Book Review: The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol

My copy of the collection.

I suppose going forward, I can confidently refer to something in the realist realm, or the fantastical, as Gogolesque, or reminiscent of Gogol, rather than Kafkaesque. Because Nikolai Gogol, a Ukrainian novelist, whose writings circulated a good half-century before Kafka’s birth, surely influenced him. Gogol writes about his time growing up in “Little Russia,” as well as the then-Russian capital of Saint Petersburg, in the collection, The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, with an English translation by translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, released in 1998. These short stories primarily deal with the themes of individual alienation, “Little Russia” juxtaposed to the big Russian city of St. Petersburg (the collection is literally divided into Ukrainian tales and Petersburg tales), the arbitrariness (or overrated esteem) given to rank, and Russian corruption.

Because of the surreal quality of the work, Gogol’s short stories lend themselves to being downright comical, and shockingly modern. I always have a slight bit of trepidation, admittedly, when approaching novels set before a certain modern time, wary of reading something steeped in Old English or what have you, much less something translated from another language, such as Russian. Which is a weird concern of mine, given that I love watching foreign films. Maybe that’s a weird hang-up I’ve never properly examined until now? I need to read more translated books!

Speaking of, let me interject here to marvel at what an accomplishment it must be to translate a book. We see all the time that such and such famous book has been translated into 74 languages, or whatever the case, but consider the feat it must be to do that?! I’m not a Russian speaker, so I can’t actually say with any sort of authority that this book is a great translation, but given the plaudits shown to the book, it seems like it’s a great translation, and I can’t get over that. To take something written in a different language, and try to find the proper English words to convey the original author’s meaning to an English audience? That’s neat. Now, to be certain, some items still went over my head because it would be like someone in Russia reading a Russian-translated work of English literature — some nuances are going to be lost in translation and cultural differences; there is no helping that unless you’re well-versed in the opposite culture and language. But it didn’t take away in the slightest from my understanding of, and appreciation for, each story.

Back to the point at hand: No, this book is decidedly modern in how whimsical, playful, goofy, funny, and even at times horrific in a Stephen Kingesque way. To the latter, witches and the devil play a reoccurring role in the proceedings. Heck, the first short story in the collection, “St. John’s Eve,” was a grotesque story that I could easily have seen Stephen King writing two hundred years after Gogol. In it, a man wrongly ends up trusting a witch, who demands he decapitate a child, to which he does (at least, that was my reading of it!), and the entire forest runs red with blood. In another short story, “Nevsky Prospect,” a lowly clerk dies by suicide after falling into a dream-like scenario of trying to meet a vexing woman.

But I just loved the fantastical, funny ones, like “The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich,” where the two Ivans, who are neighbors and best friends, could be something out of a modern sitcom with what happens to them: Ivan Ivanovich feels besmirched (to use an English word) that Ivan Nikiforovich won’t lend him his gun, and in the process of denying him said gun, calls him the most vile thing one can call another man of a certain stature in Russia, something you wouldn’t even deign to utter in front of the company of a proper lady: goose. That’s right, that dastardly Ivan Nikiforovich called Ivan Ivanovich a goose. The horror! They indeed quarrel, to where Ivan Ivanovich tears down a goose pen that Ivan Nikiforovich erects to taunt him, and then it goes to court, and realistic to court, it takes years and years to make its way through the court system. And on and on. It’s great satire of the silliness in Russian society around titles, societal standing, and rank (another theme that repeats throughout the collection) to where it ruins a great friendship.

Another one of my favorites, perhaps my favorite of the collection, was, “The Nose.” In that story, a barber goes to eat his wife’s morning bread and finds a nose! A nose he doesn’t apparently remember cutting off the face of a general! He goes to toss the nose off of a bridge and is stopped by a policeman. Meanwhile, the general wakes up with such a smooth and flat face as to resemble a pancake (that’s how it’s described); his nose is gone! And it somehow gets weirder: He meets his nose, dressed in a certain rank, on the street and confronts his nose, whereupon the nose denies being his nose!

Gogol’s stories are a nice blend of silliness like the aforementioned, and horror with the witches, the bloodletting, and the surreal dream-like quality of the stories (like “The Portrait” where you get the classic notion of a portrait’s eyes following you; and “The Overcoat” where a dead man haunts the townspeople looking for his stolen overcoat), but within all of them, there is a point being made, I think, about Russian society, whether that’s “Little Russia,” or St. Petersburg. The obsessions the society has with status (and apparently snuff (can’t snuff without a nose!), and drinking vodka), with obtaining wealth and fame (like in, “The Portrait,” where an artist sacrifices all of his creative talents just to be famous and “in print”), and with being elite (in one story, “Viy,” a philosopher kills a young woman, thinking her a “hag” or a witch).

Or you know, the simple effect being someone below all of this, being a commoner, whether that was the copy boy in, “The Overcoat,” or another favorite of mine, the man who goes mad in, “The Diary of a Madman.” With those two stories, we get the juxtaposition of what can happen to you in this sort of society: utter banality, but unwavering commitment to it (in the former), or driven to absolute madness, where you think you’re the King of Spain and the year is 2020 (in the latter).

If the cover, or the name, or the fact that it’s a translated work, or like me, you worried about it being from an older author, scares you like you have a devil on your back (that was another fun story, “The Night Before Christmas”) whispering in your ear to avoid that book like its a witch’s brew, I would advise against it! Use your nose to (not snuff), but take in the infectious odor of a new book, and get lost in some fun Gogol tales.

Let Gogol make you gaga. Yes, I went there.

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