Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Selected Stories of Nikolai Leskov (Book acquired, 19 Sept. 2020)

NRYB has a forthcoming collection of Nikolai Leskov stories (novellas, really) called Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The collection features new translations from Donald Rayfield, Robert Chandler, and William Edgerton. NYRB’s blurb:

Nikolai Leskov is the strangest of the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century. His work is closer to the oral traditions of narrative than that of his contemporaries, and served as the inspiration for Walter Benjamin’s great essay “The Storyteller,” in which Benjamin contrasts the plotty machinations of the modern novel with the strange, melancholy, but also worldly-wise yarns of an older, slower era that Leskov remained in touch with. The title story is a tale of illicit love and multiple murder that could easily find its way into a Scottish ballad and did go on to become the most popular of Dmitri Shostakovich’s operas. The other stories, all but one newly translated, present the most focused and finely rendered collection of this indispensable writer currently available in English.

The collection includes six novellas: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, The Sealed Angel, The Enchanted Wanderer, The Steel Flea, The Unmercenary Engineers, and The Innocent Prudentius.

I read a few of these stories some years back in a Borzoi collection of Leskov stories called The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories; those translations were by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (and included some much shorter tales).

I also highly highly recommend Lady Macbeth, director William Oldroyd and writer Alice Birch’s 2016 film adaptation of Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which I reviewed on this blog a few years ago.

“Yellow Coal” — Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

“Yellow Coal” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

The economic barometer at Harvard University had continually pointed to bad weather. But even its exact readings could not have predicted such a swift deepening of the crisis. Wars and the elements had turned the earth into a waster of its energies. Oil wells were running dry. The energy-producing effect of black, white and brown coal was diminishing yearly. An unprecedented drought had swaddled the sere earth in what felt like a dozen equators. Crops burned to their roots. Forests caught fire in the infernal heat. The selvas of South America and the jungles of India blazed with smoky flames. Agrarian countries were ravaged first. True, forests reduced to ashes had given place to ashy boles of factory smoke. But their days too were numbered. Fuellessness was threatening machines with motionlessness. Even glacier snow-caps, melted by the perennial summer, could not provide an adequate supply of waterpower; the beds of shrinking rivers lay exposed, and soon the turbine-generators would stop.

The earth had a fever. Flogged mercilessly by the sun’s yellow whips, it whirled round like a dervish dancing his last furious dance.

If nations had ignored political strictures and come to each other’s aid, salvation might have been theirs. But adversity only exacerbated ideas of jingoism, and soon all the New and Old World Reichs, Staats, Republics and Lands — like the fish on the desiccated bottoms of erstwhile lakes — were covered with a viscous sheath, swathed in borders like the filaments of cocoons, and raising customs duties to astronomical levels.

The one agency of an international sort was the Commission for the Access of New and Original Energies: CANOE. To the person who discovered a new energy source, a motive power as yet unknown on earth, CANOE promised a seven-figure sum.

Professor Leker was too busy to notice people. Blinkered by diagrams, thoughts, and pages from books, his eyes had no time to reflect faces. A frosted screen before the window shielded him from the street; the black case of an automobile, window curtains drawn, did likewise. Until a few years ago Leker had taught, then gradually given it up to devote himself full-time to his research into quantum theory, ionization, and the vicariate of the senses.

Thus Professor Leker’s twenty-minute stroll, his first in ten years, was pure accident. Leker set out in the company of his thoughts, without noticing places or faces. But the very first crossroad threw him into a quandary. The scientist was obliged to lift his head and gaze about to get his bearings. And here, for the first time, the street grated against his pupils.

A dingily bilious sun suffused the air through a tent of black clouds. Spitefully elbowing elbows, passers-by rushed along the pavement. People converged in the doorways of shops, tried to pummel their way through and stuck fast, faces flushed with rage and exertion, teeth bared.

The steps floating along the tram tracks were jammed with passengers: chests tried to climb up on backs; but the backs, flicking spiteful shoulder blades, would not budge; hands all in a tangle gripped the vertical handrails with rapacious vigour — like flocks of carrion crows fighting over prey.

The tram passed by, and behind it, as behind a curtain drawn back, a new scene unfolded across the street: two fist-shaking men were verbally assaulting each other; a circle of gloating pupils instantly formed round them and circling the circle another circle and another; while above the melee of shoulders raised sticks hovered.

Looking about him, Leker walked on. Suddenly his knee knocked into an outstretched hand. Protruding from dirty rags, the hand was demanding a donation. Leker dug in his pockets: he had no money on him. The open palm continued to wait. Leker again searched himself: nothing except a notepad. Without taking his gaze off the beggar, he stepped aside: the cripple’s eyes, half blind with pus, oozed with slime and an insatiable, impotent spite.

With greater and greater misgivings, Professor Leker scrutinized the street, gnashing with steel rims and humming with anxious human swarms. The people changed, yet remained the same: jaws clenched, foreheads butting the air, elbows endlessly elbowing their way. The famous physiologist first raised his eyebrows in astonishment, then knit them together the better to contain the thought fluttering behind them. Leker slowed his step and opened his notepad, searching for the exact words. Suddenly the stab of someone’s elbow deep in his ribs sent him staggering sideways: he hit his back against a post and dropped his slips of paper. Yet even the pain could not stop Leker smiling: his thought, tightly tied with associative threads, had been flung to the bottom of his brain. Continue reading ““Yellow Coal” — Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky”