On his travels, the eponymous narrator of The Enchanted Wanderer, a novella by Nikolai Leskov (1831–1895), witnesses a method of resolving disputes known among the Tartars as “flogging it out.” Two men strip to the waist, place their feet sole to sole and clasp their left hands. They are provided with “stout whips” and, at the signal of the referee, begin slowly and purposefully to lash each other, their eyes locked. In this case, the Tartars are competing over a mare so exquisite that they have already pledged their fortunes and daughters to have her. Naturally, our wanderer is intrigued. Strong and reckless and, as he himself puts it, a horse “conosoor” of almost supernatural talent, he is no stranger to gratuitous tortures. As a younger man, he whipped an elderly monk dozing on a haystack just for the pleasure of it, killing him and bringing a curse down upon his own head. Later, living among the Tartars, he will be “bristled up,” his heels slit open and filled with chopped-up horsehair to prevent him from escaping their barren steppe. None of this, of course, discourages the wanderer in the least. The Tartars have a colt he wants; he steps up and grabs a whip.
Leskov’s is a world of action and adventure, of hexes and drinking duels that make the Nepalese shot-downing contest in Raiders of the Lost Ark look like a game of Yahtzee. Like The Canterbury Tales, the selections that the indomitable team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky include in The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories (Knopf; $35), their rich, welcome translation of Leskov’s work, are full-throated exercises in picaresque ribaldry, yarns meant for the open road. Leskov’s writing career began in his late 20s when he traveled Russia as a business agent for his uncle, sending back reports of his dealings and discoveries. During the period of reform that followed the accession of Alexander II, Leskov served as a foreign correspondent for the paper The Northern Bee. Brimming with a reporter’s curiosity for foreign places and peoples and an anthropologist’s interest in behavior and custom, his fiction is largely scrubbed clean of anything that could be construed as psychological interpretation of character. Next to such escapades, inner life is beside the point.
It seems impossible, reading of his intrepid heroes and wily, vengeful heroines like “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (who strangles her husband, smothers a child and throws herself into the sea for the sake of a hot-blooded clerk), to think of Vanya pacing the floors of his house, impotently wringing his hands over unrequited love—and yet Chekhov called Leskov his “favorite writer,” while Tolstoy referred to him as “a writer for the future.” Here he is, as promised: mystical and coarse, outsize fabulist and mythologizer of a fantastical Russia, a messenger from the boisterous, vanished past.
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A century separates Leskov’s steppes and country estates from the grim workers’ resorts and squalid Soviet apartments where the characters of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s short stories argue, spy on each other and make stingy love on the kitchen sofa as their grandmothers sleep in the next room. There may be no starker distillation of the changes brought by those hundred years. Plenty of writers these days conflate misfortune with tragedy, exaggerating some small grievance until it seems to bear the weight of all the world’s affliction. Petrushevskaya, a genius of concision, works the opposite way. The misery of people for whom privacy is unthinkable and romance a logistical impossibility is condensed into a paragraph, the whole of their suffering morbidly, mordantly put across in a deceptively flat sentence. “This is what happened,” begins “A Murky Fate,” one of the “love stories” in There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself (Penguin; Paper $15), the second collection of Petrushevskaya’s work to be translated into English by Anna Summers:
An unmarried woman in her thirties implored her mother to leave their studio apartment for one night so she could bring home a lover. This so-called lover bounced between two households, his mother’s and his wife’s, and he had an overripe daughter of fourteen to consider as well…. The insatiable appetite he displayed at office parties, where he stuffed himself, was the result of an undiagnosed diabetes that enslaved him to thirst and hunger and lacquered him with pasty skin, thick glasses, and dandruff. A fat, balding man-child of forty-two with a dead-end job and ruined health—this was the treasure our unmarried thirtysomething brought to her apartment for a night of love.
How to observe this pathetic duo, scorned even by the writer bringing them into existence, and not despair—and how not to laugh out loud? If Petrushevskaya, who, at 74, has lived to see her work released from censorship and enjoy the acclaim it so rightly deserves, were to have been simply a first-rate satirist of Soviet life, then, as the refrain goes, dayenu: it would have been enough. Instead, her characters, for all the absurdities of their condition—one woman is so in love that she “shaved her head from all the stress”—take on the dimensions of real people, lodging themselves in the mind like bad tenants refusing to leave. “One could see through Olga at a glance,” Petrushevskaya writes of a particularly odious villain, “while Pulcheria was shielded by an ironic guardian angel who understood everything about everyone.” It’s a sly self-portrait, a tip of the hat to her own powers, and she gets it exactly right.
In “I’m Nobody, Who Are You?” (Dec. 20, 2012) Alexandra Schwartz reviewed Zadie Smith’s NW.