How to Shoe a Flea

James Meek

‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ has a murder scene as intimate, detailed and unflinchingly choreographed as its counterparts in Crime and Punishment and The Kreutzer Sonata. Katerina Lvovna has killed her father-in-law with rat poison because he promised to expose her affair with a peasant, and now that her husband has returned, she and her lover murder him too. The plain language, the clarity of verb and noun with which the three of them move swiftly from a state of marital bickering to a state of murder, the lovers’ heartless comments to their victim as they rally their courage at the expense of later guilt, the choice of detail – the injured husband, immobilised, ‘trembling and looking from the corner of his eye at the warm blood thickening under his hair’ – suggest a writer in such a state of deliberately summoned, observed and described nightmare that he must frighten even himself. The 17 stories in the new Pevear-Volokhonsky translation are arranged in chronological order and ‘Lady Macbeth’, written in 1864, is the first. Were you to put the volume aside after reading it you would be misled.

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