5 September 2007

Nikolai Gogol - Diary of a Madman and other stories/The Squabble

I'm sure I don't fully appreciate Gogol. He comes with such a weighty reputation - Dostoevsky's famous quote about all Russian writers emerging from under Gogol's Overcoat, Nabokov claiming that he was the greatest ever Russian artist - but his stories are deceptively simple.

There are seven stories in these two collections, including The Overcoat, The Nose and The Diary of a Madman, his most famous. They are variously highly amusing, absurd, tragic and poignant. He anticipates, and influenced, other writers who created a distorted world, semi-real, certainly disturbing - Kafka is the easy example.

Gogol distances himself from his narratives in subtle ways - claiming to have heard the story third-hand, or dismissing its veracity at the end, creating illusions of reality and fiction. Yet the stories are told in a very spare, simple style. The Nose, the most absurd story in the collections, could be a dream - a man wakes up to find his nose is missing, discovers it leading its own life as a civil servant, then on another day wakes up to find his nose restored. Yet the person who cut the nose off, a barber, is outside the potential framing of the dream, so we enter into 'reality' with the loss of the nose prior to the victim's waking up and discovery of his loss.

There have been symbolic interpretations of the story, as with The Overcoat - 'nose' for 'penis' is the most obvious, the story as fear of impotence or castration - but such readings are not necessary, nor implicit.

I saw parallels in The Overcoat with Murnau's The Last Laugh, in which a head porter in a top city hotel loses his job, and his military-style uniform, and therefore his status and dignity. Akaky Akakeyevich, the 'hero' of The Overcoat has become a Russian type - a humble clerk who works hard and makes sacrifices in order to be able to afford an essential new overcoat - hardly a luxury in a Russian winter - and, gaining it, is enhanced in status, as the porter loses his when deprived of his coat. Akaky is then mugged for his coat, fails to find it despite appeals to the police and higher authorities. He dies of an illness caused by the cold, and comes back to haunt the city.

Supposedly many readers see Gogol's sympathy for lower social orders as the most significant aspect of the story, and that is a persistent Russian theme - although isn't it in most national literatures? But is Gogol's moral that one shouldn't strive for more than ones own station, to have an external appearance that belies ones status? Is it a salutary reminder that those things we strive so hard to obtain can be lost in a minute, that all life is fragile? It's the simplicity of the story, resonant and haunting, but the openness of the questions that make it so memorable.


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