DAVID A. TROMAN REVIEWS ROBERT CHANDLER’S TRANSLATION OF LESKOV’S WORK.
Katerina Lvovna Izmailova is the lady of the title. A merchant’s wife in mid-nineteenth century Russia, she is given into a loveless marriage, which moves her from the prison of her parents’ house to that of her husband’s. Her husband goes away on business. She dallies with the local Casanova, kills her father-in-law when he becomes suspicious, kills her husband when he confronts her with her unfaithfulness, and then gets caught killing her nephew, who stands to inherit her husband’s estate ahead of her. Being transferred, with her lover, to a prison camp in Siberia, he is unfaithful to her with another deportee. She throws her rival into the river, jumps in after her, and then makes sure that neither of them emerges from the river alive.
In a genre that is renowned for lengthy tomes, this often overlooked masterpiece is a miniature gem. The reviewed edition stretches to sixty three pages of thought-provoking prose written/translated in a fluid and easily readable style.
The narrative presents a sequence of events but offers no authorial judgement on these events, leaving it instead to the reader to inform their own opinion of the rights and wrongs of the situation. There are many potential readings of this story: ranging from a bloodthirsty tale of a serial murderess – with no other subtext to the more interesting ones, such as a lady who was determined to press for feminine liberation in the face of masculine and cultural oppression, but went too far, completely overturning the scales rather than achieving a sensible balance – to a study of the mental state of a self-obsessed monomaniac. This may well be the interpretation that caused Stalin to walk out of a performance of Shostakovich’s opera based on the book. That particular truth could have hit far too close to home.
The foreword to the reviewed edition makes me wish that I could read the original Russian to appreciate the wordplay, of which one example is given there: the opening pages refer to the lady as ‘skuka’, whilst the final ones liken her to a ‘shchuka’. Look up the translation and you will appreciate the transformation as you read the story.
If you are only going to read one book this year, make it this one and don’t just read it once: the rewards increase with each journey through the pages.
– David A. Troman