Nikolai Gogol, keen-sighted imp

With Gogol, strangeness is inevitable and the one constant is a vertigo that abruptly skews reality before allowing it to settle again – only it’s shifted an inch from where we thought we’d find it.

Gogol, Collected TalesThe Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol · Nikolai Gogol · 1830-‘42
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 465 pages, paperback

To read a Gogolian story is to read a story of layered perspective and one that fuses dreams with reality, metamorphosing into a singularly bewitched universe that exists side by side with our own.

D.S. Mirsky said of Nikolai Gogol’s universe that it is “one of the most marvelous, unexpected – in the strictest sense, original – worlds ever created by an artist of words.”

His short fiction is the varied oeuvre of a highly creative mind, a humble intelligence and a soul attuned to the life beat of the Ukraine and St. Petersburg alike.

Though he took pains in accuracy for his pictures of Ukrainian traditions and dress, of Little Russian customs and Cossack life, of provincial thought and superstition, he’s of the stock whose surface treatment of things lets his readers fill in the rest so that he can move on to the next thing and lay out with equal relish the buttons of a councilor’s tailcoat and the glamour of a capital ballroom.

Translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky divided their selection of Gogol’s tales in this volume into the Ukrainian tales, stories of provincial life and Cossack carousing that have a heavily folkloric bent to them, and his Petersburg tales, a parallel universe of such places as Nevsky Prospect and the Merchant’s Arcade and that come with a distilled mockery made hundred proof by Gogol’s uncaring wit.

That detachment of Gogol’s is native to him as an outsider from Mirgorod, one who moved to Petersburg in 1828 and who retained even when thrown into the glitz and glam, the whores and carriages, his Little Russian perspective: like drinking your tea through sugar and eyeing the man across from you who simply plunks the whole cube in his cup.

The Petersburg tales are the stuff of combined modesty and mockery, a true poshlust whose success is guaranteed by the patience of observation.

“Diary of a Madman” is a biting satire of the Petersburg table of ranks where dignity is conferred rather than earned and where its councilors preen themselves over their names in print when their only work is sharpening pens for the higher ups.

In “The Overcoat,” a tale that comes with a smirk, Akaky Akakievich, the very name ridiculous, is the hero of the story, and he’s obsessed with trading up to higher status no matter the financial ruin. Gogol mocks his hero in the littlest way – his narration. Akaky Akakievich’s colleagues refer to his threadbare overcoat as a housecoat. Gogol himself takes up the term and hopes all along you’ll notice.

Gogol seems to have liked butting into his stories like this. He’s your buddy in the theater who nudges you and points out to you every instance when what he sees on the stage leads his mind somewhere else. He makes the solemn more rambunctious but not a whit less truthful. It’s satire that has no meanness because at its root it is mere observation and an observation intimately shared.

The strangeness of Gogolian stories is in their content, yes, but also in their writer’s experimentation with form and his decided lack of self consciousness.

Gogol was a capricious writer. He experimented for the joy of it, and we find ourselves attached unbidden to such a spry mind that can hypnotize with the ordinary. We follow Gogol wherever he leads us, charmed by his whimsy, and though we think we view our destination, what we see as the destination is not it at all.

Gogol understood the changeability of things, something he wrote into “Nevsky Prospect.” He accepted wholeheartedly that what leads us to a place isn’t the same as what follows us home.

Just so in his stories. Gogol liked abruptness. He liked the sudden end to a story; he liked the departure into a different story, the end that fails to be epilogue and instead diverts into prologue.

The story in “Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and his Aunt” is all at once swallowed up by the dream of a multiplying wife just as “The Terrible Vengeance” ends with its cliff notes version and “Diary of a Madman” leaves us wanting our coy Ukrainian Scheherazade to give us more.

His language, what Pevear in his introduction calls “objectless” and “contentless,” is one part of a much larger structure that is, if not objectless, at least meandering and guided by impulse.

Weakest of the stories compiled here is “The Carriage,” characteristic in its aimlessness, but lacking the sharp frivolity of “The Nose” or the petty old man humor in “The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich,” qualities which make the nugatory profitable.

Compared to the tremendous lead-up in the story of the two Ivans, one in which Gogol’s dialogue can be as slapstick as the three stooges’ and which ends with the narrator’s frustration, “The Carriage” is a one-dimensional poshlust, which isn’t even poshlust, only a shrug of the shoulders.

Shponka and the two bickering Ivans aside, Gogol’s Ukrainian tales are more sparkly than his Petersburg tales. Though foremost among their qualities, the distortion in the Ukrainian tales isn’t so much distortion as it is the world as God intended it. The fantastic isn’t shot through with realism’s hard sobriety like it is in his stories of Petersburg but is instead presented to us as the primary force of harmony in this life.

…a whole swarm of phantoms billowed in a cloud off to one side.

In “The Terrible Vengeance,” characters soliloquize and a pre-fight feasting slides easily into the bloodbath on the banks of the Dnieper. Past and present language act as barriers between the solidity of waking life and the sorcery found in nightmares. It’s hard to tell when Katerina’s father merges into the damned phantom of myth.

Gogol’s breadth finds its summit in the “The Night Before Christmas,” a tale of a charmed night, pocket devils and outlandish feats for the sake of flirtation during the holiest of Church months. “Night Before Christmas” is Gogol at ease with starting many stories at once and only half-finishing a few of them.

But even as he jumps from one thing to the next, Gogol never fails to look back and remember his readers. He pauses when he gets too far ahead to go back and catch us up. For all his monsters and witches…we trust him.

Gogol is one we believe in the first instance as a man incapable of perjuring his soul. He’s a daring master whose flagrant abuse of writers’ conventions showed him to be a man of substance in the literary world (it’s a theme he took up in “The Portrait,” a Petersburg tale of an artist distracted by money and whose talent he trades for triteness).

You won’t find in Gogol any narrative consistency or long-winded disquisition. What you will find in these tales is a writer who played the imp to perfection and who had the requisite seduction for conning his readers into believing his own world is the only truthful one.

The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol · Nikolai Gogol · 1830-‘42
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 465 pages, paperback

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