Magazine article The Spectator

One of the Great Russians

Magazine article The Spectator

One of the Great Russians

Article excerpt

One of the great Russians LADY MACBETH OF MTSENSK by Nikolai Leskov, translated by Robert Chandler Hesperus, £6.99, pp. 66, ISBN 1843910683

THE PRIEST WHO WAS NEVER BAPTISED by Nikolai Leskov, translated by James Muckle Bramcote Press, 81 Rayneham Road, Ilkeston, Derbyshire, DE7 8RJ, £13.95, pp. 216, ISBN 1900405121

In 1936 Stalin walked out of the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk which for two years had been performing with great success in Moscow and Leningrad. He objected that it was 'modernist', vulgarly sensational that is to say, as well as disgustingly pornographic. In fact altogether nekulturny. It was very nearly the end of poor young Shostakovich's career; he had been just 26 when he completed the opera. With one or two alterations it was based on Leskov's powerful sketch of 1865 with the same title. But it was not Leskov but the young composer against whom Stalin now invoked the party line. This was not socialist realism as the Communist party had decreed it to be. It must be suppressed. And so it was for more than 25 years.

Sensational the story certainly is, yet in fact there is nothing particularly Shakespearean in the Russian story or in the opera. Neither has much to do with the tragic mechanism of the Scottish play. Lady Macbeth's trouble was loving her husband not wisely but too well: she would commit any crime, regicide included, to make her husband king of Scotland. Leskov's heroine is much simpler and cruder. But Russia, like the rest of Europe, was fascinated at the time by Shakespeare's heroes and heroines. Before Leskov Turgenev wrote a story called Α Hamlet of the Shchigry District', and one can easily imagine Gogol beginning the vogue with, say, 'A King Lear of Kiev'.

Leskov's heroine, Katerina Lvovma, in fact begins her career, as it were, by being more like the Madame Bovary of Mtsensk. Her life with a gross numbskull of a husband and a tyrannical and always disapproving father-in-law is soon intolerably skuchno - boring. Robert Chandler cleverly notes that a shchuka, a pike, is what Katerina Lvovna becomes when she can no longer endure her skuka - boredom. She now demonstrates what Chandler calls 'a totalitarian state of the psyche', knocking off these boring relatives left and right, taking a handsome young lover, the overseer Sergei. …

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