Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov
Familiar though his name may be to us, the storyteller in his living immediacy is by no means a present
force. He has already become something remote from us and something that is getting even more distant.
To present someone like Leskov as a storyteller does not mean bringing him closer to us but, rather,
increasing our distance from him. Viewed from a certain distance, the great, simple outlines which define
the storyteller stand out in him, or rather, they become visible in him, just as in a rock a human head or an
animal’s body may appear to an observer at the proper distance and angle of vision. This distance and this
angle of vision are prescribed for us by an experience which we may have almost every day. It teaches
us that the art of storytelling is coming to an end. Less and less frequently do we encounter people with
the ability to tell a tale properly. More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish
to hear a story is expressed. It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our
possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.
One reason for this phenomenon is obvious: experience has fallen in value. And it looks as if it is contin-
uing to fall into bottomlessness. Every glance at a newspaper demonstrates that it has reached a new low,
that our picture, not only of the external world but of the moral world as well, overnight has undergone
changes which were never thought possible. With the [First] World War a process began to become ap-
parent which has not halted since then. Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from
the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience? What ten years later was
poured out in the flood of war books was anything but experience that goes from mouth to mouth. And
there was nothing remarkable about that. For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than
strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechan-
ical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn
streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the
clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny,
fragile human body.
Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn.
And among those who have written down the tales, it is the great ones whose written version differs least
from the speech of the many nameless storytellers. Incidentally, among the last named there are two groups
which, to be sure, overlap in many ways. And the figure of the storyteller gets its full corporeality only
for the one who can picture them both. “When someone goes on a trip, he has something to tell about,”