Chekhov’s Less Famous Master
A. N. Wilson
By 1888, when Anton Chekhov published the short story that made his name, the writer from whom, perhaps, he had learnt more than any other had advanced far along the path of his own Enchanted Pilgrimage. Nikolai Leskov (1831–95), who had begun as the conservative-minded celebrant of the Russian provinces and the Russian Church, had moved to the Left. His series of portraits ofpravedniki, righteous ones, which had been appearing throughout the 1880s, were literary icons depicting in close-up detail not the saints of Orthodoxy, but the marginalized. While living in Russia, Leskov had always sympathized with those on the fringes of its society – Jews, Old Believers, gypsies. A spell as a journalist in Paris had given him a different perspective on the mother country. Affectionate as he would always remain towards Russian superstitions, folk tales and provincialisms, Leskov came to hate the cruelty of the regime.
Today, only Chekhov is famous. In preparing for this article, I consulted Leskov’s complete works in the London Library, and noted that one of his most famous stories, “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”, was last withdrawn in 1979, and many of the volumes have never been taken out at all. Chekhov’s works, understandably enough, have been in constant use. Yet anyone reading “The Steppe” in the March 1888 number of Severny Vestnik (The Northern Herald) would have recognized the young Chekhov’s debt to the celebrated master of the Russian short story, Leskov. The travellers on a britchka rumbling across the hot, stultifying plain – the long-haired priest Fr Christopher, munching doughnuts and remembering his own boyhood, the boring merchant Kuzmichov in his straw hat – have walked out of the pages of Leskov. Chekhov borrows, too, from Leskov’s superb technique as a painter of landscape and setting, and learnt from him the ventriloquist’s trick of letting provincial Russians appear to speak for themselves. What remains with us from the tale, nevertheless, is the reason for the journey: the callous grown-ups, with their inconsequential chatter, are taking a little boy to a boarding school, and it is the child’s heartbreak which Chekhov immortalizes. In Chekhov’s world, readers of any nationality immediately feel at home, because the emotional world he depicts, though localized, is universal. His master Leskov remains pungently and overpoweringly Russian. When you have read him, you really feel you have been abroad.
The almost simultaneous publication of two translations of Leskov’s novella The Enchanted Wanderer – one by the celebrated duo Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky and one by Ian Dreiblatt – might not in itself make Leskov as famous as Chekhov, but it may awaken anglophone readers to the pleasures they have been missing. And in the first volume, they will also be able to savour sixteen other tales by Leskov, including his comic masterpiece “Lefty”, which concerns a mechanic in an armaments factory who manages to outwit his English peers in the manufacturing of a mechanical flea. Throughout the Soviet era, Leskov’s tale of the left-handed Russian craftsman was a benchmark, helping, now to feed Russian paranoia about the West, now to bolster a feeling of technological superiority even to the English fathers of industrialization. Yet, from a Marxist point of view, it was always a difficult tale to stomach, since it is a celebration of individualism against the system, of persons against machines. No writer in Russian is less Marxist than Leskov.
Pevear and Volokhonsky’s generous representation of Leskov’s work begins with “The Lady Macbeth of Mtensk”, better known in the West in Shostakovich’s operatic version than in the prose original – though a fine translation by Robert Chandler appeared a decade ago. It is a gripping yarn, though its title could scarcely be less apt. Katerina Lvovna Izmailovna, far from zealous in her ambition on behalf of a merchant husband who bores her both in and out of bed, starts a passionate affair with one of the serfs, Sergei. Lust becomes an obsessive, all-consuming love. The only Lady Macbeth-like thing about Katerina is the readiness with which she commits murder, but one of her victims, inevitably, is her husband. As with Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the reader has an instantaneous physical awareness of the heroine. Thomas Hardy might well have enjoyed this story, for Leskov never loses his sympathy with Katerina in her uncontrolled emotional needs. Especially touching – once the murderers have been exposed, gruesomely punished, and sent on the long road to Siberia – is Katerina’s heartbreak when the fickle Sergei betrays her with one, and then another of their fellow convicts. She gets her magnificent revenge in a ferry boat crossing the Volga, with wet flecks of snow falling from a grey sky. Very typically of Leskov, her last moment of consciousness, this side of death, is a visionary one. She sees her dead husband as if he were coming out of the water, and knows that she should be praying. Instead, with a physical adroitness and presence of mind which delights the reader (for any reader of the tale is in love with her), Katerina trips her trollopy rival, Sonetka, into the relentless river and herself is borne off by the water. Leskov sees the two women in his final sentence as two fish – a strong pike finishing off a soft-finned little roach.
