Reading: Nikolai Leskov

Another magnificent 19th century Russian writer, Leskov’s collection The Enchanted Wanderer is out in a new translation, and it’s a great reading experience. In some ways it’s like nothing I’ve read before. His characters are so vivid, such striking people from a world as real as real and as foreign as foreign. There’s a certain toughness, a kind of noir or hard-boiled sense in his stories, which feature ordinary people, serfs and soldiers, often runaways and others on a hard path in life, people who find amusement in cheating someone out of their woolen socks on a forced march to exile in Siberia. At the same time, they take their old-world icon-centric Christianity extremely seriously, and struggle to find any common ground with their Moslem/Tartar border neighbors. In one extraordinary passage, two highlanderscompete in an “amicable” battle of “flogging it out”, in which they sit face to face, left hands holding each other, soles up against soles while with their right-hands they take turns whipping each other across the shoulders and onto the back. The winner gets to pay an exorbitant price for a high-quality mare. The loser wishes him well, assuming he is still alive. Saints and martyrs abound, and loyalty knows no limits, while neither does treachery or deceit. The law is the law, after all, and a renegade serf without a ‘passport’ is fair game for anyone to take advantage of.  Leskov gives you a world he seems to know inside and out, with a style and language as bold and masterful as anyone’s.

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