Nikolai Leskov and the brotherly charm of skaz

Dozens of travelers in various states of tiredness, en route to destinations far-flung and close by, take refuge at an inn while the whirling snow buffets the window panes and threatens to become a blizzard. Sleepy chatter among the travelers lazily rises against the warmth of a large Russian stove until one man’s comment stops them all.

The Enchanted Wanderer 2
The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories · 
Nikolai Leskov · 1865-‘87
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Knopf, 2013 · 575 pages, hardcover

The story Leskov’s narrator tells, that of “The Sealed Angel,” taking place on the cold banks of a river and requiring the theft of religion (in more ways than one), is so far removed from the inn of these travelers that it’s a secret pleasure when someone interrupts the narrator, bringing us once more into the warmth of the inn.

The stories in this new collection of Nikolai Leskov’s work, selected and translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, vary in scope, tone and depth, but each of them comes wrapped up in this same brotherly feeling.

“The Sealed Angel,” second in this collection, is classic Leskov in his use of skaz. Skaz is a Russian literary term for stories written in an oral, extemporaneous style. These stories also often have a fantastical sparkle to them.

“The Sealed Angel” is a story told by memory and includes all of memory’s faults and conflations so that, like much of Nikolai Leskov’s work, the story comes out real enough on its own but also as a tale for regaling.

Leskov was a prominent writer in the skaz style and favored writing into his stories a separate character, also fully realized, to introduce the stories he wrote.

A few of the stories included in this selection betray the influence of Leskov’s contemporaries. “The Pearl Necklace” has the moral honesty of Tolstoy, while “The Devil-Chase” and certain passages in “The Enchanted Wanderer”* have that same rabidity and breathless fever for redemption that we find in Dostoevsky’s novels.

As a writer Leskov was able to distill the highest of principles into the most simplified and entertaining series of words. Leskov as a man is here, too, hidden inside his narrators, characters as they are. His stories are gentle integrations of fable, morals, adventure and religion, but Leskov never proselytizes, even when he makes his beliefs known. Maybe this is why he is so appealing. His stories take on the same quality as his narrators, that same attitude of presenting a story, a belief, with a take-it-or-leave finality.

This collection comprises 17 stories published between 1865 and 1887.

“Lefty” (or “The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea”) is a fun story of small town pride and the only story in this edition given a disappointing translation. Pevear in his introduction comments that “Lefty” is notoriously difficult to translate; Leskov himself admitted as much in a letter to his German translator in 1888. Dialect, wordplay and provincial accents were the end goal, but what we get is a story seemingly unedited. It takes many times of reading “odorlies” to realize this misspelling is actually an intentional scoff by the narrator on smelly provincial orderlies. Once we’re aware, it is an extra pleasure to come across this kind of wordplay, but it’s so infrequent throughout the story that it doesn’t always work.

Difficult translation aside, the stories in this collection, “Lefty” included, are each one as enjoyable as the last.

“A Robbery” turns on the inversion of traditional plot structures, using fear and legend to amplify the mistakes of honest people. “The Spook” is the most fairytale-esque (think Baba Yaga in her chicken-legged hut) and shows how prejudice turns lies into truths. “Singlemind” and “The Pearl Necklace” are stories that show both the endurance of irreproachably good men as well as, through these men’s bold honesty (and occasional naivety),  the surprising depth of men otherwise perceived as cold, aloof or even harsh.

The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories is a book to read all at once or story by story as needed; it’s a pick-me-up in book form that only asks for a warm hearth and a steaming cup of tea.

*I reviewed The Enchanted Wanderer as its own story earlier this month; be sure to take a look!

The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories · Nikolai Leskov · 1865-‘87
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Knopf, 2013 · 575 pages, hardcover

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