Monday, September 26, 2016

Cover Story / The Book of Bruce Springsteen

Cover Story: The Book of Bruce Springsteen

For 50 years, the rock icon has turned his struggle into songs, his unrest into performance. Today, as he wraps up a top-selling tour and publishes a 500-page memoir, he is coming to terms with life out on the wire.



About an hour before every concert, Bruce Springsteen draws up a set list of 31 songs, written in big, scrawly letters in marker ink and soon thereafter distributed to his musicians and crew in typed-up, printed-out form. But this list is really just a loose framework. Over the course of an evening, Springsteen might shake up the order, drop a song, call a few audibles to his seasoned, ready-for-anything E Street Band, or take a request or two from fans holding handwritten signs in the pit near the front of the stage. Or he might do all of the above and then some—as he did on the first of the two nights that I saw him perform in Gothenburg, Sweden, this summer.

That night, at the last minute, Springsteen jettisoned his plan to open with a full-band version of “Prove It All Night,” from his 1978 album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and instead began the show solo at the piano with “The Promise,” a fan-beloved Darkness outtake. Eight songs in, he again went off-list, playing a stretched-out, gospelized version of “Spirit in the Night,” from his first album, 1973’sGreetings from Asbury Park, N.J., which he followed with “Save My Love,” a sign request. Onward he went with tweaks and spontaneous additions, to the point where, by the time the show was over, it was past midnight and Springsteen, a man approaching his 67th birthday, had played for nearly four hours—his second-longest concert ever.

“Yikes!” said Springsteen with mock alarm when I relayed this fact to him the next day, at his hotel in the Swedish port city. “I’m always in search of something, in search of losing myself to the music. I think we hit a spot last night where I was trying some songs we hadn’t played in a while, where maybe you’re struggling more. And then suddenly”—he snapped his fingers—“you catch it, and then, once you do, you may not want to stop.”

Angelina Jolie / My Medical Choice

Illustration by Loren Capelli

My Medical Choice

By Angelina Jolie
Los Angeles, May 14, 2013

MY MOTHER fought cancer for almost a decade and died at 56. She held out long enough to meet the first of her grandchildren and to hold them in her arms. But my other children will never have the chance to know her and experience how loving and gracious she was.

We often speak of “Mommy’s mommy,” and I find myself trying to explain the illness that took her away from us. They have asked if the same could happen to me. I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a “faulty” gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Angelina Jolie / By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea

By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea – Angelina’s Deep Dive into Grief

By Sasha Stone
Posted on November 6, 2015

That Angelina Jolie-Pitt asks us to remove what we know about Brad and Angie from our feelings for a film about a couple embroiled in an emotional tangle is maybe a little naive on her part. They have always used their celebrity to bring attention to the right causes, and for the films they’re involved in – we get parsed versions of their personal life from them, and an often dubious encyclopedia of their personal life from the gossip columns. There are some celebrities who are simply too big, too embedded in our collective minds that that they can never disappear into a role the way most actors can. This would include larger than life personalities like Barbra Streisand, Madonna and now Angelina Jolie. So it is with inevitable overlay of knowledge about the icon that people will watch By the Sea.

Angelina Jolie / By the Sea review – the bedroom as battlefield

Angelina Jolie
By the Sea

By the Sea review – the bedroom as battlefield


Newlyweds awaken Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s sex life in this slow-moving vanity project

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic
Sunday 13 December 2015 08.00 GMT

