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.

The young Anton Chekhov described Leskov as his favourite writer, and you can see a line leading from ‘Lady Macbeth’ to a possible future of Chekhovian prose. A pessimistic-realistic view of human behaviour, transcending class stereotypes; beauty, brutality and banality incised with precision in extreme close-up of time and place; and a tender heart combined with a rigorous lack of sentimentality that places the burden of compassion on the reader.

It didn’t happen that way. In his introduction Richard Pevear makes the case that Russia’s liberal intelligentsia mistakenly labelled Leskov a reactionary on the basis of a carelessly worded editorial he wrote in the Northern Bee in 1862, seemingly linking radicals to a spate of suspicious fires in St Petersburg. This, Pevear writes, damned Leskov to a lifetime of critical neglect. Yet those critics who did look at his writing found other reasons to carp, notably the escapism that coloured his work – not escape from the acute harshness that punctuated life, for these floggings and exilings and separations are present in his work, but from the chronic harshness of toil, hunger and injustice that constituted daily life for many. The trajectory of Leskov’s work over three decades (he died in 1895) was away from the sustained tragedy and intense focus of ‘Lady Macbeth’, towards the picaresque, the episodic and the anecdotal. On the evidence of these stories, he chose not to repeat the unflinching examination of his characters’ will and fate that he showed he was capable of in ‘Lady Macbeth’.

D.S. Mirsky wrote in support of Leskov that ‘his most original stories are packed with incident and adventure to an extent that appeared ludicrous to the critics, who regarded ideas and messages as the principal thing.’ This suggests that literature exists at one of two poles: comical, digressive, magical folk realism or sombre, earnest political drama. But Leskov’s stories span that binary with ease: he’s a good satirist, able to make folk comedy serve the ends of ideas and messages as well as Gogol could. In ‘The Spook’, told from the point of view of a gentry boy who moves with his family to the countryside and becomes entranced by the peasants’ intricate demonology, Leskov piles layer on layer of innocence and prejudice – that of the boy, of the slightly older servants entrusted with his care, of his family, of the peasants, of the authorities – on a simple, virtuous man, Selivan, who lives with his wife in the forest and is unjustly branded a bandit-sorceror. Leskov’s ingenuity is to reveal to us the cynicism lurking behind the people’s seemingly foolish fear (it is a prop for their lies and thievery) without revealing it to the boy.

Then, at the end of the story, Leskov smashes the intricate structure he has built, founded on a perfectly realised vision of the medieval-modern world of the Russian countryside, and replaces it with a hollow, badly fitting happy ending, where all realise their mistake and Selivan is rewarded. The conclusion comes with a moral. ‘Thus evil always generates more evil and is defeated only by the good,’ the now enlightened narrator writes, ‘which, in the words of the Gospel, makes our eye and heart clean.’

Great stories may contain sermons and end happily; the trick’s in the weaving together. Leskov’s risky narrative choice, repeated from story to story, comes not in the dubious opposition between the anecdotal and the ideological but in the balance of suffering and relief, conflict and harmony. It is how a writer alternates between the two that determines whether the reader believes the storyteller trusts him or her or whether, instead, happy endings and episodic hopping from scene to scene seem to be the mere avoidance of difficulty.

Leskov’s manly heroes – tall, strong, simple, pious – walk (sometimes literally) on thin ice, a single step separating light and life from death and oblivion. Leskov is preoccupied by the serf codes of pre-emancipation Russia, where, like the convict-servants and slaves of contemporary British Australia and America, one class had the power of the noose and the lash over another, and could use it on a whim, at a word, for a trifle. Against this, there is the rain of happy endings, usually involving forgiveness by a religious or secular authority figure. It is as if, in a Dickensian way, Leskov wants to enjoy the extremity of his characters’ jeopardy, but wrap it up in a blanket of reassurance.

It seems fair to ask whether some dark personal bias makes me inclined to see Leskov’s cruelty towards his characters as realistic and his mercy towards them as implausible. I would fall back on questioning the register he uses as he moves between the two extremes. Not all the stories after ‘Lady Macbeth’ have happy endings. In one of the most unsettling in this collection, ‘The Toupee Artist’, Leskov describes a brutal landowner, Count Kamensky, who keeps a theatre on his estate in which all the cast and crew are slaves. Among them is a brilliant master of wigs and make-up, Arkady, whose skills, outside the theatre, the ugly count permits to be used only for beautifying him. One night, when Arkady’s actress lover Lyubov gets her first big role, the count orders Arkady to bring her to him after the show so as to exercise his seignorial right of rape. Meanwhile, the count’s even uglier brother has contrived to have Arkady work on his appearance, against the count’s warning that were this to happen, he would have Arkady flogged to death or sent to a lifetime of conscription. Facing death for titivating the count’s brother, facing the rape of his lover and warned for good measure that if Lyubov performs badly on stage he’ll be flogged anyway, Arkady escapes with her and tries to join the serf equivalent of the underground railroad. A priest shelters them, then betrays them. Lyubov is raped; Arkady is tortured in a room beneath hers; she goes mad; the count abruptly shows magnanimity, praises Arkady’s noble spirit, and sends him to the army with a high rank. Three years later he returns, an officer and a free man, with the money to buy Lyubov out of slavery, only to be murdered by a thief before they can be reunited. Lyubov, who narrates events years later as the author’s nanny, takes to drink.

