Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, Leskov. Leskov? In his native Russia, the 19th-century writer Nikolai Leskov is counted among the greats, yet in our country, few know his work and even fewer have actually read it. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the translating team (and married couple) who have twice been awarded the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize (for their versions of The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina), rightly believe that Leskov’s work deserves a wider English-language readership. Their latest translation project, The Enchanted Wanderer: and Other Stories, offers new renderings of 17 classic Leskov tales.
A number of common features distinguish many of these stories. Leskov often drew on the Russian tradition of “oral writing” called skaz, which incorporates the teller into the tale (much the way Chaucer did). It is a congenial technique that draws the reader in, as if sitting by a warm fire on a winter’s night listening to a casual storyteller impart some truth. It also lends an anecdotal element of realism to the stories, and in his day, Leskov—who was also a journalist—was sometimes accused of merely reporting things he had observed or heard. He never denied this claim. In the introduction, Pevear quotes the author as saying, “I love literature as a means enabling me to express what I hold to be true and good. If I cannot do that, literature is of no value to me: looking upon it as art is not my point of view. I absolutely cannot understand the concept of ‘art for art’s sake.’ No, art must be useful.”
Leskov’s entertaining tales are laced with humor and anecdotal realism.
Despite what may seem a high-minded manifesto, though, Leskov’s stories are at their core entertainments, albeit ones that unsentimentally portray the panoply of Russian society at the time—peasants, the mercantile class and the aristocracy alike. And, perhaps most notably, they are often very funny, capturing a peculiarly Slavic gallows humor even when the stakes are dire. Take, for example, the first story in the collection, “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (which opera fans will recognize as the source material for Dmitri Shostakovich’s controversial 20th-century composition, much reviled and banned by Stalin). As the title implies, the story chronicles the murderous doings of a discontented wife, yet even at its darkest moments, there is levity to be found in the amoral behavior of Katerina Lvovna and her lover.
Leskov’s stories unfold leisurely, and some of the key works featured here might better be described as novellas. The picaresque title story, for example, runs for some 120 pages. Yet there are shorter gems, too, such as “The Pearl Necklace,” a Christmastime tale about generosity of spirit, and “A Little Mistake,” which offers a bemused glimpse at the malleability of faith when employed to avert a scandal. The comic jewel “The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea”—here just called “Lefty”—is one of Leskov’s more widely known stories. Its hilarious folktale-like narrative tells of a Russian craftsman who competes with his English counterparts by building a small mechanical flea.
In a translator’s note, Pevear and Volokhonsky write that Leskov is notoriously difficult to translate, his stories being so indelibly Russian both in spirit and in their use of the colloquial. With these translations they have managed a formidable job, maintaining the master’s voice and allowing these essential Russian stories to retain a distinct 19th-century flavor while keeping them fresh and alive for the modern reader.