Nikolai Gogol, keen-sighted imp

With Gogol, strangeness is inevitable and the one constant is a vertigo that abruptly skews reality before allowing it to settle again – only it’s shifted an inch from where we thought we’d find it.

Gogol, Collected TalesThe Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol · Nikolai Gogol · 1830-‘42
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 465 pages, paperback

To read a Gogolian story is to read a story of layered perspective and one that fuses dreams with reality, metamorphosing into a singularly bewitched universe that exists side by side with our own. Continue reading

The Adolescent: Dostoevsky the dramatist

School-age grudges and backroom bargains line up the chips against ladies’ secrets and counterfeit fathers in The Adolescent, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s penultimate novel and one that built on his previous work with surprising maturity.

The AdolescentThe Adolescent · Fyodor Dostoevsky · 1875
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2004 · 608 pages, paperback

Vladimir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, said of Dostoevsky that the man “seems to have been chosen by the destiny of Russian letters to become Russia’s greatest playwright, but he took the wrong turning and wrote novels.” Though he was talking about The Brothers Karamazov, which Nabokov called a “straggling play,” the comment holds for The Adolescent, a gossipy soap opera done in high style. Continue reading

Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Ivan Ilyich is a comer. Promotion after promotion, he’s making a steady climb in the government. And though each promotion is accompanied by extra roubles, he and his wife are in constant straits. With each rise in status, they’re moving in ever more opulent circles.Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories

The Death of Ivan Ilyich · Leo Tolstoy · 1884-‘86
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 52 pages, paperback

To Ivan it’s a headache. To Ivan it’s fakery. To Ivan…well, it was the same as with all people who are not exactly rich, but who want to resemble the rich, and for that reason only resemble each other.

Like much of his work, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich snubs affectation in all its guises. With  Ivan Ilyich though, this putting on of airs is a suffocation when time is running short. Ivan Ilyich is dying, so please will you stop pretending?

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Leo Tolstoy, the Kreuzer Sonata

The Kreuzer Sonata is about two things: one, a man past his prime who allows himself to be cucked by a musician, kills his wife, and blames it all on Beethoven; and two, a past due morality in sexual affairs written by a man who struggled to reconcile mortality with religion and right passion.

Kreuzer SonataThe Kreuzer Sonata · Leo Tolstoy · 1889
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 71 pages, paperback

How he came to murder his wife: the perspective of the novella is one year after the fact. Pozdnyshev is a fornicator turned loyal husband who got his comeuppance in a disloyal wife, and now, while on the train, he finds in a fellow passenger a man willing to listen to him as he reasons out his moral penury. Continue reading

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.

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