Gosh, where do I start on this one? First, a huge thank you to Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for introducing me to Nikolai Gogol, who I thought would be ‘difficult’ and well outside my usual comfort zone, but turned out to be enormously enjoyable and very accessible. The five short stories gathered together in And the Earth Will Sit On the Moon, from Pushkin Press, were just WONDERFUL. Gogol can be funny, sad, satirical, witty, lyrical… . The book kept me laughing and crying on a slow-moving train to Newcastle – my fellow passengers must have thought I was mad! We passed through mile after mile of flooded countryside, with water stretching as far as the eye could see, on either side of the track, and I heaved a sigh of relief on arrival at my destination an hour later than scheduled, after a journey that lasted more than four hours! In the circumstances I needed some pretty spectacular writing to hold my attention, and Gogol delivered in bucketloads. He is one the most extraordinary authors I have ever read. I shall try and write a little bit about each story, but I love them so much I’m not sure I can do them justice.
The Nose, the first tale in the collection, is positively surreal – magic realism perhaps, long before the term was even coined (it was published in 1832). We are in St Petersburg and barber Ivan Yakovlevich finds a nose inside a fresh-baked loaf of bread. And not just any old nose – it’s the nose belonging to Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov, whom he shaves every Wednesday and Sunday. Yakovlevich, a great drinker, fears he might have sliced the nose off without noticing, so he wraps it up and throws it in the river…
Meanwhile, in another part of the city, Kovalyov realises his nose is missing! Gogol tells us: “Kovalyov was a Collegiate Assessor of the Caucasian variety. He had held this rank for only two years, which was why he couldn’t forget it for a single minute; and to give himself an air of greater nobility and gravity, he would never refer to himself as Collegiate Assessor, but always as Major.” And he adds: “So now the reader can judge for himself the state that this Major must have been in when, in the place of his moderate and not unattractive nose, he saw an idiotic space that was flat and smooth.” Then, in front of a ‘certain house’ an ‘inexplicable phenomenon’ occurs right before his eyes.
A carriage drew up before the front entrance, its doors opened and, ducking his head, a gentleman in uniform sprang out of it and ran up the steps. Picture Kovalyov’s horror and sheer astonishment when he realized that this was his very own nose! The world seemed to turn upside down at the sight of this extraordinary spectacle. He felt he could barely stay on his feet but he resolved, come what may, to wait until the gentleman returned to the carriage; he was shaking feverishly. Two minutes later the nose did indeed come back out. His uniform boasted gold embroidery and a tall standing collar; he was wearing suede trousers, with a sword down one side. One could infer from his plumed hat that he held the rank of State Counsellor. Indeed, everything suggested that he was off to pay someone a visit.
I won’t reveal the ending, but what follows is very, very funny, and very, very silly, as Kovalyov and his run-away nose become the talk of the city, and people flock to areas where the nose has (allegedly) been sighted.
Diary of a Madman is about a clerk who thinks he’s the King of Spain and is locked in an asylum. It’s quite heart-rending as you watch his disintegration from someone who is a little odd (well, more than a little if I am honest) into full-scale madness. It’s not as harrowing as it sounds – there is a lot of humour – but I wondered how much it reflects Gogol’s own struggles with mental illness, especially at the end, when in a brief moment of lucidity he realises he is ill and appeals to his mother for help: “Sweet mother, save your poor son! Shed a tear on his sick head! See how they torment him! Press your poor fatherless child to your breast! The world has no place for him! Everyone chases him away! Sweet mother! Pity your sick child!”
The Overcoat – this is the one that made me cry. Here we learn that:
…in a certain Department there served a certain clerk, a clerk whom nobody could describe as especially remarkable, who was a bit short, a bit pocked, a bit carroty and even, by the looks of him, a bit blind, with a widow’s peak, wrinkles on both cheeks, and a general complexion that was positively haemorrhoidal… Well, he had the Petersburg climate to thank for all that.
Known as Acacky Acackyevich, he is a lowly clerk, who copies documents and has little money and no friends or family. He never stops to think about his clothes, but eventually his old overcoat can no longer be repaired – the fabric is so worn that the air passes right through it. So he scrimps and saves to pay Petrovich the tailor to make another. The new coat is a thing of beauty and, for a brief moment, it changes Acacky Acackyevich’s life, but his new-found joy is not to last…
Old-World Landowners is a charming, nostalgic look at the past, and is beautifully written – a kind of prose poem to a vanished way of life. Gogol ‘recollects’ Afanasy Ivanovich Tovstogub and Pulkheria Ivanovna, his wife, telling us about the couple, their home, their friends, and their their servants. I’m not sure if this couple actually existed, or whether they; are composites of people he knew, but the story is told with great warmth and love, with lots of detail about the small, everyday things that others might overlook and think too unimportant to mention. Take doors for example:
But the most remarkable thing in the house was the sounds of the doors. From first light, their singing filled the home. I cannot say what caused them to sing—perhaps it was the hinges that had rusted through, or perhaps the workman who made them had hidden some secret mechanism inside them—but every door, remarkably enough, had its own special voice: the bedroom door sang in the thinnest of sopranos, the door to the dining room was a hoarse bass, while the one in the outer room produced a strange half-chatter, half-groan so that, if you listened attentively, you would be sure to make out the words “Help, I’m freezing!”
Finally, there is The Carriage. A cavalry regiment arrives in a small, quiet town, bringing noise, colour and excitement. There is much feasting (and drinking) and at one event the General shows off his beautiful horse. Chertokutsky, a local landowner, not to be outdone, boasts about his expensive carriage which, he says, is as a light as a feather. “When you sit down in it, Your Excellency, it’s as though, if I may be so bold, as though you are being rocked in the cradle by your nanny!”And, he adds, it’s so roomy it will hold ten bottles of rum and twenty pounds of tobacco, and the pockets could accommodate an entire ox!
You’d think that last statement might alert the regimental officers to the fact that that the landowner may have been a little economical with the truth, but they accept an offer to have lunch at his home the following day and take a look at this non-existent wonder of transportation!
As a rule I feel that not having studied literature at degree level has freed me to read what I want when I want, and to form my own opinions. But there are times when I regret my lack of knowledge, and this is one of them. I would love to know more about Gogol (there must be a good biography somewhere), and I want to know how he fits into the literary canon, in Russia, and in the wider world. Somehow, almost 200 years after these stories were written, he seems very modern, and as far as I can see nothing quite like them had been written before, and it was a long time before anything quite like them did appear.
Where did these stories spring from? Were they purely imaginary? Products of his own fragile mental state? Re-tellings of old folk tales? A means of highlighting the hypocrisy of pompous petty bureaucrats? I thought his writing seemed closer to oral traditions – his voice comes across very clearly, and he speaks directly to his readers – I could almost feel him pausing as he awaits our response! I may be way off the mark, but I’m sure authors like Mikhail Bulgarov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Angela Carter and Isabel Allende must have been influenced by Gogol.
*I wrote this a couple of weeks back, after I’d been to visit my younger daughter, and before I stayed with my mother, and I thought I’d scheduled it to appear, but obviously not!