Song of the Day: ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ by Gotye
It has been my plan to write on Nikolai Gogol, one of my favourite Russian authors – but you know how it goes: we perennially have things on our to-do list that never get done. Anyhow, time constraints aside, I hope this makes up for it.
Gogol has the distinction of being the man who has had an extraordinarily important influence on Russian literature. A contemporary of Pushkin, Gogol has left his mark as a playwright, novelist, and short-story writer. His characters are common people and his stories are rooted in common-place events but his realism is simply the doorway to a bizarre world of broad comedy and lunacy. He has also created some of the most colourful and haunting fiction of his century. And with his special blend of comedy, social commentary, and fantasy; he paved the way for Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.
‘We are all descended from Gogol’s Cloak, is an oft-quoted statement, which in a variety of forms and for more than a hundred years has been attributed to many different Russian authors, critics, and the like including Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. (I also made the same error in my previous piece on Gogol’s Dead Souls). Nonetheless, Dostoyevsky’s novel, Poor Folk, which appeared ten years later, is, in a way, merely an extension of Gogol’s shorter tale. To be sure every Russian writer to come after him acknowledges and reveres Gogol.
Enough about the man of whom I spoke in detail before, but here is a collection that I believe is a great introduction to the legend. It consists of unique gems of comedy, horror, satire, fantasy, and more. It is definitely where one who has never read Gogol should start to get a feel for the writings of this inimitable and versatile artist. Anything I write here will not be sufficient as each story mentioned defies description.
Therefore, here go my sorry attempts at summary:
- The first of these is the Diary (Memoirs) of a Madman which shows us the disintegrating psyche of a minor civil servant during the era of Tsar Nicholas I. Gogol had had more than his share of problems with Nicholas’ censors (who were as vigilant as Stalin’s) and he did not ingratiate himself with this depiction of bureaucratic malaise.
- The Nose – which tells us with an utterly straight face the improbable tale of a man who wakes up one day to find his nose missing, only to then spot it running around town wearing the uniform of a government official – is probably the single funniest work of a serious literature ever written. The notion of a nose disappearing from a man’s face, taking on human size, government rank and uniform, is Gogol’s way of expressing life’s absurdity. As in several short stories that Gogol’s The Nose has influenced (e.g. Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis– on which I’ll write later), the reader’s sense of expected reality is violated. Is this to be interpreted as the hallucinative perception of a madman? Or is it, perhaps, the narrator’s dream, evidenced by the fact that in Russian the word for nose is the word for dream or sleep, spelt backwards (нос = сон, i.e. nos = son)?
- Next is his most celebrated comedy, the Revizor (also known as The Government Inspector or The Inspector General). In this he succeeded in rendering contemptible and ludicrous the official life of Russia, the corruption universally prevailing throughout the civil service, the alternate arrogance and servility of men in office. The plot of the comedy is simple. A traveller who arrives with an empty purse at a provincial town is taken for an inspector whose arrival is awaited with fear, and he receives all the attention and bribes which are meant to propitiate the dreaded inspector of abuses. (The play premiered on stage in the spring of 1836 and achieved wide success, in spite of the opposition attempted by the official classes whose malpractices it exposed).
- We can say that Gogol achieved what he had set out in Revizor in his great novel, Dead Souls, of which I will not say more as I went into perhaps too much detail here.
- And of course, I cannot possibly forget, The Cloak (also known as The Overcoat), a short story that really tested my knowledge of Russian. (A friend I suggested that to practise read short stories in Russian to improve my language skills.) I even bought a pre-1917 edition of a Russian-French dictionary (I really searched for an English one but to no avail). Anyway, everything about the story is indicative, including the name of the protagonist: Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin. There are not enough words to describe this tragicomic short story in which Gogol uses comical humour to ridicule the oppressive bureaucracy of nineteenth-century Tsarist Russia. Anyhow, the story which is credited as the precursor to the Russian novel, perhaps, because The Cloak¸ for the first time strikes that truly Russian note of deep sympathy with the disinherited. It is not yet wholly free from artificiality, and so is not yet typical of the purely realistic fiction that reached its perfected development in Turgenev and Tolstoy.
- It would be almost sinful were we to forget, The Carriage (a.k.a. The Calash), or The Mysterious Portrait, or The Squabble (a.k.a. How the Two Ivans Quarrelled), and lastly Gogol’s attempt at an epic, Taras Bulba (on which I will write in detail, soon… I definitely promise).
In this very small compilation I was guided by the desire to give the largest possible presentation which is characteristic of Gogol. All those who enjoy good reading, I have no reason to doubt will get pleasure from them.
Till next post!