткать разноцветное полотно красочного, изысканного нарратива. Но как можно испытать эмпатию к языку? Никак.

For comparison, here’s something Remizov wrote:

But at that time everything had already been determined for me as a writer: I am not a storyteller, I am a singer, and I was never cut out to be a “novelist” — My Pond, Clock, Sisters of the Cross, The Fifth Pestilence, Weeping Ditch, and even Olya are some sort of canon and glorification, but by no means entertaining winter reading like my beloved Dickens. It’s easier for me to talk from “I,” not because I’m barren — the color world of my Clockwise justifies me — and not at all from shamelessness, but because “it sings in me.” All my life I have sung,and the harder things were, the more songful: I’m related either to the race of birds or to the bumblebee.

Но тогда уж все определилось в моем писательстве: я никакой рассказчик, я песельник, и из меня никогда не вышло «романиста»: мой «Пруд», «Часы», «Крестовые сестры», «Пятая язва», «Плачужная канава» и даже «Оля» — какой-то канон и величание, но никак не увлекательное зимнее чтение моего любимого Диккенса. Мне легче говорить от «я», не потому что я бесплоден — цветной мир моей «Посолони» меня оправдывает — и вовсе не по «бесстыдству», а потому что «поется». Так я всю жизнь и пропел, и чем бывало туже, тем песеннее: то ли птичья порода, то ли со шмелем в родстве.

One textual note: at the start of chapter XII (which you can see here), all modern texts, as far as I can tell, have “тихо опустив оце-разоце” (‘quietly lowering otse-razotse‘), where that last hyphenated word is meaningless, though it contains the OCS оце ‘eyes.’ When I checked the Niva text, however, I found очи разъ-оце (ochi razъ-otse), and there is a Church Slavic term разоце очи meaning косые глаза ‘squinting eyes’ or ‘cross-eyes’ (see here). Leskov himself uses that term in The Sealed Angel (text here): “а наш велиар очи разоце раскосит” ‘and our Belial squints with squint-eyes.’ So I’m thinking modern editors, seeing a term unfamiliar to them, “corrected” it to something that looked better to them (the Niva text does, apparently, have a fair number of errors). But what do I know?

Also, the story includes the wonderfully extended parodic title of respect превысокомногорассмотрительствующий, which has its own Wiktionary entry. I thought that was worth noting.


  1. Regarding the title, it occurs to me it could be compared to the mysterious titles jazz musicians sometimes give their albums. Why is Celebrated Blazons called that? Presumably Taylor just liked the sound of it.

  2. “The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the conies.” In OCS, spelled as modern Russian, “Горы высокия еленем, камень прибежище заяцем.” This seems highly relevant to the puzzle. I’ve written about it somewhere already but can’t find where exactly so forgive me if I’m repeating myself. (Perhaps on one of the hyrax threads here?) Neither do I remember who brought up this Psalter link originally.

    “Или же Лескову вообще не до людей…” The first two words are important: Kucherskaya isn’t claiming Leskov is generally indifferent to people. She’s saying his characters are iconographic types or eccentrics but sometimes he loses interest in people altogether. Even with this caveat, I’m not convinced. “Language speaks itself through us” would have been alien to Leskov. Rather, as he matured as a writer, he became more interested in unusual characters because they were clearly individuals, not types. Accordingly, Leskov made his rare birds express themselves in highly individualized, sometimes idiosyncratic language.

  3. Fair enough, and the Psalter quote does seem relevant.

  4. But none of that is what I care about, not to mention that it’s told in his patented style of endless digression and faux-naif storytelling (“But I won’t tell you about that yet…”), which made me impatient. So what kept me reading? In a word, the language.

    Impatient?! I love that side of him!

    I get that Leskov’s narrative methods and his way of wallowing in language theoretically aren’t dependent on each other, but for me they’re so intertwined that it’s hard to imagine him without both. That said, I’ve left some of his most famous things half-read because of the two-steps-forward-three-steps-back storytelling, and I’ve finished some of his largely ignored novels because they had something closer to a conventional narrative push forward.

  5. That said, I’ve left some of his most famous things half-read because of the two-steps-forward-three-steps-back storytelling, and I’ve finished some of his largely ignored novels because they had something closer to a conventional narrative push forward.

    I rest my case. It’s not that I automatically dislike his narrative methods, but they’re very nineteenth-century cracker-barrel yarn-spinning (cf. Mark Twain), and they have to work very well for me to keep turning the pages. If it starts feeling like just one damn thing after another, I can force myself to push through, as with Смех и горе, but I’m more likely to just set it aside and not return.

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