Nikolai Leskov, The Enchanted Wanderer

With its passages of simple brutality and deadpan humor, the morality of a man’s steadfast nature and a heavy layer of religio-mythic magic (that has just enough truth to lend credence to fantasy), The Enchanted Wanderer has the coziness of an old Russian folk tale and the insightful warning of an age-old parable.

Nikolai Leskov wrote The Enchanted Wanderer in his preferred style of the chronicle, a style in which his characters tell stories, whether their own or of the myths and legends of  provincial acquaintances, to an audience that wants to know: but how did you happen to end up here, with us, and what became of so-and-so?

Thus and so: Ivan Severyanych is Leskov’s storyteller, and the tale he tells is an enchanted tale indeed.

Sailing on Lake Ladoga, a group of men argues about salvation for the souls of suicides. Ivan Severyanych, a newly boarded passenger conspicuous in his size and “open and swarthy face,” avers that, contrary to orthodox belief, these souls are not eternally damned, and he even allows that there is a certain village priest who specifically prays for their souls so as to give them salvation.

His aberrance to the accepted view of things is the more astounding to the other passengers because Ivan has come aboard their boat in his novice’s cassock and monastic leather belt. Tempted by his appearance as a man who “had been around” and by his curious display of religion, so mismatched by dress and opinion, these passengers goad Ivan to tell his tale.

With every story of every adventure (always ending with some harrowing or damning event) that Ivan tells, some one of the passengers interjects in so many words, “so that’s when you went into the monastery?” only to be rebuffed by another tale of another trial and always with the same success of tantalizing his listeners, both Leskov’s passengers and us as readers.

Ivan’s story of the village priest is only a tiny part of his tale, which consists of life among the peasants and gentry alike, the morbid “bristling” of his heels while captive to Tartars on the steppe, the riches entrusted to him and the poverty befallen him, the beguilement of a gypsy girl and his work as connoisseur of horses, his soldiering and his playing the devil.

Ivan recounts nearly forty years of a patchwork life, but that story of the priest and its underlying claims of salvation for the suicides still lingers overhead, a residual haze from an angel’s prophecy to Ivan’s mother when she gave birth to him: a barren woman, she was given Ivan as a son on her promise that he would become a monk.

But when and how did he get to be a monk? (Now we sound like one of the passengers!) Everything began with having some daring fun.

“Hhhhi-i-i-i-ya-a-a-ahh!” Honorable and generally responsible, Ivan is also rambunctious and enjoys a mean joke. One of his antics leads to the  accidental murder of an old man relaxing in a hay cart, and this man, later coming to Ivan in a vision, tells him about the angel’s prophecy.

You’ll be dying many times, but you won’t die until real death comes for you, and then you’ll remember your mother’s promise and go to be a monk.

The accidental murder – and the punishment for it – is what starts Ivan on his journey to the monastery, and always pursuing him is the old man’s reason for not giving him peace: “You took my life before I could confess.”

Before he could confess: neither can the suicides confess. And in one of Ivan’s later adventures he must come to terms with this more personally.

Religion, guilt and compassion vie for Ivan’s soul. The Enchanted Wanderer is a novella of fabulous adventures and the metaphysical understanding of confession and death. He died, he must have – he is already a monk at the start of the story; the story is about how he got to be there, and the old man’s words, that it would be only after his real death that he enters a monastery, all of this says to us that he died.

But he’s speaking still, isn’t he?

So tell us, Ivan, how did you die, how did you become a monk?

Review of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s full selection of Leskov’s short stories is now posted!

The Enchanted Wanderer · Nikolai Leskov · 1873
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Knopf, 2013 · 122 pages, hardcover

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