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The Spirit of Madame de Genlis (A Spiritualistic Occurrence)

Dina Markon On:

The Spirit of Madame de Genlis (A Spiritualistic Occurrence) by Nikolai Leskov

The Spirit of Madame de Genlis has a modest, perhaps even slightly unusual place among the works of Nikolai Leskov (1895-1931). Leskov was a master storyteller and stylist, who was late to be recognized as one of the great classical authors of Russian literature, due to his characters’ colorful and often “faulty” language, which was in the vernacular, as well as the fact that Leskov did not belong to any particular literary group at the time, but rather tried to keep a sense of distance and objectivity in his descriptions of reality. The story lacks the monstrous realism of one of his greatest works, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and also the poetic epicism of another one of his most famous stories, The Enchanted Wanderer (which does have a comic basis that should be taken into account). The Spirit of Madame de Genlis was first published in a journal in 1881 as “a Christmas tale”- a genre that borrows from the carnivalesque and typically presents a wondrous transformation of the world or the hero- a triumph of light over darkness by virtue of some form of miraculous intervention. Yet this supposedly lightweight short story, inspired by literariness (literary allusions are abundant), firmly anchored within its time (it features contemporary figures, who are the only ones mentioned by name in the story), raising serious-minded issues that have been circulating since ancient times: what is “good taste” in literature; what is the relationship between the bourgeoisie and art- yet this tale turns everything “on its head”, as is worthy of a joke. What is the “good” and what is “bad”? Have the “forces of light” really prevailed? One cannot know if there is any truth to spiritualism, a fad that was popular in 19th century salons, however what is revealed is definitely a mischievous literary spirit, unveiling bourgeois morality and exposing it to ridicule.

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