by Nikolay Gogol
Nikolay Gogol was a Russian writer, of Ukrainian and Polish parents. He was born in 1809 and with Aleksander Pushkin the poet, was responsible for starting the great Russian literary awakening of the 19th century.
The short stories I have read from this collection are among his most famous: The Diary of a Madman, The Overcoat and The Nose.
Themes of a society dominated by bureaucracy and corruption, and of tragic and submissive heroes who live out sad, impoverished lives are evident in all these stories, and Gogol oscillates in all of them between comedy, bitter satire and tragedy.
“The Nose” is a strangely surreal story of a low ranking bureaucrat who literally loses his nose.
Kovalyov is obsessed with his ranking in the civil service, and losing his nose is an affront to his fragile image of himself in the societal system. He is further enraged when reports emerge of his nose becoming a ‘person’, obtaining a higher rank than his owner and lording it about town in a superior coach and clothing. He won’t rest until his nose is returned, and is suspicious of a number of people he thinks are responsible, because they are out to get him in his mind. The nose’s abscondment becomes a parody of the nonsensical bureaucracy that existed in Tsarist Russia. In St Petersburg there was later even a statue erected of the nose, who has become a much loved ‘character’ in Russian culture. A fun satire about the absurdity of rank.
“My nose is driving at this very moment all over town, calling itself a state counsellor. That’s why I’m asking you to print this advertisement announcing the first person who catches it should return the nose to its rightful owner as soon as possible. imagine what’s it’s like being without such a conspicuous part of your anatomy! if it were just a small toe, then could put on my shoe and no one would be any the wiser. “
“The Overcoat” is a sad story of a lowly clerk, a copyist in a government office who is overlooked by everyone. He is barely surviving on a meagre income, and yet is totally obedient to the system that enslaves and dehumanises him. His old overcoat is in tatters, and of course in the Russian winter, a good overcoat is essential to survival. He goes to a tailor, who tells him there is no point trying to repair the coat, he needs a new one. The poor man can’t afford it, but by literally almost starving he is able to eventually buy the most basic of overcoats, just as winter sets in.
When he receives the new coat, he feels for the first time in his life on top of the world and is invited to a party by another clerk. Here the tale takes a darker turn. A gang of thieves robs him of his overcoat and leaves him defenceless in the snow. The police are totally uninterested in helping him recover his coat, and Akaky dies of a fever brought on by extreme cold.
In a final surreal element, Akaky comes to haunt the city as a ghost. His target is men with overcoats, that he forces to shed, a punishment for those that belittled him and brought about his death. This is a sad, haunting tale and hugely influential in later 19th century Russian literature: it was Dostoyevsky who famously wrote ” We have all come out from Gogol’s overcoat”.
“Akaky Akakievich was carted away and buried. And St Petersburg carried on …just as though he had never even existed… But who would have imagined that this was not the last of [him], and that he was destined to create quite a stir several days after his death, as though he were trying to make up for a life spent being ignored by everybody?”
‘Diary of a Madman’ is I think one of Gogol’s best stories. It’s the only one written in the first person, and is a devastating critique on the Russian bureaucratic system and its effects on human happiness.
Arksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin, is a minor civil servant, who is constantly lambasted and criticised by his superiors. He falls in love with his boss’s daughter, becoming obsessed with trying to gain her attention and approval.
The diary records his gradual slide into insanity, as in madness he finds the confidence he yearns for, and comes to believe he is the heir to the Spanish throne. Gogol’s portrayal of this slide is very realistic, as Poprishchin reads about the Spanish War of Succession in the newspapers, and to him it makes perfect sense he may be the heir.
” Today is a day of great triumph. There is a king of Spain. He has been found at last. That king is me. I only discovered this today. The path ahead is clear: everything is as bright as daylight… The first thing I did was tell Mavra who I was. When she heard that the King of Spain was standing before her, she wrung her hands and nearly died of fright. The stupid woman had obviously never set eyes on the King of Spain before.”
The last diary entries are poignantly tragic as Poprishchin is taken to an asylum and becomes subject to great cruelty and corporal punishment, yet sees this as a trial to be endured to establish his right to the throne.
All three stories are reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe in their use of the grotesque and the absurd, but Gogol was himself a master at veering between comedy and tragedy, and it was a great loss that his last novel, “Dead Souls” was incomplete at his death, and moreover that he burnt great parts of it. But these stories are testament to his great talent in laying bare the great inequalities of Tsarist Russia, and for his skill in simultaneously portraying human banality and suffering.