idely dismissed as a vanity project for its photogenic stars, this serves as the artsy European flipside to Mr & Mrs Smith, the enjoyably brash Hollywood smash-em-up that first spawned the Brangelina behemoth. Where Doug Liman’s 2005 action film found the couple trying to kill each other while falling in love, this finds them trying not to kill themselves while falling out of love. The 70s-set story largely unfolds in a lavish hotel suite in the scenic south of France (actually Malta), where blocked writer Roland (Brad Pitt) hits the bottle when given the cold shoulder by the medicated Vanessa (Angelina Jolie Pitt, also writing and directing). But when attractive newlyweds (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) move in next door, a spy hole in the wall awakens dormant desires that blend voyeurism and revenge, with underlying grace notes of grief. There’s a hint of the psychopathy of The Comfort of Strangers or Blue Velvet as these dead souls play Peeping Tom with the living embodiments of their past, but Jolie Pitt is clearly aiming more for the spirit of Bergman, Buñuel or Antonioni. Sadly, away from the war zones of In the Land of Blood and Honey and Unbroken, she becomes somewhat becalmed and we end up more focused on Vanessa’s symbolically entombing Liz Taylor/Sophia Loren wardrobe than the emotional battlefields of the bedroom. As for the couple’s long-withheld secret, its eventual revelation is appropriately anticlimactic.


Angelina Jolie Says Beyond the Sea “first film completely based on my own crazy mind”

Angelina Jolie Says Beyond the Sea “first film completely based on my own crazy mind”

There aren’t many female auteurs who would get as much attention as Angelina Jolie. How many could get the cover of Vogue, for instance? But Jolie is just deciding to be one and because Unbroken made close to $100 million, she certainly has the cred to pull it off. Also, because By the Sea stars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in a marriage, there’s a good chance a lot of people will want to see it. The cool thing about it, though, is that she’s expressing herself, auteur style, in a big public way. Any other female auteur making a film about what’s inside her head would be not known unless some critic  pulled her out from obscurity. Can anyone think of the last time that happened? The closest we get is Sofia Coppola who, like Jolie, started life with opportunity and fame. But even she couldn’t command a Vogue cover each and every time she puts out a movie. By the Sea will have its premiere at AFI and perhaps it will have a chance to crack the Oscar race in one or more categories. Right now, no one is predicting it for anything based on Unbroken’s reception. I hope, with this film, we’ll see the artist emerge.

If By the Sea is fully and completely a film coming from Angelina Jolie’s head it’s going to be interesting. From Vogue:
If her daily life is a large, sociable whirl, Angelina’s new film is an intimate, claustrophobic tale. She wrote By the Sea after her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, died of cancer eight years ago, and never thought it would see the light of day. She wanted to explore bereavement—how different people respond to it. She set the action in the seventies, when her mother was in her vibrant 20s, and began simply with a husband and wife. She gave them a history of grief, put them in a car, and drove them to a seaside hotel to see how the pair—Roland, a novelist with a red typewriter; Vanessa, a former dancer with boxes of clothes and hats—attend to their pain. Vanessa is frail, tortured, hemmed in. She feeds her mourning a diet of pills and suicidal fantasies. Roland is defeated by the seclusion of her anguish, and drinks. And so it goes on until innocent newlyweds move in next door. . . .
“It’s not autobiographical,” says Angelina, smiling. She shrugs off the fact that celebrity-watchers will have a field day trying to read into this movie. “Brad and I have our issues,” she offers, “but if the characters’ were even remotely close to our problems we couldn’t have made the film.” Yet the film is a deeply personal project, drawn loosely from her mother’s life. Jolie Pitt often talks about the sacrifice her mother made in giving up acting to raise her and her brother, James, after their father, Jon Voight, left. Later Bertrand’s work was cut short as a producer and activist for Native Americans and for the Give Love Give Life cancer organization she founded with her partner, John Trudell. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 49; she died seven years later. “My mother was an Earth Mother and the nicest person in the world,” says Jolie Pitt (pointing out that Vanessa in the movie is not). “But the specific grief came from the woman I was closest to, seeing her art slip away, her body fail her.”

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Marion Cotillard issues statement denying role in Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie divorce

Marion Cotillard

Marion Cotillard issues statement denying role in Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie divorce

Actor takes to Instagram to express hurt at rumours an affair between her and her Allied co-star led to separation, and to confirm her second pregnancy with husband Guillaume Canet

Catherine Shoard
Thursday 22 September 2016 10.59 BST

The actor Marion Cotillard has issued a statement denying involvement in the forthcoming divorce of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Rumours of a relationship between the star of La Vie en Rose and Pitt, with whom she appears in upcoming second world war drama Allied, began circulating the same day as the announcement and were followed on Wednesday by reports that the actor was pregnant.

