Saturday, 29 February 2020

The Steel Flea by Nikolay Leskov

The Steel Flea by Nikolay Leskov
First published in Russian in 1881. English language translation by William Edgerton published in 1969 and republished as a Penguin Little Black Classic in 2015.

One of my Classics Club reads

How I got this book:
Swapped for at a campsite book exchange

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

'He gave orders that they were not to get any hot glum pudding in flames, for fear the spirits in their innards might catch fire'

The Steel Flea is an uproarious and alcohol-soaked shaggy-dog story from one of Russia's great comic masters.

Introducing Little Black Classics: 80 books for Penguin's 80th birthday. Little Black Classics celebrate the huge range and diversity of Penguin Classics, with books from around the world and across many centuries. They take us from a balloon ride over Victorian London to a garden of blossom in Japan, from Tierra del Fuego to 16th-century California and the Russian steppe. Here are stories lyrical and savage; poems epic and intimate; essays satirical and inspirational; and ideas that have shaped the lives of millions.

I picked up this little Penguin Classics short story at a campsite book exchange and read over an hour or so whilst lazing on a beach. It's a fun tale of national oneupmanship in which Russian craftsmen are set the task of bettering an English invention - a tiny lifesized steel flea automaton which jumps about when wound by a key. It's all quite silly and the narrative frequently wanders off at odd tangents as all good shaggy dog stories do. Especially worth noting is William Edgerton's idiosyncratic translation which I imagine echoes the original Russian text in that wrong words are substituted to humorous effect throughout the story. An entertaining short story and one which I think would benefit from being read aloud, performance style, to an audience.

Etsy Find!
by Kuladot London in
London, England

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Books by Nikolay Leskov / Short stories / Books from Russia


  1. I like the sound of lazily reading on the beach! While it sounds funny, it doesn't seem like one for me because books that go off on too many tangents lose my attention fairly quickly. Great mini review x

    Olivia-S @ Olivia's Catastrophe

    1. The Steel Flea is certainly a book of its time. I don't think authors write shaggy dog stories any more?