Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Nikolai Leskov, trans. from the Russian by Donald Rayfield et al. NYRB Classics, $17.95 (360p) ISBN 978-1-6813-7490-1
A motley cast of Russian gentlewomen, Roma, and Old Believers populate this masterly collection from Leskov (1831–1895), a lesser-known contemporary of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. In stories spanning the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars to the end of serfdom and subsequent reactionary crackdowns, Leskov conceives of a Russia that is at once lawless—Tatars mutilate a man’s feet to keep him captive in “The Enchanted Wanderer”—and courtly—the Tsar is moved to kiss the forehead of a troubled young man in “The Unmercenary Engineers.” Throughout, Leskov is preoccupied with characters whose beliefs become a kind of mania. In the title novella, Katerina Lvovna, a merchant’s wife, is driven to despair and eventually murder by her infatuation with a servant on her husband’s estate. In “The Sealed Angel,” a guild of Old Believers (a sect formed in the 17th century) is tormented by the loss of their icon. While the stories themselves have a far-ranging quality with regard to time and geography, their frame narratives (a story told by a hot stove during a blizzard, as in “The Sealed Angel”) have a cozy quality. The author clearly has a soft spot for characters who refuse to compromise, and their efforts are often met with tragedy. Leskov is a consummate stylist, and his stories breathe life into a bygone Russia that is as bewitching as it is cruel. (Oct.)
Reviewed on : 07/29/2020
Release date: 10/13/2020
Genre: Fiction
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