APRIL 27, 2020
ONE OF MY HAPPIEST moments as an amateur reader of Russian showed me that the pleasure we take in the arts overwhelms our prejudices. What we enjoy, we enjoy, even if we don’t approve of it. In “The Nose,” my second favorite short story in the world, Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov wakes up one morning and his nose is gone. It’s impossible, but it happened. He’s a vain, calculating, contemptuous jerk, so despite his terrible loss, we don’t feel for a moment a grain of sympathy. We’re just intrigued, that’s all, the way everyone in St. Petersburg is about this man with a face as smooth as a pancake. Yet as Kovalyov pursues his nose, sees it gad about town in disguise, and as he tries to place a newspaper ad to corral it, and in despair foresees a hopeless social or domestic life, we smile. We don’t like him; we can’t possibly identify with him. He’s one of those poorly behaving comic characters whose frustrations we delight in, but, my gosh, I forgot that we also delight in such characters’ joy. When I crawled over the passage in Russian about the police officer who comes to Kovalyov’s apartment to announce that the nose has been found, I laughed and beamed with happiness: “Joy had deprived him of speech. He stared wide-eyed at the Inspector, on whose full lips and cheeks the quivering candlelight flickered brightly. ‘But how?’” The inspector explains just how, then “reached into his pocket and pulled out a nose wrapped in paper. ‘Yes, that’s it!’ Kovalyov yelled. ‘That’s the one!’”
Of course, that’s the one. But even if your nose returns, how do you reattach it?
Try pressing. Or applying a little moisture. But “the nose seemed to have turned to wood and kept falling back onto the table with the strangest of sounds, as if it were a cork.” Who has done this to poor Kovalyov? He thinks up a culprit, writes an angry letter to her, but soon discovers he’s mistaken. Life is idiotic! And then, less than a couple of weeks later, he wakes up and there, the nose is back, in the middle of his stupid face: “Grabbed it with his hand — yes, the nose! ‘Hurrah!’ said Kovalyev.”
Does its recovery make Kovalev a nicer, more reflective person? No more than it does any of us after a guilt-ridden dream.
“No reader,” writes translator Oliver Ready, “can help registering the missing nose of the story as the phallic symbol it so patently is.” I’m one of those people who have trouble with symbols. If N = P, then that means P = N, right? Am I the only reader who thinks “The Nose” is about a nose? If it’s a penis … then let me wonder with the barber Ivan Yakovlevich: How did it get into the fresh-baked bread Ivan’s wife “chucked […] onto the table”? What does it mean that the barber recognizes it? My favorite phrasing in Ready’s translation is when Ivan Yakovlevich pulls the nose out of his morning loaf of bread and sees “not just any old nose, but a nose he knew.” But is a barber a symbol of a castrator? And at the end of the story, what could that phallic symbol of a nose mean when the giddy re-nosed Kovalyov “took out his snuffbox and spent a very long time stuffing his nose from both entrances”? Finally, what are we going to have to think when we encounter Gogol’s as yet undiscovered story called “Khuy” (“The Dick”)?
“[Gogol’s] big sharp nose was of such length and mobility,” writes Vladimir Nabokov, “that in the days of his youth he had been able (being something of an amateur contortionist) to bring its tip and his underlip in ghoulish contact; this nose was his keenest and most essential outer part.” Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol is one of those rare literary studies almost as interesting as the work being appreciated. “The point to be noted is that from the very start the nose as such was a funny thing to his mind (as to that of all Russians), something sticking out, something not quite belonging to its bearer[.]” And so, let us make a moral: if a nose leaves you, and it does not come back, it was never meant to belong to you.
Nabokov has lots of ideas about Gogol and thinks the world of “The Overcoat,” which isn’t as much fun as “The Nose.” Gogol’s occasional pathos is heavy in “The Overcoat.” We know this story is more personal because Gogol feels for that mocked professional copyist Acacky Acackyevich (Ready prefers that nontraditional rendering of Akaky Akakievich), and we have to feel for him too.
