Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The long, convoluted title of Leskov’s work serves a dual function. It gives the tale a comic tinge at the outset, causing the reader to chuckle and to suspect that the narrative will be colored by fantasy. At the same time, its inclusion of such a detail as the protagonist’s left-handedness is an indication of the humorous but intense nationalism of the story. Both expectations—the fantastic and the nationalistic—are realized during the unfolding of the plot. It would be impossible for Lefty and his coworkers, merely by “sharpening” their eyesight, to see details with the naked eye that ordinary mortals are able to view only through a powerful microscope. However, one accepts this miraculous incongruity in the spirit of the work, an air of purest whimsy despite the historical background. Similarly, the fact that the hero is left-handed adds much to the story’s effect. Indeed, Russians emphasize this aspect by commonly referring to the tale simply as “Lefty.” The author’s purpose is well served because the resultant feeling on the part of Russians is that even a left-handed, scruffy, admittedly uneducated Russian can surpass anything that the supposedly civilized, urbane English can do. Prejudice about left-handers being what it is, this seemingly insignificant characterization becomes a vital symbol at work for the author, and the fact that Lefty has no other name known to the reader underscores its importance.

Much of the humor inherent in the work derives from the author’s remarkably creative use of language. Using a device known as skaz, from the Russian for “tell,” or “narrate,” Leskov painted such a deceptive verbal landscape that one must read it very carefully for full appreciation of its merits. Skaz involves the use of fictitious narrators with highly original peculiarities of language, and the linguistic distortions, puns, and malapropisms of the tale, particularly those uttered by Lefty and Platov, are virtually untranslatable. The story’s enjoyableness even in translation is the result in large part of its fancifulness and cleverness.