Writing on Instagram, Cotillard said she was “not used to commenting on things like this nor taking them seriously but as this situation is spiraling and affecting people I love, I have to speak up”. She wished the “media and the haters” a “swift recovery” and highlighted the hurt their conjecture was having on herself and her husband, the actor and director Guillaume Canet, with whom she is expecting her second child.
Cotillard concluded by extending her thoughts to Pitt and Jolie, “both of whom I deeply respect” and saying she hoped they “find peace in this very tumultuous moment”.

Jolie issued divorce proceedings against Pitt on Tuesday, citing irreconcilable differences. The couple married in 2014, having already been together a decade. They have six children.

Jennifer Aniston / On Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie

Jennifer Aniston

Posters / Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Friday, September 23, 2016

If Brangelina broke up over marijuana, what could it mean for their divorce?

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie
If Brangelina broke up over marijuana, what could it mean for their divorce?

A report that Angelina Jolie was ‘fed up’ with Brad Pitt’s weed use set off a bevy of speculation. What could it mean for custody – and for our own relationships?

Julia Carrie Wong in San Francisco
Wednesday 21 September 201611.00 BST

he stoner dude who refuses to put down the pipe and pick up the Pampers is an archetype that Judd Apatow has made an entire career out of mining. Internet forums and advice columns teem with queries from spouses who feel widowed by their partner’s relationship with weed.

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie / A marriage that started – and ended – on screen

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie
By the Sea

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie: a marriage that started – and ended – on screen

The impending divorce of Hollywood’s golden couple 12 years after their first film together comes just two years after By the Sea, a strange melodrama about a couple in meltdown that is hard not to now read as autobiography

Peter Bradshaw
Wednesday 21 September 201607.14 BST

The death of Edward Albee this week was an excuse to revisit one of the greatest semi-factual toxic marriages of cinema: the film version of his Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were in a state of boozy, agonised meltdown, and those performances may well have been a catharsis for personal issues.

Steven Klein / Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie
by Steven Klein

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Farewell, Brangelina – and the dream that love can last

Farewell, Brangelina – and the dream that love can last

The Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie union appeared perfect: long-term, fruitful, opposites attracting. Now it’s clear nothing can be trusted

Pack it in, humanity. Love just died.
Angelina Jolie has filed for divorce from Brad Pitt. I know. I am pulling on my oversized cardigan, letting its gigantic cuffs cover the tops of my hands, and holding a gigantic cup of herbal tea. Not drinking it. I hate the stuff.
Perhaps later I will get in the tub, listen to some Sarah McLachlan and place a glass of red wine on its edge, remembering the Jolie-Pitts’ good times, my eyes brimming. It seemed to the naïve among us, the romantics, that Brangelina were a rare glimmer of right in a world of so much wrong. Who knows how or why the whole enterprise worked? It just did. Until, sniff, it didn’t.

Angelina Jolie to Divorce Brad Pitt, Ending ‘Brangelina’

Angelina Jolie to Divorce Brad Pitt,

Ending 'Brangelina'

SEPT. 20, 2016

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in 2013. Photo by Leon NealCreditPhLeon NeaL

Ms. Aniston filed for divorce from the actor in March 2005. That summer a spread appeared in the large-format glossy magazine W. Shot by Steven Klein and headlined “Domestic Bliss: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at Home,” it comprised 60 pages of photographs of Mr. Pitt, Ms. Jolie and five boys (all of them models) who somewhat resembled Mr. Pitt, in a chic, early 1960s setting.