There are a lot of loud beats and reversals here for a 21-page story. Leskov gets away with it almost to the end, partly because the double framing device – the narrator telling the story of his nanny telling a story – gives events the distance that makes a laconic, fabulous style appropriate, partly because Leskov has the knack of giving us a rich enough situation (slave actors! slave make-up artists!) and enough well-chosen details (the quietness that comes on the count before his greatest ferocity) for our imagination to fill out the world far beyond its actual lexical dimensions, to its operatic potential (as Shostakovich did with his version of ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’). But to accept the final character swerve that suddenly gives the count such fabulous magnanimity, then accept the astounding return of the ennobled, gallant ex-serf, then accept his murder, then finally accept the last skidding turn from the fabulous towards the Chekhovian reality of a drunken, disappointed, ageing lover, is to demand of the reader a conscious acceptance of Leskov’s terms and conditions: a version of magical realism in which the magic and the realism work wonderfully, separately, but cohere so loosely as to reflect a childlike jumping of attention from one thing to another.

Leskov was a writer subject to unusual influences. He was born in 1831 in a small town in Orel province to a family at the poor end of the Russian gentry. His mother was the daughter of an impoverished Moscow aristocrat and his father, from a family of rural clergy, became a detective, attaining the relatively low rank at which a pre-Revolutionary civil servant was considered noble and could pass his title on to his children. Leskov grew up in the countryside, technically a member of the noble class. Though much less exalted in rank than his contemporary Tolstoy, he was nonetheless a young master in a master-and-slave society of extreme piety, superstition, prejudice and social polarisation, learning of the blurred boundaries between the three worlds of peasant consciousness: the immanent world of folk tales, folk cosmology, jokes, songs, imps, curses and witches; the heavenly world of saints, martyrs, sin, forgiveness and the life hereafter; and the present reality of forced labour, petty fines, beatings, hunger, sickness and injustice.

As a young man in the 1850s he lived and worked in a big, changing city, Kiev, and gained access to the alien spirit of British Protestantism through working for his uncle, the businessman Alexander Scott. For these eclectic experiences to leave their mark on his work, mere exposure was not enough; I suspect the reason Leskov still haunts the purgatory of reputations is that he sacrificed a portion of his ego on the altar of doubt. While Tolstoy set his face consistently against modernity and Platonov, in some respects Leskov’s true heir, was determined to champion it, Leskov doesn’t take a position on social change. His work embodies the multiple transitions that make doubt about identity a condition more defining of modernity than religious doubt – from rural to urban, from oral to written, from serving the individual to serving the corporate, from maker to consumer, from inherited status to acquired status. For all that he has been called the most Russian of Russian writers, there’s a universality about him that finds echoes in non-Russians like Chinua Achebe or James Hogg who span the distance from village hearth to salon without feeling the need to pledge allegiance to one or the other.

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Leskov is the titular protagonist of Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’, where the critic offers internet-anticipating insights into the incompatibility of storytelling and its modern mass-produced counterpart, information, which expresses itself too plainly to allow spaces for storyteller and listener to fill in. Storytelling, Benjamin writes, is an artisanal medium; Leskov was a craftsman: ‘He felt bonds with craftsmanship, but faced industrial technology as a stranger.’ He illustrates his point that Leskov ‘glorifies native craftsmanship’ with ‘The Steel Flea’ (translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky as ‘Lefty’), in which the silversmiths of Tula make a life-sized flea out of metal to show Peter the Great they are as skilled as their English counterparts.

Whether Benjamin didn’t read the story, or had forgotten the details by the time he wrote about it, he mischaracterises it. They are gunsmiths, not silversmiths, and had the tsar been Peter, who became a character in peasant stories long before Leskov was born, ‘Lefty’ would have been more of a folk tale. The tsar in Leskov’s story is Nicholas I, who reigned for the first 24 years of Leskov’s life: an arch-reactionary, but accepting enough of industrial technology to bring the railways to Russia. And the conclusion is more ambivalent towards craft than Benjamin has it. The story Leskov actually tells is of English metalworkers who fashion a clockwork flea able to hop and dance as a boastful gift to Russia; Tula gunsmiths, trying to match the English, shoe the flea with super-wee horseshoes, held in place by sub-microscopic nails. Is this meant to signify a Russian triumph, or is it a satirical barb: are Russians hopeless geniuses, doomed to perform random, pointless deeds of unparalleled virtuosity, inexorably swamped by the dull, steady cleverness of the West? The second reading is supported by the closing pages of the story, in which the gunsmith Lefty, having shown the shod flea to the English, goes on a fatal bender on the voyage home. Leskov maintains the ambivalence right to the end:

To be sure, there are no such masters as the fabulous Lefty in Tula nowadays: machines have evened out the inequality of talents and gifts, and genius does not strive against assiduousness and precision. While favouring the increase of earnings, machines do not favour artistic boldness, which sometimes went beyond all measure, inspiring popular fantasy to compose fabulous legends similar to this one.

