Click on photos to enlarge.
It has gone under a lot of different titles in English, but Nikolai Leskov’s popular tale about a metal-working craftsman is known just one way in Russian – as one of the iconic short stories in the canon. That’s no mean feat. Figure that any course in Russian short fiction of the 19th century will include works by Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov and a few others… No shabby competition.
Leskov was a fabulous writer. He’s hell to translate because he wrote in a colloquial narrative that is so rich in Russian it rattles off your tongue in big, clattering chunks and juicy drops. In literary criticism there is even a term to describe Leskov’s (and not only Leskov’s) manner of writing – skaz. I’m not going to be able to translate that for you either, except to say that’s what we mean by the phrase “colloquial narrative.” Skaz literally means something like tale or telling (it comes from the verb “to say”). It also can mean “a” or “the tale,” which is how Leskov employs it in his title of this story, “The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and of the Steel Flea.” Leskov wrote the story in 1881 and, as far as I can determine, it was first translated into English by Isabel F. Hapgood in 1916. She called it merely “The Steel Flea.” I must say, because I love it so much, that this translation of the story was, as the title page declares, “privately printed for the Company of Gentlemen Adventurers at the Merrymount Press, Boston.” (Wikipedia prints a picture of the title page.) That’s right, that’s the kind of gentlemen adventurers we used to have in the United States! They craved stories by one of Russia’s most untranslatable writers. These days it takes Oprah to say Anna Karenina to get anyone to read a Russian book. Ekh!
Anyway, here is the story about Lefty (Levsha) in short.
The Russian Tsar traveled to England where he encountered an astonishing thing – a minuscule dancing, mechanical flea. So amazed was he that he brought the little engineering miracle home with him to see if some Russian master could equal or better the feat. The mechanical flea is naturally sent to the city of Tula, which was, is and always will be famed around Russia for its metal works. This is where most of Russia’s weaponry was and still is made. The city’s buttons pop with pride for the guns, swords, tanks and samovars that their metal factories turn out.
Anyway, the job of besting the Brits is turned over to three of the best metalworkers in town. They hole themselves up and go to work in secret. Eventually, they emerge, flushed and exhausted. When the fruits of their labors are delivered to the Tsar – Lefty, one of the trio, was chosen to go to Moscow to show off their work – everyone is disappointed. They can’t see that anything has been done to better the mechanical flea. That is when Lefty puts the Emperor in his place: “Take a closer look,” he says. “You just haven’t noticed yet.” That is when, with the help of a strong magnifying glass, the Sovereign realizes that his Russian craftsmen have put tiny little shoes on the tiny little mechanical flea. Moreover, each has left his signature on the shoes. Lefty himself made the nails that attached the shoes to the flea’s feet, and they are so small that you can’t even see them. Nobody seems to care much that the mechanical flea will no longer dance…
The story goes on. Lefty is sent to England, which he doesn’t like and, on his way home, he befriends a British sailor with whom he drinks a bit too much. The result is that he is thrown in jail in St. Petersburg where he is left to die. It’s a Russian story, of course, so it goes on even further, but now it’s up to you to find the story and read it yourself if you want to know it. Isabel F. Hapgood’s translation for those gentlemen adventurers can be read online, should you wish to do that.
The monument to Lefty in Tula now stands on a small plaza on Sovetskaya Street just across from the Svyato-Nikolsky cathedral, south of the Upa River, and right at the perimeter of the huge Levsha (Lefty) Armory Company. It was originally erected on the grounds of the Tula Machine-Building Plant in 1989, coming a little too late to mark the 100th anniversary of the publishing of Leskov’s story. It was moved to its current location in 2009 so that mere mortals would be able to see it (it was behind a locked gate in its original location). It’s nice to note that the statue was created by a local sculptor, an employee of the metalworks, Bronislav Krivokhin. The base of the pedestal bears quotes from various local celebrities who have had their say about the story or about the fame of Tula’s metalworks. The quote I show in a photo below is from Leskov’s story. It reads, “Look at that, why don’t you! Why, those sly dogs, they have shoed that English flea with shoes!”
I’m not quite sure I can get behind the enthusiastic descriptions of the monument made by local observers. First, the location for the statue is anything but ideal. It feels rather out of place – there’s a high fence right behind it, and the square in front of it has no aesthetic structure to it at all. Lefty looks rather like he’s been hung out to dry here, as, indeed, he was in the original story.
As for Lefty himself, he’s looking pretty heroic here to me. He’s got that blank Soviet gaze into the future as he looks upon the fruits of his labor. His expression is deadly serious, his hair is well-coiffed. He’s got the body of Adonis. He’s got buns like a ballet dancer. His left arm, holding his work tool, is ready to go back to work at any moment. I don’t quite see the “cross-eyed” Tulan metal worker here. One website writes: “An inimitable facial expression conveys the hero’s inner state. The whole figure radiates positive contentment and pride.” I’ll agree with that first phrase, but the second, I don’t believe, is in the favor of this piece of public art. In any case, we all understand that the city and the factory needed what they needed, and so that is what they got…
Having said all that – I love the idea of the monument. In fact, I got a big kick out of the monument itself. I love the idea of a monument to a literary figure. I would say it is an even bigger sign of Leskov’s accomplishment than if they would have erected a bust or sculpture of him. When your literary creations live their own life to the extent that Lefty does, that’s success. My hat’s off to Tula for putting this statue up, no matter what I say about it.