A little known Russian master of the short story.
Nikolai Leskov began his writing career as a journalist, was a contemporary of such Russian greats as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and started publishing fiction in 1862. He traveled widely around his homeland of Russia and was intimately acquainted with all levels of society, a knowledge that is reflected in his stories and novellas. He wrote several full length novels, but it is the shorter form in which he excelled.
The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, is a collection of Leskov’s best. The stories in large part describe 19th century Russian life, although at break neck speed. There’s never a dull moment. Socially, the focus is on the clergy, the military, tradesmen, artisans and the many roles women play. In one of Leskov’s most famous stories, "The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk", bored housewife Katerina takes up with the farmhand Sergei and undertakes several murders, allowing her to seize control of her husband’s considerable estate. While it is a breathtaking story of unrepentant wickedness, it also highlights women's expected role as submissive servants to house and husband. Other stories exemplify a society that is deeply superstitious, with a runaway imagination. “The Spook”, an engaging story about a poor social outcast living on the fringe of town, shows how the misunderstood can find themselves turned into an ogre and scapegoat for anything that goes wrong.
The great thing about Leskov’s short stories are their sheer energy and verve. Everything travels at a rate of knots, with snappy dialogue and a host of buoyant characters. There’s much humour and humanity here, too. Leskov takes pity and forgives the human condition, while also exploiting it ruthlessly for entertainment value. These stories are a joy to read, like nothing you’ve ever read before, and like all great literature, one reading will never be enough.
The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories, by Nikolai Leskov. Published by Vintage Classics. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba