Nikolai (Semyonovich) Leskov 1831-1895
(Also transliterated as Nikoli, Nicolai, Nikolay; also Semenovich, Semionovich; also wrote under pseudonym Stebnitsky; also transliterated as Stenickij) Russian short story writer, novelist, and journalist.
One of the masters of the short story in Russian literature, Leskov wrote a prodigious number of tales in a wide variety of genres that realistically portray life at all levels of society in nineteenth-century Russia. Although his considerable literary output included novels, political pamphlets, and drama, he is best remembered for his satires, fairy tales, travelogues, ghost stories, sketches, narratives, and folk-inspired fables. Marked by colorful use of regional vernacular and virtuostic wordplay, Leskov's stories are concerned with the details of real life, especially that of Russia's peasantry. Leskov is praised in particular for his brilliant use of the skaz, or frame story, a third-person narrative tale with a first-person account embedded within it. This genre allowed Leskov to combine realism with elements of the ribald, bizarre, and supernatural. His stories also reflect a life-long interest in religion: Leskov was the first author to write about the Russian clergy in realistic—and later, satiric—terms, and some of his most moving tales describe the search for pure spirituality divested of the trappings of orthodox religion. Leskov's political stance made publication of his stories difficult at times, and many of his satires are political indictments disguised as simple fables to escape his censors. Critical recognition of his work during his lifetime was also damaged because of his unpopular views, but writers as distinguished as Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Maxim Gorky and later critics have admired his storytelling ability, his linguistic facility, and the characteristically Russian flavor of his writing.
Leskov was born in the District of Orel, in south central Russia, to a family of mixed class, a background that acquainted him with the rich diversity of Russian life. His father held a post in the Russian civil service, his mother was a member of the hereditary landed gentry, one of his grandfathers was a priest, and his grandmother was from the merchant class. Most of Leskov's childhood was spent in the country, where he came to know and developed sympathy for the lot of Russian peasants, both through visits to monasteries with his grandmother and from the tales told to him by his nurses. Leskov attended school in Orel from age ten until the early death of his parents when he was fifteen; these five years constituted his entire formal education. After his parents' death, Leskov joined the civil service and became a junior clerk in the Orel criminal court. In 1849 he obtained a posting to Kiev, where he lived with his uncle, a university professor. Always a voracious reader, Leskov took the opportunity while living with his uncle to further his self-education, making friends with students and professors, reading widely, and engaging in the university's intellectual environment. In 1853 he married Olga Smirnova, the daughter of a merchant, with whom he had two children. The marriage was unhappy from the beginning and lasted only eight years. For three of those eight years, Leskov traveled extensively throughout Russia in his new position as estate manager for a private corporation. During this period, exposed to different regional dialects and customs, Leskov gained even broader experience and knowledge of Russian life and custom, which provided much of the raw material he was to use in his novels and stories. It was also during this time that he discovered his talent for and love of writing, enlivening his business reports with touches of humor and narrative description.
In 1860 Leskov began a career as a journalist in St. Petersburg, where he wrote stories about serfdom, the exploitation of workers, and the oppression of the religious sect the Old Believers. One of his earliest stories, "The Musk Ox," written during this period, is a fictionalized account of an unsuccessful peasant rebellion. An 1862 article Leskov wrote calling for an investigation of the events surrounding an arson attributed to a group of students was misunderstood as a denunciation of revolutionary circles. Consequently, he was labeled as a conservative and shunned by most leading writers and thinkers. This conflict increased after Leskov, out of bitterness and injury, published two novels directed against liberal and radical leaders, No Way Out (1864) and At Daggers Drawn (1870-71). Because of the animosity between Leskov and members of the Left, many of his short stories, which he began writing in the 1860s, were rejected by the leading periodicals of the day.