Their most recent project as a couple, the 2015 film “By the Sea,” directed by Ms. Jolie Pitt, told a different story. “Meta with a vengeance, ‘By the Sea’ stars Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt as itinerant married artists who are suffering, beautifully, through a rough patch,” wrote Manohla Dargis in her review for The New York Times.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Robert Aickman / A brief survey of the short story

Robert Aickman
Ilustración de Triunfo Arciniegas

A brief survey of the short story part 63: 

Robert Aickman

Written with real psychological depth, these enigmatic tales rise far beyond straightforward ghost stories, writes Chris Power

Chris Power
Monday 12 January 2015 17.00 GMT

The lending history of my ex-library copy of The Attempted Rescue, one of two volumes of autobiography produced by the British horror writer Robert Aickman, tells a story of declining interest spanning 60 years. The book was checked out 13 times between 1966 and 1970, but just once in 1971, and once again in ‘72. After that it was ignored until 1981, the year of its author’s death, then ignored again for a further 22 years. As in Aickman’s own work, the dates tell their story by implication. Ultimately, it is up to us to discern the meaning that lies in the blank spaces between each blurred stamp.
After his death (from cancer, which he elected to treat homoeopathically), Aickman’s books were largely neglected. Like one of the abandoned houses or secluded dells of his fiction, they became places rarely visited, lying far from the thoroughfares of mainstream popularity. In recent years more attention has been paid to him, and much of his work has been reprinted, but aficionados must have found it hard to resist the selfish wish that he stay mostly forgotten: so many of his stories hinge on characters straying into, or being unwittingly drawn towards, mysterious spaces beyond everyday reality, that obscurity has suited him very well.
“I could not recall that the map had showed a wood”, runs a typical Aickman line, this one from The Inner Room (1966). In The Stains (1980), a man watches his lover hurry off across a moor “into what the map depicted as virtual void”. In The Trains (1951), two hikers who lose their way in a dreary, apparently inescapable valley repeatedly pin down their map with stones to stop the wind snatching it away. Each time they move on, Aickman is careful to mention that they leave behind them “four grey stones at the corners of nothing”. The image – the placement of the stones clearly deliberate, but their exact purpose mysterious – is an apt metaphor for his enigmatic storytelling.
Aickman wrote ghost stories, but only a handful can be considered traditional examples of the form. In their commitment to ambiguity, and the active yet at times inscrutable psychologies of their characters, Aickman’s stories have more in common with modernist writers than with an Edwardian like MR James. Their cryptic, occluded character place them in the lineage of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and the later ghost stories of Kipling, They and The Wish House.

Aickman preferred to describe his own work as “strange stories”, maintaining that “the horror story is purely sadistic; it depends entirely upon power to shock”. In fact he could be concertedly nasty, as in The Cicerones (1968), a memorable case of being in the wrong place (a Flemish cathedral) at the wrong time (elevenish). But in his very best stories, and perhaps in the most powerful ghost stories generally, the phenomena we encounter have as much to do with the characters’ internal conflicts as with any external presence. As Peter Straub wrote in 1988,
“After the shock of the sheer strangeness fades away, we begin to see how the facts of the stories appear to grow out of the protagonists’ fears and desires, and how the illogic and terror surrounding them is their own, far more accurately and disturbingly than in any conventional horror story. The Trains is a perfect story of this type, and The Inner Room is even better, one of Aickman’s most startling and beautiful demonstrations of the power over us of what we do not quite grasp about ourselves and our lives.”
This psychological depth explains why one of the chief pleasures of reading Aickman lies in determining which details are significant, and how they fit together. Take this passage from Bind Your Hair (1964), where a young woman wakes up depressed on a visit to her fiancé’s parents in the countryside:
“Then she got up, turned on the big electric heater, and felt that her thoughts had been the morbid produce of lying too long abed. Moreover, the flying swathes of fog were most beautiful. She stood in her nightdress by the window looking at them; with the heater behind her sending ripples of warmth up her back. It was an old sash window with the original well-proportioned glazing bars. The new white paint covered numerous under-currents in the surface of the earlier coats. Clarinda liked such details in the house; always kept neat and spruce, like an old dandy whom people still cared about.”
The new white paint, a whitewash covering those “under-currents”, is an image of psychological repression, suggesting a crisis in Clarinda between the conformity of marriage, and a desire to escape suffocating convention. It also suggests, as later events in the story make apparent, the wild paganism that exists covertly beneath the prim respectability of the village. Now the “well-proportioned glazing bars” of the window, the “neat and spruce” house, imply both an efficient, not-unpleasant prison for Clarinda, and a defence for her fiancé’s family, while the “flying swathes of fog” signal the allure of the uncharted unknown. The passage is a key with which to unlock at least part of the story, but Aickman dispenses almost entirely with the scaffold of exposition. To an unusual extent for stories of this kind, it is left to the reader to do, or not do, the interpretive labour.