The Enchanted Wanderer himself, in the longest tale in the collection, has also perpetrated quite casual acts of killing. Most notably, he has impatiently thrashed at a sleeping old monk, asleep on a cart-load of hay, and unintentionally killed him. And it is the spirit of this dead monk who surfaces from time to time in the life of Ivan Severyanych Flyagin, drawing him, against all his carnal and brutal instincts, towards the life of monastic dedication which God requires of him. Whereas “The Lady Macbeth of Mtensk” depends for its intensity on Katerina’s single obsession – her love for Sergei – “The Enchanted Wanderer” is an expansive story, covering the whole of Ivan’s life. Its theme is nothing less than the operation of divine grace in a seemingly intractable soul. Western Christians, as well as non-Christians, will probably be shocked by the way in which Flyagin both accepts the reality of God’s call while doing everything he can to escape it. His love of horses, and the callousness with which he can subdue them, is only one of the passions which keep him from the cloister. There are long years living among the Muslim Tartars with multiple wives (one as young as thirteen), followed by a stint in the Caucasus, fighting in the Russian army against his old Tartar friends. Flyagin is an irrepressibly humorous man – as are the semi-corrupt and often physically disgusting clergy in Leskov’s longer fiction.
Towards the end of Leskov’s tale, the monastery doctor says to Flyagin, now Fr Ishmael, “What a drum you are. They beat and beat on you, and still can’t beat you down”. To this extent, the Enchanted Wanderer who narrates Leskov’s story of 1873 is very deliberately made into an archetype of the suffering, irrepressible Russian – drunken, strong, violent, intensely religious, bloodied but unbowed by what history throws at him.
But Flyagin/Fr Ishmael is of course much more than a stereotype. From the minute we, and the other passengers, encounter him on the steamer, dotting between the gloomy, boring islands of Lake Ladoga – in northern Russia, near the Finnish border – we find ourselves in the presence of a compelling original. His huge frame, his thick, crinkly grey hair and beard, his attractive bass voice immediately arrest us with an anecdote concerning the Orthodox Church’s attitude to suicide. A drunken parish priest has been summoned before Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow. The man is a vodka-sodden wastrel and there is clearly no reason why his superior should not dismiss him from the priesthood. But in a post-prandial nap, the Metropolitan has a dream. The souls of suicides and those who died unshriven are being hunted by demons clad in medieval knightly armour. Only one thing saves them from Satan’s clutches – the prayers of the unworthy, drunken priest. Filaret wakes, and restores the sot to his parish. There is everything of Leskov in this novella – love of Orthodoxy, and its more superstitious byways and legends, but also impatience with its intolerance, and longing for a spirit of Christian mercy which is at variance with the hard line pedalled by the ecclesiastical authorities of the nineteenth century.
Leskov himself came from a long line of priests. His father was the first Leskov in generations not to take holy orders, preferring the precarious path of a badly paid civil servant in Oryol. The novelist and journalist drew much of the inspiration for his most famous novel, Soboryanye (1872), from his absorption in the ecclesiastical life of small-town Russia. One reason that the book is less well known in the West than the works of Leskov’s contemporaries Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that its title is more or less untranslatable. “Cathedral Folk” is the literal translation, and on one level the novel is the Russian Barchester Towers. But the word “Soboryanye” conveys so much more than this. A dummy-run story for the novel was “Dwellers in God’s House”, which would in some ways be a better translation. The sobor is more than the big church building – it is the blessed company of all faithful people. One of the reasons, perhaps, that Leskov is enjoying a small revival at present – Margaret Winchell’s spirited translation, The Cathedral Clergy: A chronicle, was published in the United States in 2010 – is that Russian Orthodoxy has, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, known a flowering which even the most optimistic of Christians would never have foretold in the days of the Cold War.
Leskov himself quarrelled with his Church. He ended his days in a canonically irregular marriage, and in a state of Tolstoyan enmity with Orthodoxy. In fact, he had arrived at a “Tolstoyan” version of Christianity before Tolstoy did so himself. He never wavered, however, from his view that understanding Orthodoxy is the key to understanding Russia and its soul. Central to Orthodoxy is its reverence for the icon. The Orthodox worshipper is not alone, even if straying into an empty church, for all around the earth-bound worshipper lighting the candle are the angels, Mary the Mother of God, and the great, wonder-working saints of the Church, frozen in stylized forms. Pevear and Volokhonsky have deliberately chosen some of Leskov’s more secular stories for their collection, but Leskov is through-and-through a product of the Russian Church, even when he was fighting or ignoring it. In his excellent introduction to the tales, Pevear reminds us that Leskov befriended an icon painter and restorer by the name of Nikita Sevastyanovich Racheiskov, an Old Believer who lived in a shabby district of St Petersburg. It was in this icon-painter’s stuffy workshop that Leskov wrote “The Sealed Angel”.
Perhaps the most haunting story in the collection, “The Sealed Angel” is about men working on the new Kiev suspension bridge in the 1850s. The English engineers who undertook the work have employed a mason and his team, all of whom are Old Believers. These are purists who objected to the reforms in the Russian Church in the seventeenth century, and have, since then, run out of bishops, priests and, hence, sacraments. They are left with only icons as their contact with the true faith. Leskov, whose departure from the Church would be inspired by modern radicalism, nonetheless remained sympathetic to the Old Believers, who would not subscribe to the “ruling Church” because of its compromises, as they saw them, with the modern world.