In the early 1870s, Leskov made a brief but uneasy alliance with a conservative critic, Mikhail Katkov, whose influential Russian Messenger published two of Leskov's first successes, the series of chronicles, Cathedral Folk (1872), and the story, "The Sealed Angel" (1874). Because Leskov wrote of his misgivings about the policies of the Right, they soon dismissed him from their ranks, leaving him an outsider to both liberal and conservative camps. However, his sympathetic portrayal of the orthodox Russian clergy in Cathedral Folk indirectly led to an appointment to the Ministry of Education, selecting books for schools and public libraries, since the Orthodox Church was closely allied with the Tsarist government. Leskov retained the post until 1883, when it was deemed that his increasingly satirical depictions of orthodoxy were not compatible with his position. His collection of sketches The Little Things in a Bishop's Life was banned by the government later that year. Leskov continued his denunciations of the Church, and his later writings are preoccupied with moral and religious themes. These writings include a series of stories set in the early centuries of the Christian world about the lives of "righteous men," who demonstrate true understanding of Christian virtue. In his last years, Leskov found an ally in his compatriot Leo Tolstoy, whose religious beliefs had much in common with his own and whom Leskov admired almost to the point of worship. Tolstoy's influence is apparent in almost all Leskov's writings in the last decade of his life, even though Leskov's preferred form in those years—satire—was a considerable departure from Tolstoy's moralistic tales. Ironically, the satirical works Leskov produced toward the end of his life were deemed too radical for the most liberal journals, and again he had difficulty publishing them. Leskov died in 1895 of heart disease.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Leskov's career as a fiction writer was notably different from that of other Russian writers of his generation, coming as he did from a modest background. With his lack of formal education, Leskov had few literary aspirations as a youth and only started his writing career at age thirty as a journalist. His early tales are told with the realism of a reporter, and indeed his work throughout his life is characterized by his keen narrative sense and the often blurred lines between fact and fiction. Despite his late start, by 1862 Leskov was producing stories that are still counted among his finest, including "The Musk-Ox," "The Mocker," and "Life of a Peasant Martyress." By 1865 he had published his acknowledged masterpiece, the long tale "Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk." In his thirty years as a writer Leskov produced five novels, and those he wrote early in his career; otherwise, he concentrated on short forms. Leskov acknowledged that he had difficulty with structure when it came to novels, which was likely due in part to his composing under pressure of serialization in periodicals. Interestingly, many of his best stories, including "Lady MacBeth" and "The Enchanted Wanderer" (also called "The Enchanted Pilgrim"), are unusually long but do not suffer from structural flaws. Notable, widely anthologized stories among Leskov's considerable output include "The Sealed Angel," a story that reflects his interest in iconography and admiration of the vitality of common Russian people; "Golovan the Immortal," a tale of a "righteous man"; and "On the Edge of the World," a tale of an orthodox clergyman's discovery of spiritual fulfillment in decency and kindness, and not in the rituals of the Church. Perhaps Leskov's best-known short story is the humorous "The Tale of the Crosseyed Lefthander from Tula and the Steal Flea (A Workshop Legend)" (sometimes called "The Lefthander," "Lefty," or "The Steel Flea"), a tale that the critic Hugh McLean regards as the work Russians associate with Leskov in the way that Americans connect Tom Sawyer to Mark Twain. However, Leskov's reputation is not so much tied to particular stories as it is to the skaz form, of which he is considered the architect and most accomplished exponent. A typical Leskovian skaz employs a realistic frame story in which a credible narrator, often a sophisticated or well-educated person, sets the stage for a second tale to be told in the first person by a less credible, often naive and uneducated, character. The first-person account is generally spoken in dialect and told in humorous terms, with plenty of punning and witty wordplay, and often contains touches of the supernatural. As many critics have pointed out, Leskov used the form to considerable aesthetic and practical effect, concealing within these apparently naive tales his biting criticism of the government and clergy. Leskov used the skaz form for his very first short story, "A Case That Was Dropped," and continued to use it throughout his career in some of his finest work, including "The Amazon," "The Little Fool," "Vale of Tears," and "The White Eagle."
Leskov was bitter throughout his writing career at the abuse and neglect he felt he suffered at the hands of critics. After his early break with the Left, the publication of his stories was often in second-rate journals and newspapers, and he was not welcomed into the company of the literati. However, Leskov managed to find an enthusiastic reading audience, and in his later years a few of his literary contemporaries praised the quintessentially Russian nature of his work. In 1889-90 his collected novels, stories, and sketches were gathered in ten volumes, a mark of his relative renown, but they never garnered serious consideration by contemporary reviewers. An expanded edition of his collected works was printed posthumously in 1897, and a more comprehensive collection of thirty-six volumes (which still makes up only a fraction of what he wrote) was released in 1902-03. After the 1917 Revolution, because of Leskov's supposed political conservatism and religious bent, his work garnered little press, although he was acknowledged by the Soviets as a writer of distinction. But no serious Russian scholarship on his work appeared until 1945, and it was more than ten years after that when the first Soviet edition of his collected works was published. Common critical complaints against Leskov's work during his life and today are that his stories come too nakedly and with insufficient artistry out of real life; that they are not organized around a central plot but rather made up of anecdotes; and that he carries his tales with florid language at the expense of content. Further, the fact that he did his best work in the "lesser genres," which the great Russian novelists often used as mere exercises, damaged his reputation as a serious artist. Most critics today, however, acknowledge Leskov's mastery of the genres in which he worked, and scholars have remarked on the subtleties in his stories that are often lost on first reading. Even so, while Leskov has finally earned a place in the pantheon of Russian literature, his works are still not well known outside Russia. The first English translation of his work was a small volume of stories published in 1922, and a couple of dozen small collections of his tales have appeared since then. Scholarship on Leskov in English is sparse, but the critics writing in English who review his work agree that Leskov's genius is original and his stories have much to convey, not only about nineteenth-century Russia, but about the wisdom to be gained by experiencing fully the wonders of real life.