Another story, ‘The Sealed Angel’, about the Old Believers, a sect whose most venerated icon is confiscated, comes closer to Benjamin’s view of Leskov as the craftsman-storyteller rejoicing in the craft of others. At one point the narrator, an Old Believer, launches into an ecstatic encomium to the icon, which portrays an angel. He makes it a functional marvel: ‘His wings are vast and white as snow, but azure underneath, done feather by feather, and on each shaft barb by barb. You look at those wings, and where has all your fear gone to?’

Even in this story, there is ambivalence: the Old Believers are helping to build Kiev’s famous Chain Bridge under the direction of English engineers. As the avatars of modernity, the enemies of craft, the engineers are outsiders in Russia, but Leskov engages them as full, sympathetic participants in the story. They help the Old Believers steal their icon back. They are honoured in the sense that the clever foreigner is as important a character in Leskov’s Russian cast as the corrupt official or the cruel aristocrat or, indeed, the craftsman.

Leskov’s Russian people are of uncertain provenance – ‘as if the whole Russian race had been hatched only yesterday by a hen in a nettle patch’, a character in ‘The Sealed Angel’ says and don’t know where they’re going. ‘These aren’t ordinary people, who need good state institutions to safeguard their rights,’ a character in ‘Deathless Golovan’ says, ‘these are nomads, a horde that has become sedentary, but is still not conscious of itself.’

In ‘The Enchanted Wanderer’, the title story of the Pevear-Volokhonsky collection, long enough to be published separately in a translation by Ian Dreiblatt, Leskov’s narrative restlessness finds its most compelling representative. Ivan, whom we meet as a monk in later life by the shores of Lake Ladoga, is described as resembling a bogatyr, one of the tall, muscular strongmen heroes of Russian folk tales, the skazki. Pevear and Volokhonsky translate bogatyr as ‘mighty man’, while Dreiblatt prefers to use the Russian word. Dreiblatt is the more cautious: in a non-pejorative sense, he doesn’t strive so hard. Sometimes this is a pity. In a wonderful, visceral passage where the drunken Ivan showers a gorgeous gypsy entertainer with tips, Ivan imagines hearing the sound of her joints as she dances. Pevear and Volokhonsky take care to render the alliteration in the Russian phrase khryashch khrustit as ‘the cartilage crunch’; Dreiblatt misses it out altogether. All three translators are defeated by iz kosti v kost mozzhechok idyot. Pevear and Volokhonsky do better with the plainer ‘marrow flow from bone to bone’, against Dreiblatt’s wordy ‘marrow inside her pouring itself from bone to bone.’ But the word for ‘marrow’ is actually mozg; Leskov’s word is mozzhechok. Yes, Russian has a diminutive for ‘bone marrow’. Russian has a diminutive for everything. No wonder that in translating Leskov, purveyor of modern folk tales in the diminutive-rich idiom of peasant Russia, translators into English struggle: English, a language whose analytic, intellectual registers are so colonised by imports, and whose own folk idiom has been broken into scores of far-flung dialects, from Glasgow to the East End of London to Alabama, into which translators dip freely for folksiness. Pevear and Volokhonsky do the American ‘play hooky’ for ‘truant’ and the southern English ‘mug’ for ‘face’. Leskov’s love of the common man doesn’t go so far as permitting peasants to introduce their own stories; they are framed by meta-narrators speaking a more genteel Russian, and Leskov extends the divide with his habit of peppering his folk-characters’ discourse with malapropisms. Pevear and Volokhonsky make a heroic effort to translate these but even in the original they are a patronising distraction and where, in ‘The Enchanted Wanderer’, Pevear and Volokhonsky translate the malapropism misanery as ‘missaneries’, I admire Dreiblatt for ignoring the japery and rendering it as ‘missionaries’.

Ivan in ‘The Enchanted Wanderer’ may be a bogatyr, but he is an adventurer without a quest, a hero without a goal other than what is immediately in front of him. His movement across the effectively infinite spaces of Russia, captured by Tartars, killing a beautiful Gypsy girl at her request, falling in love with a horse, marrying a 13-year-old, longing to fight for kicks, getting into a flogging contest, nursing a baby with goat’s milk, becoming a monk, map the psychic compass points that compete for the yearning Russian psyche – a conceptual West, heaven, earthly ecstasy. Shining structures of enlightenment and order in the gleam of the setting sun; the most utter abasement, which is also peace and rest, before a god more noble than oneself, a suffering god both piteous and lordly; and the pursuit of pleasure beyond hedonism, an abandonment to sexual, musical, alcoholic, aesthetic desires that leaves anyone close marked by the shrapnel of lust.

It is striking how often Ivan gives boredom as the trigger for the next lurch of his great trans-steppe spree. In this he enacts the spirit that unites hero, storyteller and listener. Boredom, Benjamin writes, is storytelling’s threatened essential: ‘the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience’. Perhaps in Leskov’s jittery invention of new turnings, fabulous episodes that follow one another like floats at a carnival, we see the benison of his condition: he was bored.