I only heard of Leskov recently (Irving Howe and Walter Benjamin both wrote about him, so perhaps this is my fault), and I can’t understand why he isn’t better known in English. Leskov may not be in the absolute top rank, but he certainly deserves a place alongside other big 19th century names like Goncharov, Lermontov, and Shchedrin. But no, even though his most famous story, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” was turned into an opera by Shostakovich, there’s very little on him in English. Leskov is less spiritual and more folkloric than his contemporaries, preferring not to deal in big concepts like family and fate, and perhaps this makes him less archetypally Russian. But especially in the massive novel-length tale “The Enchanted Wanderer,” he pulls off an extended anti-everyman epic that has echoes of the less satirical (and less crazy) side of Gogol, but even more so, Kleist.
I adore Kleist, and I follow Gabriel Josipovici’s line that Kleist was a singular and oppositional figure in Germanic literature, pointing away from the dominant trends of the time. Leskov is nowhere near as perverse, but the willingness with which the stories blithely take hairpin turns and lapse into burlesque is something Leskov has to himself.
“The Enchanted Wanderer” plays up the blitheness, as our hero, the strong giant Ivan, is not the most reactive sort, and greets his many crazy and painful picaresque adventures with more nonchalance than anything else. For most of the story, his calm ability to take things in stride comes as simply an odd quirk, but by the end it appears integral to Leskov’s portrayal of the world. He is a reluctant storyteller. Late in his life, as a monk, some people on a boat ask him to tell his long life story, and he eventually agrees.
The story then has several more or less discrete sections with jarring transitions between them. Here’s a synopsis:
“You took my life without giving me a chance of repentance.”
“Well,” I replied, “it’s tough luck and I’m very sorry, but what do you expect me to do about it now? I didn’t do it on purpose, did I? Besides,” I said, “what have you got to grumble about? You’re dead and that’s that.”
…”You will suffer many hardships and adversities, but you will not die until the day appointed for your doom, and then you’ll remember your mother’s promise and you’ll become a monk.”
This gives a decent idea of the eccentric nature of the story, but not of what lifts it above the level of a picaresque folktale. It’s in the telling that Leskov draws the pieces together, not just in his maintaining certain traits to the narrative but also in how he rejects other more conventional ones.
Leskov seems to have had a thing for telling stories that go on longer than their expected end point. “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” famously does this, but here it’s even more perverse. The whole story is structured to lead up to Ivan joining a monastery and fulfilling his prophesied destiny, and yet when he does finally become a monk, the story goes on as if nothing has changed. He still gets into misadventures, he still falls into slapstick antics, and he still suffers in his usual nonchalant way. Far from being any particular destiny for him, his engagement with religion turns out as arbitrarily as everything before.
So if the destiny angle is not fulfilled, what forms the commonality of his adventures? It’s Ivan’s character. Ivan is not a cerebral man; he primarily acts out of instinct, and he doesn’t learn much from his experiences. He is not appreciably different from his younger self at the end of the story. But throughout, his reactions follow a certain moral pattern. He can act out of rage or out of kindness, but he tends to show a great sympathy for women and possesses a sense of honor that seems more innate than situational. If he feels bad about something, no one is able to stop him from proclaiming his unworthiness; if an authority condemns him for something he believed to be right, he ignores the conflict and just walks off. And these reactions spring forth fully formed from his unconscious; he seems to watch them as they happen rather than choose them, and this is complemented by his blase attitude toward the strangest happenings (shown well in the dialogue above, where he is ridiculously at ease with the ghost of a man he just inadvertently killed). And he has no lessons to tell to his audience on the barge; he’s just telling a story.
So while there is a melancholic fatalism to the plot, Ivan’s personality makes it difficult to greet the events with any sort of tragic sense, because his own attitude is such that he knows he will survive anything, even if he doesn’t wish to. This makes him very much the archetype of a “wanderer,” but one without angst and one untroubled by regret, concerned neither with salvation nor damnation. Yet he is not a holy fool in any sense, as he suffers greatly and maintains a consistent, though buried, moral posture throughout. As with Kleist, the whole story holds together in spite of its refusing any easy shape that it might fit.