The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories by Nikolai Leskov, Richard Pevear (translator) and Larissa Volokhonsky (translator)
|The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories by Nikolai Leskov, Richard Pevear (translator) and Larissa Volokhonsky (translator)|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: A fascinating collection of short stories introducing us to Anton Chekhov's favourite writer. A volume to savour and concentrate on rather than to read with the TV going in the background.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 608||Date: April 2013|
|Publisher: Vintage Classics|
This is a collection of 17 Nikolai Leskov stories as mixed in subject matter as they are in length. From the very short Spirit of Madame de Genlis, warning of the dire consequences of selecting literature for a mollycoddled princess, to the novella-length The Enchanted Wanderer telling the tale of the apparently immortal monk who prayed for suicide victims, Leskov (aided greatly by the talented translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) unlocks the mores, traditions, religion and superstitions of 19th century Russia for a modern readership.
I must admit, with a degree of shame that I'm more familiar with Nikolai Leskov's contemporaries (the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky) than I am with him. To put it another way, I hadn't heard of the chap before submitting to my growing sense of intrigue when I spotted this book on the Bookbag Towers shelves. However, having read it, I must admit he's rather good.
It's hard to believe that someone who wrote so prolifically only had 5 years of formal education between his birth in 1831 and his first fictional piece in 1862. As a journalist, before and during his fiction writing, he boasted over 600 separate articles. I could go on to tell you about his colourful life and the recurring themes in his work, how he incorporated real life events into the stories or his penchant for self-inclusion as narrator, however Richard Pevear does this much better in his comprehensive notes at the beginning. I'll just concentrate on a 21st century reader's impression of a 19th century Russian writer.
Pevear and Volokhonsky obviously hold the author in high regard and have done a great job with the translations. It's all in ordinary rather than highly literary English (if you know what I mean) although some of the stories (especially the longer ones) call for concentration due to the complexity of Leskov's rambles. Yes, he liked a good ramble; his stories rarely get from A to B without popping round to see D and E. His literary tourism is demonstrated in stories like The Sealed Angel (a tale of workmen and a special religious icon) and The White Eagle (a marvellous encounter with an apparently perfect man) unveiling a story within a story or a diversion that saunters back. This isn't a criticism though. The style may not suit ever readers' patience quotient but for me it adds to the charm and underlines the conversational tone of the narrations; we're actually being told these stories.
There are also some wonderful insights into Leskov's now historical world and culture. For instance Singleminded is packed with attitudes and customs surrounding visiting dignitaries while we meet one of Leskov's comic creations, civil servant Alexander Ryzhov. Going one better, The Flaming Patriot actually includes an encounter with the Habsburg Emperor, Franz Josef himself.
Speaking of comedy, although none of the stories are laugh out loud funny to a modern audience who, perhaps, have lost some of the satire's perspective over time, many can raise a smile or two.
If I were to pick personal favourites, they would probably change on a daily basis, but today? Today I would plump for the wickedly brutal Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk: while her husband's away, Katerina Lvovna does a Lady Chatterley and then her husband returns…
Indeed, Richard Pevear has collated an accessible and enthralling introduction to Nikolai, providing encouragement to research the man and his times in order to increase understanding and enjoyment of an author I'm glad I've met and whom I'll revisit again and again over the decades to come.
If you've enjoyed this and would like to read more Russian literature, we can recommend this modern classic in the making: The Light and the Dark by Mikhail Shishkin and Andrew Bromfield (translator).
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