March 01, 2021

Lady Macbeth and a Tarantas



Lady Macbeth and a Tarantas

This collection opens up genres of Leskov’s fiction that I hadn’t encountered. In “The Unmercenary Engineers” Leskov (1831-1895) takes a step into biographical fiction, and in “The Innocent Prudentius” he dives head-first into the creation of a Christian legend. Anton Chekhov noted about another of Leskov’s legends of the time (1892), but that also describes this one: “Divine and spicy. A compound of virtuousness, godliness and fornication. But pretty interesting.”* The tall-tale-ish “The Steel Flea” and the Christmas story “The Sealed Angel” are, apparently, greatly admired by Russian readers. 

I find myself, having wandered through this and the earlier collections in English, head over heels only with the tried and true, the extraordinary “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and “The Enchanted Wanderer.” They’re so exciting and gripping they make me wonder why Leskov, who has never reached the fame in English of his nineteenth-century contemporaries Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov, didn’t continue in these veins. No one has ever written such a hair-raising love story as “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (“Katerina Lvovna was now ready to follow Sergey through hell and high water, to prison or the cross”), or such a rollicking picaresque novella as “The Enchanted Wanderer”: “I make an effort to stay silent,” the wanderer confesses, “but the spirit overcomes me.” Thank goodness, because Ivan Severianych is the best travel raconteur since Odysseus. Tolstoy praised the writing’s “exuberance,” which is just right.  Upon meeting Leskov for the first time in 1887, Tolstoy exclaimed to a friend, “What an intelligent and original man!”

Donald Rayfield, a veteran translator, has taken on four new translations and supplemented them with two previously published ones by Robert Chandler and William Edgerton. The translations share an easy colloquial phrasing; I never noticed any clunkiness or detected Russian syntax asserting itself over the English (I cannot seem to manage this in my own translations). The only thing to squawk about is the selection, which Rayfield seems to have made to more dramatically distinguish it from David Macduff’s Penguin Classics edition and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s bigger (and far better) collection, The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories


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Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov holds a somewhat odd place in Russian literature. He is at once a famous writer, a recognized classic, yet he has not won the same honors granted to the “first tier” writers.
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