Although his reputation has never rivaled those of other great Russian masters from his age, the stories and short novels of Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov (leh-SKOF) have retained their appeal because of the distinctive and almost inimitable blend of social realism, satire, and fantasy that in different measures may be found in his various works. His father, Semyon Dmitriyevich Leskov, was a landowner of modest means who had purchased an estate in Oryol province, south of Moscow; his mother was from the lesser nobility. Leskov was the first of seven children. Although his formal education was rather sketchy—he went to a local Gymnasium for about five years, until 1846, and later attended a few courses at the University of Kiev without receiving a degree—personal impressions of his social milieu, and of differences among religious groups in the provinces, had a measurable effect upon his outlook. Leskov also had a remarkable grasp of regional dialects and other forms of vernacular speech, and during travels in southern Russia he acquired some mastery of Polish and Ukrainian. In many of his later works he was able faithfully to reproduce forms of usage peculiar to certain settings. For a while he worked as a legal clerk, as a treasury assistant, and as an army recruiting agent. In 1853 he married Olga Vasilyevna Smirnova, the daughter of a merchant. They had two children, but she was emotionally unbalanced, and some years after their separation in 1861 she was confined to an insane asylum. After various kinds of employment, including work for a firm dealing with agricultural supplies, Leskov set out for St. Petersburg to pursue a literary career. His first story was published in 1862, after which he produced several prose works of varying length.
Among the most effective of his early works was “Ovtsebyk” (“The Musk-Ox”), a somber tale of misplaced idealism in a troubled young man, who hangs himself after his efforts at social improvement can be realized neither through religious devotion nor by revolutionary agitation. Other depictions of rural life seemed to avoid positive typecasting in favor of Leskov’s own vision of grim peasant realities. Seduction, wanton violence, both calculated and random, and drunkenness were shown in all of their sordid manifestations; superstitions and folk legends in quirky and unusual forms were recounted against a gloomy background where education and enlightenment could scarcely be discerned. Leskov frequently adopted a narrative format that resembled that of rural storytellers; on other occasions, however, he found a more detached and ironic stance appropriate. One of his most famous works, “Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda” (“Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”), is a haunting tale of murder and betrayal; to prevent open discovery of her affair, an attractive married woman, with a disconcerting...
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