(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Nikolai Leskov, early in his career, developed a characteristic form for his short stories: the “memoir”—half fiction, half fact—with a narrating “I” who regales the reader with tales of the colorful personalities and unusual events that he has experienced in his adventurous life. The border between “fiction” and “fact” is left intentionally blurred—an adroit illusionistic stratagem in an age that claimed the label “realism.” In “Ovtsebyk” (“The Musk-Ox”), for example, the narrator is presumably to be equated, at least by unsophisticated readers, with the actual author. Indeed, the story contains, in a lengthy digression, a lyrical account of what are believed to be the actual pilgrimages to monasteries on which the real Leskov as a boy accompanied his grandmother. The main focus of the story, however, is on the mature narrator’s encounters with a character who illustrates Leskov’s conviction of the futility of the radical intellectuals’ efforts to stir the peasantry to revolt.

“The Stinger”

“Iazvitel’nyi” (“The Stinger”) evokes a theme Leskov touched on many times later, the difficulties encountered by the foreigner in Russia. An Englishman working as an estate manager in Russia comes to grief and brings disaster on his peasant charges through his inability to understand their mentality. The story avoids the impression of chauvinism, however, by the narrator’s clear recognition that the downfall of the humane Englishman is caused not by any Russian superiority of soul but by the peasants’ stubborn barbarism and backwardness.

“The Amazon”

“Voitel’nitsa” (“The Amazon”) remains one of the classic examples of what the Russians call skaz, in which a frame narrator, more or less identifiable with the author, hears and records an inner, oral narrative, which is related in picturesque, “marked” language by a folk character. In this case, the inner narrator is one of Leskov’s most colorful literary offspring, a Petersburg procuress. Catering to the secret sexual needs of the capital, she has entrée into all levels of society, and her language is a mixture of correspondingly disparate layers, the substratum of local dialect being overlaid with upper-class words, often of Western origin, but not always perfectly understood or accurately reproduced. Her motley language is in perfect harmony with her personality: vulgar, down-to-earth, cynical, yet endlessly vital.

“Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”

“Ledi Makbet Mtsenskogo uezda” (“Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”), though somewhat atypical in technique, remains one of Leskov’s most famous stories; it was the basis for the libretto of Dmitry Shostakovich’s opera. Like Turgenev’s earlier “Gamlet Shchigrovskogo uezda” (“Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District”), the title oxymoronically situates a regal Shakespearean archetype in a maximally unromantic, provincial Russian setting; the story itself demonstrates that such human universals know no boundaries of place, time, or class. Presented in a more conventional omniscient-author format than the pseudo-memoirs, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” is a lurid tale of adultery and murder in a provincial merchant milieu.

In 1866, Leskov began the most ambitious literary enterprise of his career: to encapsulate in a single artistic work, class by class, the provincial Russia he knew so well. The life of a single town would serve as its microcosm. The huge project was never completed, but the section dealing with the clergy eventually emerged in 1872 as a full-length book, the celebrated novel The Cathedral Folk. This volume opened up for Russian literature a hitherto unexplored social territory, the provincial clergy, presented in a highly attractive form, with a winning mixture of sentiment and humor. Leskov insisted that The Cathedral Folk was not a novel, a genre he considered hackneyed in form and limited in content to man-woman “romance,” but rather a “chronicle,” a genre already made classic in Russian literature by Sergei Aksakov. The chronicle had the advantage for Leskov of legitimizing almost unlimited structural looseness, since its only explicit guiding principle is the sequence of events in time.

Leskov sustained a high level of narrative art through his works of the early 1870’s.

“The Sealed Angel”

“Zapechatlennyi angel” (“The Sealed Angel”) is one of his most virtuoso performances in the art of skaz. Its narrator is a former Old Believer whose speech combines two highly marked linguistic stocks: the religious jargon of the “ancient piety” and the technical language of icon-painting. In this picturesque language, he relates a stirring, skillfully paced tale of his comrades’ struggle to recapture a...

(The entire section is 2006 words.)