The young clerks made fun of him with all the wit a chancery can muster, told various made-up stories right in front of him about him and his seventy-year-old landlady, said that she beat him, asked him when they would tie the knot, scattered scraps of paper over his head and called them snowflakes. But Acacky Akackyevich said not a single word in reply, as if they were not even there. […] Only when they made a joke that was simply too much to bear or when they kept knocking his arm and interfering with his task did he say, ‘Leave me be. Why are you offending me?’ And there was something strange about these words and the voice in which they were spoken, something so pitiable that one young man, who had only recently been appointed and who, following the example of others, also felt entitled to laugh at him, suddenly stopped, as if transfixed, and thereafter it was as if, in his own eyes, everything had changed and taken on a different appearance.
The friendless, pathetic, wonderfully dogged copyist made fun of at work and by his tailor for his threadbare coat, launches the biggest kopeck-pinching campaign of his life in order to save up the money to buy a new overcoat.
Sometimes Gogol’s narrators, our guides, are their own show. I suspect we’ve all had tour guides who became as intriguing as the famous places through which they were leading us. How entertaining and amusing it is to have a narrator who, for instance, lacks composure:
Acacky Acackyevich shook his head, grinned and went on his way. Why he grinned we can only wonder: perhaps he had come across something entirely unfamiliar to him but of which, nevertheless, each person retains some sixth sense, or perhaps, like many a clerk, he was thinking, “Oh, these Frenchmen! I mean, really! When they, er, decide they want something, then, er …” Or perhaps he didn’t even think that; after all, you can’t just climb into a man’s soul and find out everything he’s thinking.
You’re darn tootin’. And it’s hard to come to any conclusions, er, about Gogol’s fiction because, er, the genius and pleasure in them pop out from the floorboards and dresser drawers and out of his hat. Acacky’s coat is stolen the first night he wears it, and in his pursuit of police help, Acacky is humiliated by a “significant person,” whom Gogol instantaneously characterizes: “Sternness coloured all his usual conversations with his subordinates, which consisted almost exclusively of three short sentences: ‘How dare you? Do you know whom you are speaking to? Do you understand who is standing before you?’” The significant person’s indignant posturing leads to Acacky’s pathetic death, but Gogol resurrects Acacky as a vengeful ghost, and we feel the justice, unlike in the thoroughly comically amoral “The Nose.”
In “Diary of a Madman,” the diarist unravels before us; for one thing, he is convinced that two dogs are gossiping and corresponding with each other about him. Not only is he convinced, but so are we. This is not Gogol coolly imagining the life and thoughts of a madman but playing the madman himself. He steals letters from one dog’s kennel and runs off home to analyze them: “Right, let’s have a look: legible enough. Still, there is something a bit doggish about the handwriting. […] A highly uneven style.” He becomes impatient: “You can tell straight away that no human could have written it. Begins reasonably enough, but the end is a dog’s dinner.”
Such opinions are irrefutable.
Despite Oliver Ready’s sensible argument in the short introduction (i.e., “only a purist would claim that [these stories] cannot be illuminated by some knowledge of their frequently disoriented author”), maybe the less known about Gogol (1809–1852) the better. Comedians’ lives are not usually funny; it takes a Richard Pryor to make being on fire funny; it takes “the strangest prose-poet Russia ever produced” (Nabokov again) to make us believe in Gogol’s own world, which was awfully sad.
