This is the life story of the half-honorable monk, Ivan Severianich, who relates his episodic and remarkable chronicle to fellow passengers on a boat, chiefly to pass the time. We really don't know the name of Ivan's questioner but he extracts the entire incredible account out of the old charming and charmed Russian monk with great skill.
If one of your reading objectives is to get a true sense of life in 19th Century Russia then this is the book for you. Unlike most of "War and Peace," this one focuses upon the serf-peasants ("muzhiks") rather than on the nobility.
The translator for this Soho English language edition (originally printed in 1926 -- this is a 1985 reprint) was A.G. Paschkoff and he was surely able to maintain an incredibly comprehensible translation while still maintaining Lyeskov's lyrical language. Lyeskov himself dispensed with an abundance of ambiance in terms of vivid descriptions of the rural countryside and numerous colorful characters -- he imparts this to us directly through dialogue and it holds the reader's interest with a refreshing fascination for his unique writing style.
I found this work to be a real hoot, albeit Lyeskov may not have meant it to be so much so. It's chiefly humorous in that modern Americans will view this little-known peasant culture as bizarre, perhaps even insane -- but these folks were actually remarkably clever and resilient in surviving the difficult religious, social, and political environment which existed under the authoritarian Tsar. The levity here is much akin to what one finds in Gogol's work of genius, Dead Souls: A Novel. Lyeskov wrote his original Russian-language edition in 1873, not long after serfdom was technically banned by the Tsar.
The better title for this book would probably have been "Charmed Wanderer" (which is actually implied in the text) because Severianich gets out of more insurmountable peccadilloes than Bill Clinton!
As an historic novel of general interest, anyone can read this magnificent tale and enjoy it from beginning to end. It's only 251 pages in length and it never drags for a moment. Maxim Gorky provided a great introduction to this Soho edition. If you enjoy this one, you might also try THE SENTRY AND OTHER STORIES.
This is a 'framed' story told by Ivan Severianich Flyagin, also known, on account of his large head, as Golovan, the Russian word голова (golova) meaning head. Within his tale, Ivan Severianich acquires a number of other aliases too. The framing story is of a group of travelers meeting Ivan Severianich, a novice monk but clearly no chicken, as a fellow passenger on a boat plying Lake Ladoga. They draw from him his tale.
Странник (straneek), wanderer, can mean anything from pilgrim thru wayfarer and nomad to vagabond and by his own account Ivan Severianich was all of those at different times. For much of the time, though, he was notably lacking in religious zeal, despite not only ending up as a monk but having envisaged all his life that he would do so.
In practice, Ivan Severianich's account of his life to date is a series of stories, many of them well beyond belief. Nevertheless, they are generally intriguing, and at times induce our real anxiety for his life, his fortune, and the lives and well-being of a succession of consorts. Along the way, Leskov tells us much that is believable of the experiences of a clever, energetic person born into serfdom, and of early 19th century Russia. And we have Leskov's trademark humor, skepticism of convention, and the occasional malapropism.
A G Paschkoff's translation is fit for purpose. In my view though, all things considered, including explanatory notes, the new The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories by Nikolai Leskov translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky has a slight edge on it. The Introduction published with this edition is by Maxim Gorky, but could safely be skipped were it not for the interest generated by the great man's name.