Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Overcoat and Other Stories 'n' Stuff

My 19th century Russian literature kick remains in full force, and lately it's because of Nikolai Gogol, a funny writer who died a most unfunny death. I mean, I ask you, friends, where would literature be today without the line, "Strangely enough. I also at first took him for a gentleman. But fortunately I had my glasses with me and I saw at once that it was a nose."

In fact, that line is probably less funny out of its context, which is Gogol's short story "The Nose" -- the tale of a roguish nose who leaves the body of a collegiate assessor named Kovalyov, a man who holds himself in no small esteem, and assumes (the nose does) the identity of a gentleman scholar with the prestigious rank of a state councillor. And this over seventy years before Kafka first published "The Metamorphosis."

Gogol in all of his stories is ably able to demonstrate / undermine the stupidity and ineffectuality of convention and social hierarchy. If "The Overcoat" can teach us but one lesson -- I believe that it can -- then it's don't be a dick to a guy just because he looks really very beneath you, or maybe you'll have to face his ghost and repent for your misdeeds, or maybe you won't. Who knows what happens in "The Overcoat"? I mean, I do, but that's beside the point.

The point really is Gogol was a pioneering force, and it's hard to imagine those writers who seemingly followed in his absurdist footsteps didn't at least acquaint themselves with one of Gogol's short stories in their lifetimes. I can't be sure of course. And obviously Franz Kafka is one clear example, but there is no shortage of others -- the playwrights of the Theater of the Absurd, for example: Ionesco and "Rhinoceros," Beckett and "Waiting for Godot" and Albee and "The Zoo Story" -- to name only a few. Albert Camus' "The Plague" seems to have Gogolian quality about it. Even Herman Melville, who's probably the least likely of those listed to ever have ever read or even heard of Gogol, wrote stories that Gogol would likely have been impressed by, with similarly Gogolian themes, like my personal favorite, "Bartleby, The Scrivener."

Gogol satirized the powerful forces of society in a way befitting a precursor to the Modern and Postmodern literature eras of 20th century (+ beyond) literature, remarking on the folly of such traditionalist mentalities that made no attempt to appreciate the deeper nature to man. He understood hypocrisy, and he very well understood the pernicious effect of putting on airs, to both the subordinate and the so-called master, especially in the area of practical matters and being allowed to live freely.

One particularly poignant scene, which evidences some of what I wrote about above, belonging to Gogol appears in his narrator's describing "the prominent personage" (italics his) of "The Overcoat" -- a man enjoined by that story's protagonist, Akakii Akakievich, to assist him -- a humble copywriter -- in requesting police investigation of the matter of his stolen and highly expensive overcoat. The scene in question describes "the prominent personage" contemplating his sometimes felt desire to engage in conversation with men of lower rank, viz. :

In his eyes, there was sometimes visible a desire to join some interesting conversation and circle; but he was held back by the thought, Would it not be a very great condescension on his part? Would it not be familiar? and would he not thereby lose his importance? And in consequence of such reflections, he remained ever in the same dumb state, uttering only occasionally a few monosyllabic sounds, and thereby earning the name of the most tiresome of men.
I don't know what more to say except that, damn traditions can make fools of us all, if performed only in ceremony and without thought for the value (if any exists) to be found in so doing. Gogol was right!


  1. Another one of my favorite Gogolian lessons: "Don't blame the mirror if your own mug is crooked."

    I just found your blog today, and have been enjoying perusing your various readings on literature. I adore Gogol, and highly recommend that you check out his "Dead Souls" since you seemed to like his shorter works so very much.

  2. Thanks m,

    I appreciate recommendations, and "Dead Souls" is definitely going on my "to read" pile, which I happily find grows larger and larger every day.