Born in a market town in Ukraine, “He was a weakling, a trembling mouse of a boy, with dirty hands and greasy locks, and pus trickling out of his ear. He gorged himself with sticky sweets. His schoolmates avoided touching the books he had been using” (Nabokov). He left home for St. Petersburg at the age of 19, and regularly wheedled his widowed mother for more money. He set out to conquer the literary world, and within a few years did, with the great Alexander Pushkin publishing and celebrating him. But at age 25, Gogol left St. Petersburg and spent most of the next dozen years outside of Russia, with stretches in Rome and Paris. His play The Government Inspector is still funny. By the age of 33 he wrote and published Part One of Dead Souls, one of the funniest novels ever, but, as Nabokov tells it, Gogol couldn’t get Parts Two and Three to gibe with his colossal moralizing plans in which his wild comedy would conform to traditional conservative Russian Orthodoxy. Becoming mad, he starved himself, and shortly before expiring at the age of 42, he burned the unfinished manuscripts of Dead Souls. His death, as recounted by Nabokov, was a nightmare:
It is horrible to read of the grotesquely rough handling that Gogol’s poor limp body underwent when all he asked for was to be left in peace. […] Dr. Auvers (or Hovert) had his patient plunged into a warm bath where his head was soused with cold water, after which he was put to bed with a half-a-dozen plump leeches affixed to his nose. He had groaned and cried and weakly struggled while his wretched body (you could feel the spine through the stomach) was carried to the deep wooden bath; he shivered as he lay naked in bed and kept pleading to have the leeches removed: they were dangling from his nose and getting into his mouth[.]
Yoiks! Dostoyevsky at his weirdest is for me the most-Gogol-like of the Russians, while Mikhail Bulgakov, seemingly more in line with Gogol (he wrote a novel told partly from the point of view of a man-dog), is of the Soviet era, and for me they don’t connect. For one, Bulgakov is a romantic while Gogol can’t depict physical love (however, Nabokov: “The belly is the belle of his stories, the nose is their beau”). Of course, generalizations accept exceptions. In “The Carriage,” the “hero” who has drunkenly bragged to acquaintances of the stupendous qualities of one of his carriages, is awakened in the morning by his wife upon those acquaintances’ arrival to inspect that vehicle: “‘Up you get, hubadub! Can’t you hear? We’ve got guests.’ ‘Guests? What guests?’ — whereupon he made a faint lowing sound, as a calf might make while feeling for its mother’s teats with its muzzle. ‘Mm …’ he grunted. ‘Give me your neck, my bunny bun! Let me kiss you.’” That is the most humanly intimate love scene in all of Gogol.
Everybody interested in fiction should know Gogol firsthand, and this collection has his four greatest short stories as well as the odd one out, “Old-World Landowners,” wherein the narrator is just an uninteresting “normal,” the only kind of character in Gogol who lacks personality. Gogol’s suave narrator relates the story of a kindly, childless old couple who are oblivious to the thieving and conniving of their household staff and serfs. There are touches of Gogol’s vivid observations, but the tone is like a jell or spray keeping all the hairs in place. Charles Dickens, his contemporary (1812–1870), is the closest author with whom I can compare him: the more peculiar their characters are, the more alive they seem.
Pushkin Press’s “Essential Stories” series is remarkably attractive; each is easy to read and reads quickly, with about 260 words per page on nice paper. Ready’s translations very occasionally cross the line from 19th-century vocabulary and phrasing into the 21st (e.g. “this swindler […] might take this opportunity to do another runner and flee the city”; “No way! I won’t sell it for the world!”). But so what? Those phrases are bumps on the road and will not overturn a carriage bearing Gogol’s marvelous tales.
The title comes from a passage in “Diary of a Madman”:
I would encourage everyone to write Spain on a piece of paper, and you’ll see that what comes out is China. I felt extremely upset, however, about the event that is due to take place tomorrow. Tomorrow at seven o’clock a strange phenomenon will occur: the earth will sit on the moon. […] Frankly, I felt profound anxiety on picturing to myself the extraordinary tenderness and fragility of the moon. After all, the moon is usually made in Hamburg, and it’s made very badly. […] the moon itself is too tender a sphere for human life, so only noses live there now. Which is why we cannot see our own noses: they are all in the moon.
Just as I suspected. Noses are noses are noses … but sometimes they’re elsewhere.
Note: Nabokov’s Nikolai Gogol is still in print from New Directions.