The construction workers in “The Sealed Angel” make a tent which becomes, in effect, their chapel, filled with wonder-working icons. One of these images, of an angel, has particular efficacy. The rotten apple in their number, Pimen, is responsible – after a series of shady business deals – for a police raid on their worship tent, and the mutilation and theft of the icon depicting the angel. The rest of the story gives the workers the chance to tour Russia trying to find a painter of sufficient skill and piety to create a replica of their icon. They will become involved, with their sympathetic English employer, in a daring attempt to wrest back the mutilated original, which has been placed in a monastery belonging to the “ruling Church”, and to replace it with the reproduction. It is a powerful story, containing a variety of emotional setbacks, not least the sense of desolation felt when some of their number are received into mainstream Orthodoxy. There is also, however, this overwhelming sense of the spiritual power of the icon itself.
Pevear and Volokhonsky, who have already given us their versions of The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, Dr Zhivago, The Master and Margarita and much else besides, write an uncompromisingly American prose which grates on a British ear. When their Lady Macbeth retreats to her attic, it is to a “mezzanine”. They use the word “like” where an English writer would say “as if”: “It’s like my whole heart’s drowned in clotted blood”, or “we live like in some monastery”. They have been punctilious in reproducing Leskov’s habit of lurching between the past tense and the historic present, often within the same paragraph. In English this jars, whereas in Russian the use of the historic present – which is habitual, though inconsistent for Leskov – is easier on the ear.
At times they are ploddingly literal. “What’s this you’re up to, farm hand?” is their way of handling the moment when the Gypsy confronts the Wanderer. It is a literal translation of “Chto eto ty, batrak?”, but surely Dreiblatt is on safer ground just rendering the sentence, “My friend what exactly are you up to?”. Similarly, “What have you done to me, you cursed Asiatics?” might be a literal rendering of one of Flyagin’s outbursts, but it is not a sentence you can imagine anyone actually saying. At one point, during a vision of the monk he has whipped to death, the departed soul tries to explain to him that those in the other world cannot necessarily speak, or move about, as we can on earth. He says simply, “not everyone speaks, not everyone moves” (“ne vsye govoryat, i ne vsye chodyat”). The single wordkhodit’ means “walk” and “move” and “get about”, and there is something ingenious about Pevear and Volokhonsky’s “here not everybody can speak or go places”, but we have lost the illusion of the nineteenth-century monk-ghost of old Russia when he starts speaking like a character in Friends. “Go places” is not just American, it is modern, and a faithful translation of a text which belongs to the past should surely, without false archaism, be sensitive to this. Dreiblatt’s The Enchanted Wanderer, by contrast, reads far more authentically.
This laid-back, almost larky tone was not so obtrusive in Pevear and Volokhonsky’s earlier work. In their War and Peace (2007), for example, we read “the day after the theatre, the Rostovs did not go anywhere”, rather than, “after the show, the Rostovs weren’t going any place”. Three years later, when they tackled Dr Zhivago, they made largely successful efforts to convey Pasternak’s beautiful lyricism. Leskov is much harder, since he allows the nineteenth century to speak for itself, often through the idiomatic language of semi-educated speakers. Leskov – in this sense very like Chaucer – makes a point of not being a presence in his stories, of allowing the narratives to be those of the characters themselves or of the shadowy narrators. Who are the “we” in the opening sentence of The Enchanted Wanderer: “We were sailing over Lake Ladoga …”? It is never explained.
Leskov was in many regards – if not in his language – a very modern writer, being, together with Zola and Dickens, among the very greatest journalist-novelists of the nineteenth century. Intensely involved as he was in Russia’s destiny, Russia’s tragedy, he could not, with will or with brain, remain where his heart was, among the “cathedral folk”. Like all interesting artists, he was a divided soul. His stories, which immortalize particular faces, particular destinies, are worthy of being placed beside the best of Guy de Maupassant. But in another sense, they grow out of the unliterary tradition of the icon. In “The Sealed Angel”, the narrator tries to articulate something which is incomprehensible to the well-meaning English engineer who is trying to rescue the icons. This is a tradition within Orthodoxy which actually stretches back to Plato. Visual art, of course, can never hope to reproduce the truths of theology. But, as Leskov’s narrator says, “in sacred Russian icon painting there is portrayed the heavenly type of the face, concerning which a material man cannot have any real notion”.
By gazing at an icon, by lighting a candle and simply by looking, the believer can see into the life of things more fully than literature could perhaps conceive. Leskov’s stories, even the secular ones, are icons in this sense. Reading this cornucopia of nineteenthcentury Russian scenes, this cloud of prerevolutionary witnesses, we are presented, as it were, by a literary iconostasis. One could take the comparison with Chaucer further, by remembering Dryden’s comment on The Canterbury Tales: “Here is God’s plenty”.