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Sunday, 14 December 2014

4 Gogol stories

I've finished reading another book by Gogol. This one is a collection of short stories, translated by Mary Struve, consisting of "Old-Fashioned Farmers", "The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich", "The Nose" and "The Overcoat".
- 1 link between the 1st and 2nd stories: both are about nothing and an exaggeration of nothing- in "Old-Fashioned Farmers", it's the changed behaviour of the cat; in "The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich", it's the gun and the word "goose". These 2 stories are too bizarre to be considered examples of realism (which makes me wonder how anybody can call Gogol a realist), but they're certainly more realistic than the other 2. The general plots don't matter, the characters do, especially in "The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich".
- 1 link between the 3rd and 4th stories: something like social satire- the obsession of Kovalyov in "The Nose" with ranks and titles (referring to himself always as a major, tolerating anything said about himself except what refers to rank or title, etc.), the absurd fact that the nose has a higher rank than Kovalyov, etc; the low social status, poverty and hardship of Akakii Akakievich in "The Overcoat", the importance of the overcoat (it becomes a life-changing event) and the absurdity of that, the depiction of the bureaucracy (the clerk, the superintendent and "the prominent personage", instead of trying to find the coat for Akakii Akakievich, interrogate him with irrelevant, insulting questions), the arrogance and disdain of "the prominent personage" (makes Akakii Akakievich wait outside just because he can, even though he's not busy), etc. However, I wouldn't call Gogol a social commentator. Look at the 1st 2 stories, for instance. The 3rd and 4th tales are too surreal, ambiguous and nuanced to be mere satires of Russian life and bureaucracy.
As Nabokov puts it, "At this superhigh level of art, literature is of course not concerned with pitying the underdog or cursing the upperdog. It appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships." 
- 1 link between the 2nd and 3rd stories: extremely funny. "The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich": the conversation between Ivan Ivanovich and a beggar, the quarrel between the 2 Ivans, the petitions, etc. "The Nose": the scenes where Kovalyov runs into his nose, now in uniform, and where he talks to a clerk, who takes a pinch of snuff and wipes his nose and, as consolation for the disappearance of Kovalyov's nose, offers him some snuff.
"Old-Fashioned Farmers" is more melancholic, and "The Overcoat" is tragic. Akakii Akakievich is reminiscent of Herman Melville's Bartleby, copying making up almost the whole of his life; but unlike Bartleby, he enjoys his job and takes pleasure in copying and lets his job define him. He's a nonentity, a mere overcoat redefines him, becomes a life-changing event, makes people notice him and see him in a different way and then affects him even more deeply, as Akakii Akakievich goes to a party for the 1st time, then chases after some girl and apparently feels happiness for the 1st time, only to lose everything afterwards. Because the coat does affect Akakii Akakievich financially, mentally, emotionally, it cannot be dismissed as a nothing, an exaggeration of nothing, as in the case of the 1st 2 stories, even though to us it's only a coat. The coat stresses the penury and emptiness of Akakii Akakievich, who has no dream, no desire, no wish. The coat is the highest dream he can have, apparently the greatest thing he can achieve.
- 1 link that unites all these 4: life's going on normally, all of a sudden 1 small thing disrupts the whole pattern and causes disaster.
The style and characteristics of Gogol that I see in Dead Souls are found in all of these stories: a narrator who once in a while comments and who constantly messes with us, bizarre qualities, the focus on characters rather than plots and messages, seemingly irrelevant details, etc. He is a comic genius who has the ability to create art out of nothing, out of the most banal characters and details.

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