The Enchanted Wanderer by Nikolai Leskov

I hope the handful of people paying attention to this site will excuse my long silence : a lot of things have been brewing, and it’s a year of good news due out in dribs and drabs, but for now, I want to tell you about the book I’m reading right now, Nikolai Leskov’s The Enchanted Wanderer.

Leskov-WandererI’ve never heard of Leskov before, but he’s proving to be wonderfully peculiar fun. The Enchanted Wanderer is a Russian novel from 1873, which I found the book at the district library one town over from where I live; as soon as I saw the description in the inner gatefold, I had to sign it out.

What is it? Basically a picaresque novel about a cursed bogatyr (wandering Russian warrior) sworn by his mother) to the service of God and cursed by the ghost ofa monk he whipped to death for fun… so he’s basically doomed eventually, inevitably, to a monastic life. Well, someday he’ll be living one, but he responds to this curse by living it up as long as he can by, you know, wandering around and getting into all kinds of trouble: picking fights with military officers, stealing horses, babysitting a nobleman’s infant child… you know, the usual stuff. That’s the stuff I’ve read so far, and I’m less than halfway through at the moment.

Oddest bit so far: once he finds himself free from effective indentured servitude, he’s at a loss for what to do with himself:

To be honest, I couldn’t help thinking about how, for all the time that had passed since I’d run off from my masters, I still had no place to settle down and warm up my hands. “The jig is up,” I thought. “I’ll go down to the police headquarters and turn myself in. Except,”  I thought, “what a perfect waste, now that I finally have a little money, to let the police take all of it. Let me have a little pleasure from it first; let me find a tavern and have a little tea with biscuits. Then I’ll turn myself it.”

And that’s basically what he does… well, the tea and biscuits part,anyway.

Tea and biscuits, folks.

Then he goes for a stroll and, er, as one does, he finds himself enslaved by Tatars, who chop up horse hair and insert it subcutaneously into his heels to cripple him so that fleeing on foot is impossible.

(And so it goes…)

I’ve seen Leskov described as being sort of a commoner-author, and being known for not freighting his stories with all the angst (existential, religious, and dramatic) that we tend to think of when we think about 19th century Russian literature. Well, I guess you all think of that: I haven’t read much of the stuff, so I only have this by reputation. Leskov lands somewhere closer to Waugh and Swift than Franzen, in any case, and I’m enjoying this book. (Though now I wish that whoever does the buying for the library had gone all in and gotten the Penguin edition that collects some other short stories along with the eponymous novella, because I have a feeling I’ll be wanting more once it’s done.)

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