Even in those instances where clues are waiting to be discovered, Aickman nearly always refuses to provide a neat conclusion. When he does, as in The Waiting Room (1964) and The Wine-Dark Sea (1966), the results are disappointing. “In the end”, reads the epigraph to his 1975 collection, Cold Hand in Mine, “it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation”, and in extreme cases like The Next Glade (1980), with its strange blend of sexual tension, bereavement and personal awakening, or The View (1951), where a man recovering from a breakdown falls in love with a mysterious woman (a recurring theme), the total effect is only more powerful for the story being, to some degree, impenetrable. Yet he arrives at strangeness patiently, his stories often running to 30 pages or more. This gives him the space he needs to build a vivid environment for the reader to inhabit before things begin to warp into more disturbing perspectives. As Richard T Kelly describes, Aickman’s “construction of sentences and of narrative is patient and finical. He seems always to proceed from a rather grey-toned realism where detail accumulates without fuss, and the recognisable material world appears wholly four-square”.
This is of a piece with Aickman’s belief that “[i]n the right hands, ghosts can stand a surprising amount of clear, strong light”: in fact some of the most troubling scenes in his fiction – a naked man peering silently over a wall, a woman ascending stairs, her face turned to the wall – occur in daylight. It is the graspable reality of the details he notes that make individual scenes so uncanny, and – an impressive trick, this – he only increases our unease by working hard to pull us away from the typically supernatural. Consider this passage from the nakedly Freudian story The Swords (1969), in which a travelling salesman, in a tent at a shabby fair, watches men paying to stab a woman on a rickety stage. Brilliantly, Aickman both undercuts and intensifies the weirdness of the scene by describing the mundane particulars of the swords themselves:
“There was nothing gleaming about them, and nothing decorative. The blades were a dull grey, and the hilts were made of some black stuff, possible even plastic. They looked thoroughly mass-produced and industrial, and I could not think where they might have been got.”

And in The Stains, when the protagonist walks into an abandoned cottage that we, by this stage of the story, have every reason to suspect is enchanted, Aickman wrong-foots us with the mundanity of the decoration: “Much of this furniture, Stephen thought, was of the kind offered by the furnishing department of a good Co-op”.

This unexpectedness of tone lurks around every corner of The Hospice (1975), an extraordinary story whereKafka and Fawlty Towers collide (I’m sure Magnus Mills must have read it, if not all of Aickman’s work), and which might or might not be an account of one man’s passage from life into death. It also characterises the solemn Into the Wood (1980), about a sanatorium for insomniacs located in a maze-like forest. Reading these stories, both of which carry echoes of The Magic Mountain (in his correspondence Aickman cited Thomas Mann as an influence), we are primed for a horrific conclusion that never arrives, or at least not in the way we expect. Instead, both stories attain a deeper, more profound oddness.
Aickman wrote that there are “only about 30 or 40 first-class ghost stories in the whole of western literature”. His very best, such as The Hospice, The View, Into the Wood and The Stains – which, despite its share of frightening incident, is more lastingly and hauntingly an account of grief – swell this number, and extend the possibilities of the genre. “It’s impossible to get lost in these woods”, one of his characters states of her small corner of Surrey; but she does get lost, of course, albeit in an entirely unconventional way. And with Aickman as our reticent guide we can follow her, if we choose to.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Nikolai Leskov / A brief survey of the short story

Nikolai Leskov

A brief survey of the short story part 62: 

Nikolai Leskov

Perennially falling into and out of fashion, he is a stunningly versatile writer and a very un-Russian Russian great

