Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: selected stories of Nikolai Leskov

Nikolai Leskov, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Selected Stories of Nikolai Leskov, New York Review Books

This beautifully presented volume, published by New York Review Books, contains six lengthy stories or novellas by Nikolai Leskov, and an excellent introduction by Donald Rayfield, who has also translated four of these stories. The other translators are Robert Chandler and William Edgerton.

Leskov, who has been described as ‘one of Russia’s greatest writers’ and a significant influence on Chekhov, has been largely overlooked in the West, although in 2016 a film was made of the title novella which transposed the setting to Yorkshire, England.

This same novella was first published by Dostoevsky in the literary magazine, Epoch, in 1865. Like Dostoevsky, Leskov was progressive and experimental in his approach to fiction, and, like Dostoevsky, Leskov uses European tropes in order to suggest the difference, or otherness, in Russian identity. In 1880, Dostoevsky gave a keynote speech at the great Pushkin Celebrations in 1880. There is a description of the response to Dostoevsky’s speech In Joseph Frank’s monumental biography of Dostoevsky. We are told that the storm of applause went on more than an hour, with ‘stamping weeping hugging kissing… at least one person lost consciousness…’

The subject of that speech was the Russian nation, ‘a new and wonderful phenomenon in the history of mankind’ and the kind of literature that might do justice to it. Dostoevsky claimed that Pushkin’s role in the creation of such a literature was ‘extraordinary and prophetic,’ assimilating and transcending the work of European writers, to create a ‘unique manifestation’ of the Russian spirit in literature. He concluded:

‘In the course of time I believe that we — not we, of course, but our children to come — will all without exception understand that to be a true Russian does indeed mean to aspire finally to reconcile the contradictions of Europe.’

Dostoevsky’s own literary project resonates with the recognition that 19th century European realism is not adequate to express Russia’s vast territories, multiple ethnicities, its population of (recently liberated) serfs, its wandering, impoverished princes. Such works as The Double, or Notes From Underground anticipate existentialist and absurdist fiction and his longer novels contain elements of modernism and the surreal. Similarly, in Leskov’s work, there is a range of genre, narrative technique and subject matter that suggests a breadth of project.

 Reviewing an earlier collection in The Spectator, Robert Chandler wrote that the scope of Leskov’s work is vast, and this collection introduces us to that scope. The selected stories draw on fable (the Steel Flea), documented legal histories (The Unmercenary Engineers), classical tales translated from the Greek (the Innocent Prudentius) and of course, Shakespearean tragedy.

Leskov was not the first Russian author to transpose the setting of a Shakespearean tragedy. Six years earlier, Turgenev published his Hamlet of the Shchigrovksy District – a portrayal of the psychological effects of superfluity, and solipsism. Turgenev uses the soliloquies or monologues that characterise Shakespeare’s play, but the setting of his story, a tiny damp bedroom in a rural location, removes at a swift stroke the grandeur and portent of the original. The setting is central to the satire, which is directed against the landowning classes.

Similarly, the transposition of Leskov’s story alters the genre from tragedy to gothic thriller with elements of dark satire. It also accounts for some of the differences between Lady Macbeth of Mtensk and the recent film of that title, set in England. In the original, the Ismailov estate is in an outlying rural area of Mtensk, which is itself some distance from the capital.  It is not the site of a national conflict, although there is certainly the suggestion that it is lonely and bleak. Katerina Ismailov is not of the royal court, although she marries a man who owns land and serfs; her husband is no threat to the Tsar.

Like Lady Macbeth, Katerina is more ruthless and ambitious than either her lover or her husband, but she is more actively participatory than her original in Shakespeare’s play. She doesn’t merely instigate, but perpetrates the murders, and without, apparently, much reflection or internal argument. Unlike Lady Macbeth, Katerina shows no remorse.

