Gogol, a few stories and reflections

2022-10-13 @Literature

Finally dedicated some quality Gogol time and read a handful of the Petersburg stories: Невский Проспект (Nevsky Prospekt), Нос (Nose), Шинель (Overcoat) and Коляска (the Carriage/Coach), all products of the mid 1830s to early 1840s.

(Prior I’d only read the macabre Вий of the Mirgorod (Ukraine) cycle, and half the magnum opus Мертвые Души, never fully vested in the first, and abandoned the second from midway confusion.

Нос - an absurd satire of black humour concerning 1) a glorified barber (цирюльник), 2) a functionary and 3) a nose. Magic realism serves to underpin the bureaucracy vs the little man conundrum. Gogol uses crafty abstraction technique in leaving narratives unresolved to a point.

One difference I detect in Gogol’s magic realism in contrast to, say, the 20th-century Latin American magic realism: the former describes, the latter shows.

That is to say, Gogol prefers to make the fantastic element transparent, referring to the notion in the act of narration: the act being implicit in the Latin American variant. Whatever you prefer is a matter of taste. Each technique has it’s place and purpose.

Then Gogol, in line with Pushkin, tends to make his role and voice as an author/arranger fairly explicit.

Шинель

The Overcoat is probably the all-round superior of the lot, all factors considered. Definitely your (very pitiable) little man vs bureaucracy tale with a moral. Like the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s epistolary Бедные Люди, this one sees employ as a not-too-highly-valued document copier.

The Petersburg chill climate receives a remarkable personification. Magic realism also gives the narrative an eerie twist, strong semblance to what I’ve experienced of the 20th century counterpart, save for the explicit meta-narration.

If interested, the realist painter Boris Kustodiev produced a series of sketches to compliment the story.

Коляска

Ultra sharp satire set in a fundamentally bleak rural landscape suddenly enlivened by the settlement of a Cavalry unit. Dead drop hilarious description and interchange. Though I take no responsibility for my word should you read translations … ever, for that matter.

In a way, the satire felt slightly reminiscent to the 20th century Catch 22, though lacking virtually any commonality in the central themes.

Again, a couple of Boris Kustodiev paintings to accompany the entertainment.

Невский Проспект

A dark humour ode to the bustle of the 19th-century Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg. Similar elements: satire, absurd situations, solid prose. This one features a parallel but connected story narrative you’ll find in much Hollywood cinema: two related characters plunge down the respective rabbit holes of debauchery.

In a way, the story is made for a screenplay. It may as well serve for the St. Petersburg, I love you episode in that series of mostly superfluous shit cinema. For all I know, these Gogol stories probably saw a dozen adaptations each. Haven’t bothered to search. Read the story.


Let’s briefly mention Gogol’s strengths and singular aspects.

I want to plainly say I loved the above stories. Is there a contingency clause?

I suppose Gogol’s writing is of the sort that can saturate. That applies to any author of nearly immutable voice, however prominent. That is, all of Gogol that I’ve hitherto read, however earnestly or shallowly, I sense the same Gogol, the same projecting voice.

Now I can’t say that of (you guessed it) Joyce, capable of convincingly masquerading or entirely transforming not only his role as a narrator but style.

(On occasion I almost reach a saturation point with Poe. The level of Baroqueness nearly depletes my capacity for the stuff. Then he suddenly surprises with a sufficiently different style of composition, fatigue thus evaded.)

Ehh. The above observation of ranging voice and language registers raises a critical issue I have with the Russian language in general, specifically the literature. Hope to one day advance my thoughts on the matter up to now slapped together in a draft of rather hand-waved arguments.

So where do I place Gogol on the map of esteemed authorship? High up, but not strictly towering: a better realist than Pushkin and a model for many subsequent talents:

On a grand scale, if we’re to compare genre authors (satire, absurd, realist mixed with the fantastique), I position Edgar Poe higher up, disparate language families notwithstanding. Joyce, I position above most.

A bit back in time and I could argue for Goethe’s Faust as the pinnacle work on all the themes Gogol traverses and far more. (You can cover much ground by devoting thirty years to one composition.) Some 500 years back yet, and what has Chaucer not exposed in Canterbury Tales?

But concerning the Russians (or Ukrainians, birth locales considered), Bulgakov’s Мастер и Маргарита, and that work strictly, I tend to acclaim above the rest of similar breed. Haven’t read enough Russian texts classified predominantly as satire to make any strong case. But let’s not get unnecessarily technical.

Questions, comments? Connect.