In his 1936 essay, “The Storyteller,” the German literary theorist Walter Benjamin made a claim that shocked me as fresh news when I read it some 80 years later. The critic’s thesis, which he wastes no time making, is that “the art of storytelling is dying out. Encounters with people who know how to tell a story properly are becoming ever rarer. […] It’s as if a capacity we had considered inalienable, the most reliable of all our capacities, has been taken from us: the ability to share experiences.”
I was studying fiction at the time and would have liked to beg pardon; the incommunicability of experience is, for a young writer without much of his own to speak of, hard luck. But, when I tried, I couldn’t think of a single proper story I had ever been told, nor a situation in which I would tell one.
The subtitle of Benjamin’s famous essay is “Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov,” and if that name is familiar to English readers, it is likely only from this context. For Benjamin, Leskov is the counterpoint to all his claims about our impoverishment, a storyteller par excellence. But his works are hardly available in this language, and even in his homeland he was curiously shunned, considered peripheral to the great Russian Realists who were all his contemporaries. “It’s strange that Dostoyevsky is so widely read,” Tolstoy once remarked, “while Leskov is scarcely read. He is a truthful writer.”
Until recently, there were only a few works of Leskov in English, some out of print, others marketed as children’s books. Then, last October, New York Review Books released Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Selected Stories of Nikolai Leskov, with four of the six long works newly translated by Donald Rayfield. The time for appraising a great critic’s praise has come.
For Benjamin, a story is “experience that is passed down from one mouth to the next. […] And of all who have written down their stories, the greatest are those whose writing differs the least from the speech of the many anonymous tellers.” Leskov’s tales are the yarns of monks and mechanics, travelers across the vastness of Russia’s steppes. Quite often he places his story literally in the mouth of the protagonist, who must justify their opinions over the span of a snowy evening, or entertain company for the duration of a ferry ride.
If the very marrow of a story is the oral tradition, that means it takes up real time in its telling, and Leskov goes to great lengths to help us forget that we are reading a book, which can be set down or picked up at any point. Though certain stories stretch upwards of a hundred pages in Lady Macbeth, they compel us to read them in a single sitting, propelled by the centrifugal force of the narrator. Leskov casts both himself and the reader in the audience’s seat; although many elements are undoubtedly of his own making, he is far more content to play the part of recordist, a literate body who overheard the events set forth.
“I am merely passing on what was believed by people who were alive at the time and who put their own interpretation on whatever they heard and saw,” Leskov writes at the opening of “The Unmercenary Engineers.” “Such perceptions may not be fully accurate, but they are interesting, and they make for just as vivid a story as any historical tale or novel in which the plot itself and the details are invented by an author.” To what extent Leskov is the creator of these stories is sometimes hard to decipher, and somewhat beside the point. In several instances, he adds his own citations to the page, pointing out when a historical figure strolls through, and even conjecting the likelihood that they would have been in the right place at the right time to make an appearance.
His tales thus serve as a kind of alternative history, which is, of course, what stories always are. They are explanations for the how the world got to be the way it is, substituting folk knowledge for posterity. “The Steel Flea,” one of Leskov’s most famous and absurd tales, ends with the Crimean War. In the narrator’s account, however, Russia loses not out of inadequate firepower but because the military neglected to clean brick dust off old rifles, as the protagonist — a cross-eyed, left-handed gunsmith named Lefty — discovers well in advance, but gets too drunk to tell the Tsar before the gunsmith’s unlucky demise.
Born in 1831, Leskov died five years before the new century. In the span of his life, he witnessed the arrival of the industrial revolution in Russia and the immense modernization that followed. As a young man, he spent several years transporting indentured servants and livestock across the country’s hinterlands, before mechanization made serfdom obsolete.
He wrote stories about mechanics’ unions and government bureaus with a black humor that anticipates Kafka. A lifelong contrarian, Leskov was an Orthodox Christian who distrusted the Church and a proud Russian who shunned government apparat. Writing from the perspective of Old Believers, Romani, and Jews, and often publishing under a controversial Polish pseudonym, he seemed intent on pushing the limits of Russian identity.
His reputation as the last great oral traditionalist belies the modern life his stories contain. Curiously, as the themes and ideas in Leskov’s works get progressively more radical throughout his life, the way he narrates them becomes only more outmoded, a phenomenon that the chronological order of the new collection makes plain. “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” the earliest work in the compendium, is a stridently moralizing tale of religious depravity; its plot is less Shakespearean than the romantic, picturesque imagery Leskov limns throughout, revealing a poetic impulse we see only this once.
By the end of his life he was writing stories like “The Innocent Prudentius,” which resembles nothing so much as Scripture — except for the part where the heroine frees her Phoenician slave and arranges an interracial marriage between the slave and a nobleman, all so that she herself can run away to be a nun. (“You’re wrong if you think that I’ll agree to let anyone limit my right to surrender my self, body, and blood for the good of the eternal spirit!”) The proto-feminist story, which ends with the nobleman’s mother rejoicing over her mixed-race grandchildren, is shocking for its 1891 publication, all the more so because it was Leskov’s spin on an early Christian moral tale, handed down over centuries by the Byzantines but never told quite like this.
Can the oral tradition resurrect itself in literature? Leskov’s legends are, to be sure, thoroughly amusing and highly unexpected, as any great tall tale should be. But there’s an alienating distance to the form of his works, making them seem far older and more foreign than those of his Realist contemporaries. At once eminently plausible and utterly fantastic, Leskov’s writings are artifacts from a time before verisimilitude, an age when religious or chivalric beliefs formed the basis of a cosmic order. In the author’s own words, his stories:
[…] evoke that distant time when the stones in the earth’s womb and the planets in the celestial vaults were still concerned with man’s fate […] The newly discovered planets no longer play any role in the horoscopes and there are now a multitude of new stones, whose specific weight and density we have recorded, but they no longer herald anything to us nor bring any benefit. The age when they spoke to man is past.
As Benjamin points out, the decline of this kind of magical thinking is a side effect of the “secular forces of productivity” that have also eliminated the storyteller’s venue — around the fire, at the workshop, by the loom — and in turn brought an end to idleness itself. “At the same time,” he states, though it’s not much consolation, these forces make “a new beauty visible in what has disappeared.”
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Selected Stories of Nikolai Leskov (2020) by Nikolai Leskov is published by New York Review of Books.