Chris Power
Friday 5 December 2014 10.35 GMT

“I calculated once,” Vladimir Nabokov told an audience at Cornell University in the spring of 1958, “that the acknowledged best in the way of Russian fiction and poetry which had been produced since the beginning of the last century runs to about 23,000 pages of ordinary print.” Readers with a basic grounding in Russian literature will be able to reel off many of the writers in Nabokov’s notional anthology: Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov. But there was no place for Nikolai Leskov, of whom, the occasional beautiful image aside, Nabokov didn’t think much.
Those who disagree have made numerous attempts, over the last hundred years, to install Leskov in the Russian literary pantheon. The pantheon itself approved: Dostoevsky published him, Chekhov acknowledged a debt to his work, and Tolstoy admired it. Yet he has fallen, repeatedly, into obscurity. Last year saw the launch of another offensive in the long war over his reputation: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the current powerhouse of Russian-to-English translation, published a collection of his stories named for one of his great masterpieces, The Enchanted Wanderer. But despite the latest round of articles and reviews, there is no reason to believe this revival will be any more lasting than those before.
Why? What is it about Leskov that refuses to settle into consensus? Various reasons have been advanced, the most credible one being, as Robert Chandler maintains, “we English have always expected our Russian writers to be unambiguously serious. We want to be shown a character’s spiritual development; we want to be given truths to live by. But what Leskov gives us is something else: story matters more than character, and all we get by way of metaphysical insight is a sense that life’s horrors and beauties are so intermingled as to be beyond all understanding”. As Richard Pevear notes, Leskov’s first significant champion was the formalist critic Boris Eikhenbaum, who wrote in the 1920s that Leskov equalled Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy “not by resembling them, but by being totally unlike them”. A few years later, in his study of Russian literature, DS Mirsky captured the quality of this difference when he wrote, “If Turgenev’s or Chekhov’s world may be compared to a landscape by Corot, Leskov’s is a picture by Breughel the Elder, full of gay and bright colours and grotesque forms”. His stories offer few of the pleasures we find in the great Russians, but so do theirs lack many that we find in his.

Leskov writes about peasants, household domestics and their employers; about soldiers and officers and priests, pilgrims, monks and merchants’ daughters; about schoolboys, czars, Tatars and gypsies. “No one,” VS Pritchett maintained, “catches so truthfully the diversity of national character in his time.” Unlike almost every other famous Russian writer of the period, Leskov was not a member of the landed gentry; he said he came to know the Russian people by living among them, not through “conversations with Petersburg cabbies”. His settings range from his central southern home town of Orel (Turgenev’s home, too) to the Eurasian Steppe, the lakes of the north, Ukrainian Kiev, the metropolitan centres of Moscow and St Petersburg. As a young man, working for a firm that managed several large estates, he travelled all over Russia gaining knowledge that he would fully exploit in his fiction. At the outset of his story The Pearl Necklace, he reflects on the way travel generates writing material, “there’s simply no getting away from impressions. And they sit thick in you, like yesterday’s kasha stewing – well, naturally, it came out thick in the writing as well.”
Leskov’s stories are often close to folktales, moving at the sort of speeds that can be achieved when psychological analysis is jettisoned (which isn’t to say his stories lack an often acute understanding of psychology). In his masterful essay The Storyteller, Walter Benjamin draws a distinction between storyteller and novelist, asserting, “it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story from explanation as one reproduces it”. Leskov, Benjamin writes, “is a master at this”. Indeed, so consummately did Leskov disguise himself as the traditional storyteller that many readers believed his work to be a mere updating of much older folk material. Leskov played with this idea, prefacing one of his most successful stories of this type, Lefty, with the note, “I have transcribed this legend”. In fact the story was almost entirely his own invention, but his metafictional flourish was so widely accepted that he subsequently wrote a letter asserting himself as the story’s author, and not, as one reviewer put it, merely its “stenographer”.
In Lefty, as in many of Leskov’s stories, events succeed one another at a breathless pace. It seems the story might end, only for another flourish to extend the action (the great digressor Laurence Sterne was one of his favourite authors). Nowhere is this indefatigable quality more prominent than in The Enchanted Wanderer, the story of Ivan Flyagin, who as a boy is responsible for the death of a monk, receives a visitation from the monk’s ghost, and is cursed to die “many times”. So begins a lifelong odyssey across Russia, packed with a lifetime of incident: Ivan cares for pigeons and cuts off a cat’s tail, turns nursemaid, gets embroiled in a flogging contest, is held hostage by Tatars for many years, becomes a father, becomes an alcoholic, falls in love with a gypsy, performs a mercy killing, finds himself down and out in St Petersburg, kills a cow and goes to war.

