I finally had a chance to read this excellent review of Nikolai Leskov’s work at the Quarterly Conversation, someone who I’d never heard of before, although since I’m not up on my Russians it shouldn’t be too surprising. On the other hand, the review is called the Forgotten 19th-Century Great so I shouldn’t beat myself up too much. The descriptions of his work sound fascinating, entertaining, and somewhat genre bending. I’m going to put him on my list to read.
Abstract morality disappears almost entirely from The Enchanted Wanderer (1874). This brilliant novella, the greatest piece by Leskov I have read, confounds every moral generalization that could be placed on it. Passengers on a boat listen to a long tale from a simple monk, Ivan, though he is less a fool and also less holy than Akhilla. There are no longueurs as there were in The Cathedral Folk. Everything is subordinated to the story, which careens through one adventure after another, frequently taking hairpin turns over the course of a few sentences. Ivan is a young serf, a simple, large man who is now a deacon and recounts his journey to the clergy. He is still a man of raw passions, however, always engaged with the matter at hand, making him the opposite of the refined, reserved Pechorin of Lermontov’sA Hero of Our Time. Pechorin says, “My whole life has been merely a succession of miserable and unsuccessful denials of feelings or reason.” Ivan does not try to deny anything for even a second. The possibility does not even occur to him.
- Ivan becomes the nursemaid for a landowner’s wife and child. The wife’s lover prevails on him to let the wife and child run away with him. Ivan initially wants to beat up the lover, but decides instead that they deserve to be together. He helps them get away and then runs off from his job.
- Ivan flees from the law to the Tartar Steppe, where the Tartars imprison him by sewing painful bristles into his heels. He spends ten years there, with several wives and children, before he is able to escape.
- Ivan is cured of his alcoholism by a mysterious magnetizer who leads him through a sequence of surreal nightmares.
- A later master purchases a gypsy girl and imprisons her in a cottage. She escapes and begs Ivan to kill her, which he does, though he feels tremendously guilty about it and attempts (and fails) to get himself killed in military combat as a result.
And so on and on, for 150 pages. The whole tale has the quality of a fever dream, though when the strangeness ratchets up, as in the magnetizer sequence, Leskov’s imaginative powers appear to be without limit. There is a dreamlike quality to the pacing as well, since Ivan narrates his tale based on the rate of interesting things that happened, so the ten years on the steppe fly by while the single night with the magnetizer seems to last forever. The narrative breaks into a question and answer format periodically so that the older Ivan can answer the queries of the passengers of the boat he is on, and he always answers with total frankness and deep though simple feeling. The pace increases toward the end, and as the stories pile up it seems that there is less and less sense to be made out of what had initially been presented as a tale of sin and redemption. Ivan doesn’t say he has learned