Thursday, January 9, 2014

Lady Macbeth in Mtsensk

Lady Macbeth in Mtsensk – Nikolai Leskov, tr. Robert Chandler, 1843910683

The sensational plot will bring to mind Madame Bovary. The title character is a fed up wife in the provinces:

Katerina Lvovna would pass to and from through the empty rooms, start to yawn from boredom and then climb the stairs to the conjugal bedroom… She would steal an hour or two’s nap, but awake from it once again to that peculiarly Russian boredom, the boredom which reigns inside the houses of merchants, and which, it is said, makes even the thought of hanging oneself seem a cheerful prospect… no-one paid the slightest attention to the boredom that was weighing her down.

Enter Sergei, a farm hand and deceiver of women. Horseplay changes into lusty embraces, a la The Postman Always Rings Twice. The violence will shock even jaded readers of James M. Cain. I mean, Russian novels of the 19th century are supposed to realistic but really this novel approaches the down-sides of desire shading into lust just like the better noir novels of the Forties and Fifties did.

Before this one, I had read only On the Edge of the World (about Russian missionary bishop's meeting of The Other in the far reaches of Siberia) and his amazing short story The Steel Flea. Leskov (1831 - 1895) grew up in a small village in Orel, where he came into close contact with common people. He also travelled widely in Russian for various jobs, getting direct experience with a variety of types among the ethnic groups in Russia. His vivid characters are both familiar and foreign.

Leskov does not celebrate the lower classes, but takes the hard-boiled view that peasants and soldiers and cowherds are not more or less honest than anybody else. In Lady Macbeth, for instance, we meet lowlifes who find it fun to cheat somebody out of their woolen socks in a transit prison on the way to Siberia. So dumb, too, that they don’t even suspect that their amusements and antics can escalate to murder to suicide.

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