Katerina has also been compared to Madame Bovary, because like Emma, Katerina is married to a man she can’t love, and is bored by her situation, but she does not have Emma’s interiority – her memories, yearning, or conflict.  We don’t at any point feel the extent of a suffering that might instigate murder. Unlike the protagonist of Turgenev’s Hamlet, Katerina is not given to introspection at all. In the opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, by Shostakovich, Katerina’s unbearable loneliness, explicit sexuality and brutality are heightened to a savage intensity. This apparently did not appeal to Stalin, who walked out before the final scene.

There are other points of comparison with Macbeth –  surreal and hallucinatory episodes for instance, but in the novella Katerina is regularly associated with animal symbolism, which seems to take the place of a more detailed psychological study. The story ends, for instance, with an image that suggests she has become a wholly predatory animal.

The ending is significantly different from both the play and the film. Leskov’s novella does not end with the cataclysmic battle and reported suicide of Shakespeare’s play. Katerina and her lover are sent to Siberia, that uniquely Russian penalty, and the details of imprisonment are vividly realised. Katerina is betrayed and whipped by her lover. She gives birth in a prison hospital and wants nothing to do with her child.  Lady Macbeth knows ‘how tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me’, Katerina, apparently, has no such feeling. If Lady Macbeth’s famous cry of ‘unsex me here’ shifts her into the monstrous, Katerina is dehumanised in a different way, as she kills the woman her lover has betrayed her with by dragging her off the ferry. ‘Sonetka had disappeared. A few seconds later, as the current swept her away from the ferry, she flung her arms up in the air again, but just then Katerina Lvovna appeared from another wave, rose almost waist-high above the water, and flung herself at Sonetka like a powerful pike attacking a roach. Neither of them was seen again.’

What Leskov achieves by the shift in setting is partly directed against the place of women within that setting. Katerina is certainly transgressive, and punished for it. She is primitive, in much the same way as the rural culture within which she exists is primitive; Leskov could not at any point be accused of bucolic sentiment. It is unsurprising that the transposition of the story to England in the film necessitated a different ending, one that develops the theme of female power as opposed to degradation.

The third novella in this volume the Enchanted Wanderer demonstrates the geographical scope and compass of Leskov’s work. The hero ‘relates his entire life…taking in almost all Russia and its people, from the Arctic to the Black Sea.’ This is Rus rather than European Russia, the vast swathe of territory which, as Orlando Figes has said in his monumental cultural history of Russia, tended to be ignored or disparaged as barbaric by proponents of the ‘westernising influence’ of European literature.

The eponymous wanderer is certainly barbarous (he demonstrates his love of horses by punching them in the head so that their brains fall out of their nostrils) immune to love and (almost) immune to the extremity of his own suffering. He inhabits his own barbarism without apology or concession. There is an ironic distance in his narration, rather than introspection or interiority, which allows for sweeping changes in identity and role as he passes through a range of rural or urban territories, all of which appear equally alien and bizarre.

Much of Leskov’s satire in this story is directed at religion. The narrator, for instance, is captured by nomadic Tatars, crippled and enslaved by them for eleven years. When two missionary clergymen finally arrive with the intention of converting the Tatars, he begs them to take him with him, but they refuse for fear of offending the Tatars.

‘Does that mean,’ (he asks) ‘that because of your politics I have to spend the rest of my useless life with them?’

‘Well, does it matter, son, where you spend your useless life?’ they reply.

They advise him to pray, because God is merciful, and might save him. They remind him that he is a slave and the apostle Paul said that slaves must submit, and with this unsatisfactory answer he has to be content.

The Tatars’ treatment of the missionaries is summary; one is found floating in a lake, beheaded and flayed. ‘the Tatars are very good at that,’ the narrator observes. Later, using fireworks to convince the Tatars of his supernatural powers, the wanderer manages to escape on foot across the steppes, where he sees no one for 3 days.  And when he finally meets a Chuvash man, he is reluctant to accept the offer of a horse, because the Chuvash ‘seems like an infidel’.

‘Who is your god?’ he asks,

and the Chuvash replies,

 ‘Everything is god to me: the sun…the moon…the stars.’

In such ways, obliquely or directly, Leskov exposes the contradictions in religion and religious belief. It is not surprising, therefore, that he frequently ran in to trouble with the censors. In his introduction Donald Rayfield tells us that some of Leskov’s work was not available until after the revolution. Yet Leskov reserves most of his satire for the hypocrisy of the established church and government. In the Unmercenary Engineers, for instance, the integrity of the protagonist means that he is destroyed by a politico—religious system that demands conformity. Elsewhere, Leskov is sympathetic to the wide spectrum of beliefs found in Russia’s various territories.

Anti-Semitism features in these stories, but on more than one occasion the narrator is sympathetic to Jewish people, and to other oppressed groups such as the Roma. Most strikingly, The Sealed Angel contains an empathetic portrayal of Old Believers. Old Believers were frequently persecuted or forcibly converted to the established church, for adhering to a form of Eastern Orthodoxy that predated the 17th century reforms of the Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, yet in this story the focus is on their integrity and artistry. Leskov goes into great detail about the painting of icons. He is as knowledgeable about the artistic process and its spiritual significance as he is about nomadic culture and the taming of wild horses: the level of attention he brings to these forgotten worlds does not merely add an extra layer of authentication or interest for the reader; it suggests respect. It is a presentation of otherness or ostranenie that differs from writers such as Gogol, or Babel where the narrator accentuates the shock of the routine atrocity or outrage. Leskov invites the reader to accept without comment the strangeness of character, action and ideology in his stories, in a way that extends the internal boundaries of the reader. In this sense the stories reflect Chekhov’s ideal of objectivity and audacity, although perhaps with less compassion and more cynicism.

Leskov’s stories are characterised by a unique combination of immersive experience and ironic distance, and by a range of narrative techniques. The Unmercenary Engineers, for instance, is hedged by disclaimers. Although based on a factual case It draws attention to the gaps in historical documentation and casts doubt on itself in a way that anticipates the work of later, post-modern writers. The linguistic inventiveness and wit of The Steel Flea attracted the attention of the censors, who saw it as an ‘attack on Russian language norms’. Today, we might read it as playfully dense and allusive, rich in wordplay– ‘the ‘calumnist on the Daily Telegraft’. The neologisms and wordplay draw attention to the surface texture of the language itself, disrupting the linear connections between language and reality in a way worthy of Borges or Barth. It is a tribute to William Edgerton, that he manages to translate these convincingly. In the Spectator, Robert Chandler says Leskov’s shifts of register are hard to reproduce. ‘In some respects, he is an archaic writer, less a novelist than a storyteller; in other respects he is a modernist, a poet whose focus is on the behaviour of words themselves.’

Leskov’s characters are outcast, barbaric, and transgressive, they extend across a spectrum of Russian society although they are, on the whole, lower class. “No one,” VS Pritchett maintained, “catches so truthfully the diversity of national character in his time.”

It is probably also true to say that few writers employ such variety of technique or linguistic virtuosity. There is the ingenious wordplay and inventiveness of the The Steel Flea, the adaptation of classical Greek tropes, chorus and epithets in The innocent Prudentius, and other embedded forms of intertextuality. Turgenev, for instance, had an estate in the district of Mtensk where the title novella, recalling Turgenev’s Hamlet of the Shchigrovksy District, is set.

In Natasha’s Dance, Figes describes the proliferation of travel writing in the late 18th and 19th centuries, particularly deriving from the popular European tour. One might say that The Enchanted Wanderer is a different kind of travel writing, taking in the steppes, the Mongolian plains, and the darker haunts of remote towns; the kind of tour the cultural elite were less willing to undertake. In all of the stories in this selection, Leskov adopts European tropes and genres and adapts them, breaking away from what Orlando Figes has called ‘the intellectual empire of the French’. The literary allusions, intertextuality and wordplay invert the established relationship between Russian and European literature while exposing the gaps and contradictions in that relationship.

Leskov has been described as the most ‘quintessentially Russian of writers’ and in these pages an image of Russia emerges that is multiple and polyphonic, uncontainable by the narrative strategies of 19th century realism. In an era when Russia was energetically rewriting itself, Leskov foregrounds the narratives, settings and voices left out of the script.