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.’

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