In an essay arguing that Leskov’s obscurity was unjust (plus ça change), Irving Howe noted that The Enchanted Wanderer “no doubt has its distinctive national significance, but to a non-Russian the story asks to be read as an evocation, both cheering and saddening, of the necessary absurdity of human effort”. In his misfortune and toiling, his ricocheting from one event and emotional state to another, Ivan’s journey through Russia can be seen as representative of our journey through life: ragged, exhausting, wondrous and sad; an eternal pursuit of an elusive goal.

Following Gogol’s lead, Leskov often wrote in the “skaz” form, where the text recreates a storyteller’s nonstandard, dialect speech. This is a difficult effect to translate, and according to some commentators Pevear and Volokhonsky’s attempts (puns of mixed quality) fail to capture the originals’ ingenuity. Earlier translations by David Magarshack and David McDuff don’t even attempt to recreate them. But skaz was just one technique among many, and one of the great pleasures of Leskov’s work is its diversity: A Little Mistake could be from the pages of Grimm; the short, terse chapters of The Man on Watch generate a thriller’s momentum; A Robbery is a superb comedy of provincial life. Just as you settle into a certain style, he surprises you again.
His most famous story, for example, The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, is like nothing else he wrote. It is told with a dispassion that makes its realist account of a sequence of coldblooded murders all the more shocking. It is the type of story, Irving Howe remarked, “a writer may, if he is lucky and has some genius, bring off once or twice in his career, a piece that radiates enormous narrative authority by sacrificing almost everything else”. There is certainly nothing else like it in Leskov’s work, and, according to David McDuff, nothing like it “elsewhere in 19th-century Russian literature, not even in Dostoyevsky”.
How different this Leskov of the 1860s is to the writer who, between 1886 and 1891, devoted himself entirely to didactic, religiously-themed stories. By this time he had become a Tolstoyan, and in stories such as Pamphalon the Entertainer his descriptions of ancient Byzantium – “At both its upper and lower levels, the entire state was filled with vice” – are clearly swipes at modern Russia. But, ever protean, his output changed tone again before his death in 1895. A story he wrote the year he died, A Winter’s Day, is a merciless evisceration of Russian society that reads more like the script of a play than a prose work, so pared back is the writing. It begins in a deceptively light register, which sours into bitterness as the story progresses. Through a series of conversations we discern several mysteries and scandals, but Leskov never brings them fully into the light. The impression is an eerie one of a family, a town, a society, riddled with corruption and a terrible coldness of heart. David McDuff calls it “one of the bleakest works in Russian literature”, which, national cliches aside, really is saying something. Leskov may have written to a friend that “the real strength of my talent lies in the positive types. Show me such an abundance of positive Russian types in another writer,” but both this late work and his first published story, the extraordinary, despondent Musk-Ox, are intensely pessimistic.
Yet the thrilling range of Leskov’s body of work keeps slipping away. In a 1978 review of Hugh McLean’s biography, the translator Richard Freeborn wrote: “Our ignorance of Leskov can never again be advanced as a reason for ignoring him.” But McLean’s book is long out of print, and when Pevear and Volokhonsky published their new translations it represented yet another rediscovery of this serially rediscovered writer. Will he persist this time? Or will he, like one of his open-hearted wanderers, disappear for another decade or two, only to return again from the wilderness to enthral another generation with his uncommon stories?

 Translations from the work are by David McDuff, and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.