The Steel Flea

steel-flea

Nikolay (or Nikolai) Leskov’s The Steel Flea (an abbreviated form of its Russian title, ‘The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea’) is sometimes regarded as his most typical work. It certainly showcases a wild-eyed, anything-goes story-telling with a sly sense of humour. The story begins with Emperor Alexander the First in London, marvelling at the technology of the English, much to the chagrin of his accompanying Cossack, Platov:

“…if Platov noticed the Emperor getting interested in something foreign, then just as soon as all the guides stopped talking for a minute, Platov would pop up and say this, that and the other, telling them ours at home were just as good…”

Most marvellous of all is a steel flea they gift to the Emperor, so small it appear only as speck, with a key to wind up its clockwork parts that can only be seen through a ‘nitroscope’. (Though the English gift the flea to Alexander, they charge him for the case to carry it in – Leskov aims his satirical barbs at whatever nation comes within range).

Alexander returns to Russia with the flea, Platov, still fuming (literally from his pipe) retires to his “bed of ire”, and the flea is forgotten about until it is rediscovered years later by Nicholas the First. Platov is also rediscovered (with the ‘nitroscope’ he pocketed on the day they received the flea) and so it is once again wound up and made to dance. Platov suggests it be taken to Tula “to see whether our craftsmen can’t outdo it, so that the Englishmen won’t keep lording it over us Russians.” And so the flea ends up in the hands of Lefty and his fellow metal-workers who promise:

“…by the time you come back you will have something worthy to be shown to his Imperial Splendour.
But exactly what it was they just wouldn’t say.”

In the story’s second half Lefty returns the flea to England to show off his work allowing Leskov to poke more fun at the cultural differences of the two nations. In fact, the whole story is genuinely amusing – and if that wasn’t enough Leskov indulges in some witty wordplay: military equipment such as “nautical whether-meters, gamble-hair coast for the infantry waterproof rein coats for the cavalry”; “prejudunce” instead of prejudice, and, my personal favourite, a “calumnist” from the “Daily Telegraft”. (Kudos to translator William Edgerton for ensuring that all remain amusing and are never intrusive).

The Steel Flea is a wonderful introduction to Leskov (it reminded me a little of another writer I have come to love this year, Stanislaw Lem) and is highly recommended to anyone looking for some 19th century Russian humour – surely the bets kind?

Note: this translation does not come from the Penguin Classics Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk and Other Stories or the Vintage Classics The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories but seems to originate from the 1969 Satirical Stories of Nikolai Leskov.

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4 Responses to “The Steel Flea”

  1. Jonathan Says:

    Oh, this sounds like my kind of story. I’m a big fan of ETA Hoffmann and this sounds similar. I’ll have to check out the author, whom I hadn’t heard of before.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I love Leskov, but the hardest thing seems to be tracking down good translations. The P/V ones have come in for criticism – but I do have several highly recommended alternatives lurking!

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