Graduate of the University of Texas and Johns Hopkins, Steven Barthelme has worked as an editor on The Texas Observer, in advertising and public relations, and as a university professor. He has written two books of short stories, the second of which, titled Hush Hush, will be published by Melville House later this year; a memoir, Double Down, co-authored with his brother Frederick; and an essay collection, The Early Posthumous Work. In August Steve was bitten by a snake which happily chose not to be a Cottonmouth. Here he writes about Nikolai Gogol's The Overcoat and Other Short Stories.
Steven Barthelme on The Overcoat and Other Short Stories by Nikolai Gogol
What strikes me about Nikolai Gogol's stories is how modern they feel more than a century and a half after they were written, conjuring an experience of uncertainty and, often, bewilderment that is perfectly contemporary. They were written between 1830 and 1850, and it's as if the rest of literature took 170 years to catch up with him.
The little Dover reprint with four stories - 'The Overcoat', 'The Nose', 'Old-Fashioned Farmers', and 'The Two Ivans' (or technically 'The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich') - is a pleasant introduction. Nabokov - who called Gogol 'the greatest artist that Russia has yet produced' - and others acknowledge Gogol to be a stylist of the Russian language who has never been equalled. D.S. Mirsky said he is 'hopelessly untranslatable'. I don't read Russian, have read only translations. In a sense I can't really hear the music, and so am responding to just 50 per cent of the pleasures of this work; that, too is astonishing.
'The Overcoat' is one of Gogol's masterpieces. In Russian literature, the remark 'We all came out from under Gogol's "Overcoat"' is variously attributed to Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and others (including one French critic - those guys have said everything). The first pages of the story sound like simple burlesque, scoring off the pathetic clerk with the silly name Akaki Akakievich, who is the target of sport, first by the narrator and then by all the other characters in the story. And then a peculiar thing happens. We slip into the point of view of a young man in the office where Akaki works, one of those who have been making fun of him, who 'suddenly stopped short, as though all had undergone a transformation before him... And long afterwards, in his gayest moments, there came to his mind the little official with the bald forehead, with the heart-rending words, "Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?" And in these penetrating words, other words resounded - "I am your brother".' That's pretty much this nameless fellow's whole role, but it changes the trajectory of how one reads the story, in a way characteristic of Gogol.
One of the brilliant things Gogol does is to separate the idea of sympathy from the idea of merit. This is more apparent in the less celebrated 'Old Fashioned Farmers' story that splits almost perfectly in half, the first part taken up with 10 pages of gluttony and sloth, the second part a tragedy in a minor key. A visitor happens in on an old couple with no redeeming qualities who live on a decaying country estate, where the servants and staff are robbing the owners blind, the dog's bark is 'phlegmatic' and the flies 'covered the ceiling with a black cloud'. For 10 pages Afanasii and Pulcheria eat and complain, eat and rest, eat and moan. Eight meals in one day, by my count. The visitor participates, reports all this in a faux deadpan narration where the glee at wretched excess fails to be hidden.
Then the story turns. Wild forest cats from the neighbouring wood 'had a long conference with Pulcheria Ivanovna's tame cat... and finally led her astray, as a detachment of soldiers leads astray a dull peasant'. Pulcheria is sad but soon forgets about the lost cat. Then later it returns, wild, and Pulcheria coaxes it inside and feeds it meat and milk. She reaches out to touch the cat, 'but the ungrateful animal had evidently become too well used to robber cats, or adopted some romantic notion about love and poverty being better than a palace... [and] sprang out the window, and none of the servants were able to catch her. The old woman reflected. "It is my death which has come for me" she said to herself.'
She does die shortly thereafter, and Afanasii is just crushed. The rest of the story, another seven or eight pages, records him alone, inconsolable, and lost. Eventually he too dies. What strikes me as interesting, or more than interesting, as genius, is the way genuine feeling is induced following the flat buffoonery of the story's opening pages. By this approach sympathy is emphatically detached from merit, and redefined as something not so much deserved as freely given.
The other two stories are equally interesting.
'The Two Ivans' is about a tiny quarrel between old friends which relentlessly grows until it takes over not only their whole lives but the life of their community. It is wonderfully funny, an extended piece of theatre (Gogol's play 'The Government Inspector' is another masterpiece), disguised as an early, perhaps the first ever, Bavarian Cream Pie joke.
'The Nose' is probably one of the most inventive stories ever written, the tale of a drunken barber who may or may not have sliced off Major Kovalyov's nose, which the Major finds to have gone missing one morning, and of the Major's frantic, paranoid rushing from pillar to post, in hope of recovering the nose, including running into it dressed as a State Councillor, complete with gold-embroidered uniform, plumed hat, sword, carriage and driver. A State Councillor is several pegs higher on the official Table of Ranks than the Major himself, so there is a delightful scene (it happens in a cathedral, where the Nose is doing devotions) in which the poor noseless and bewildered Kovalyov stutters his intimidated way to the assertion 'You are my own nose!' But the Nose scoffs, makes some insulting allusion to the Major's inferior rank, and drives off. The physics of all this is never explained.
One of the finest sequences in the story is the painful mock ratiocination in which Major Kovalyov attempts to get intellectul control by analyzing what is happening to him (how is this possible? what can I do?), step by careful step determining that he isn't drunk, he isn't asleep or dreaming, the nose is indeed gone, the situation is 'indeed incomprehensible'. This thinking hard is echoed at the story's end - after the nose has been restored to Kovalyov and he's back on the boulevard, promenading happier than ever - in the narrator's reflections on his own story (which reflections can't be called anything but post-modern - in fact pretty much all the significant 'post-modern' aesthetic moves can be found somewhere or other in Gogol). To wit:
'Only now, on second thought, can we see that there is much that is improbable in it. Without speaking of the fact that the supernatural detachment of the nose and its appearance in various places in the guise of a state councillor is indeed strange, how is it that Kovalyov did not realize that one does not advertise for one's nose through the newspaper?... it's improper, embarrassing, not nice!'... 'But the strangest, the most incomprehensible thing of all, is how authors can choose such subjects'. The last line is: 'Whatever anyone says, such things happen in this world; rarely, but they do.' The casual, afterthought insertion of that hesitation, that 'rarely', is the essence of Gogol. Which is doubt.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]