Apocryphal or no, Dostoevsky’s remark that all Russian writers came out from under Gogol’s overcoat is reason enough to welcome a new edition of his shorter works. It’s a good starting point for considering what it is about them that seems essentially Russian. Maybe it’s because much in Gogol foreshadows Dostoevsky himself, Turgenev, Babel, Bulgakov and even Nabokov, to name only a few writers who followed him. It is, for example, easy to recognize the haunted streets of Raskolnikov’s St. Petersburg in “The Overcoat,” or to to be reminded of Gogol in Babel’s shape-changing narrators or Bulgakov’s surrealism. Having himself been encouraged by Pushkin, Gogol thus links Russia’s first great writer with those who came later. It’s a remarkable achievement, considering that he died in 1852 at only 42 and that for the last ten years of his life he wrote no fiction.
Although the novel Dead Souls is his best-known work, these remarkable stories bear witness to Gogol’s genius. Immediately evident is his ability to create comedy out of physical detail that is equally an integral part of the story. There is, for example, a scene in “How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Nikiforovich” that reads like stage farce. Entering a courtroom in a temper, Ivan Nikiforovich gets stuck in the doorway. The judge calls for someone “to shove Ivan Nikiforovich forwards into the courtroom.” But there’s only an old woman present and “despite all the efforts she made with her bony hands,” she can’t budge him. A clerk is called upon, who summons a soldier, who uses “his knee as a lever against Ivan Nikiforovich’s belly,” and “in spite of his pitiful groans he was squeezed back out into the vestibule.
Like the majority of Gogol’s visual moments, this early example serves a purpose other than humor by showing that Ivan Nikiforovich is a stubborn old fool stuck in a dilemma of his own making. Similarly, in a later story, “The Carriage,” the scene in which the self-centered Chertokutsky is found curled up in a his shabby carriage fast asleep when he has promised his visitors a meal and a chance to purchase a grand carriage, is a concrete manifestation of his folly. Perhaps, however, the most famous of these tableaux vivants comes at the end of “The Government Inspector,” when the cast freezes with horror upon discovering that the man they have been bribing and fawning over is in fact an imposter, and that the real inspector has just arrived in town. Their immobilization personifies their idiocy.
In “Nevsky Prospect,” a city is a character. Although it begins with a paean to the “principal artery” in St. Petersburg, “its very life blood . . . this crowning beauty of our capital,” the story ends with the street as it looks when “the thick pall of night descends upon it and throws into relief the white and pale-yellow walls of the houses, when the whole city turns into noise and glitter . . . and when the devil himself lights the street lamps, only to show everything in an unreal guise.” The body of the story follows a day on the Nevsky Prospect, gradually revealing, mostly through two characters, Pirogov and Piskarev, the bankrupt lives of the seemingly beautiful people who “walk there or fly past in carriages or droshkies.”
Piskarev is a St. Petersburg artist, a type described by the narrator as creatures incapable of realizing their potential talent because they are oblivious to the world around them. Instead, they “sketch in perspective their rooms, filled with all kinds of artist’s clutter: plaster-of-Paris arms and legs that accumulated time and dust have turned coffee coloured . . . broken easels, overturned palettes . . . an open window through which can be glimpsed the pale Neva and poor fishermen in their red smocks,” the subject of course, which they should be painting instead. Piskarev is such a dreamer that he sets off after a prostitute, unable to see that she is not “the frail lovely creature” he believes her to be. “All is deception, all is a dream, all is not what it seems,” warns the narrator. It takes a true artist like Gogol to see the underlying truth.
It seems presumptuous to comment on “The Nose” and “The Overcoat,” classics of the short story form in any language. One comic, the other tragic, the two works both personify objects. “The Nose” is a deliciously comic condemnation of the pomposity and the obsession with rank prevalent in Gogol’s Russia. It’s easy to imagine Charlie Chaplin playing the scene in which Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov wakes up to discover that his nose is missing. He asks for a mirror “to have a look at a pimple that had made its appearance the previous evening, but to his extreme astonishment found that instead of a nose there was nothing but an absolutely flat surface! In a terrible panic Kovalyov asked for some water and rubbed his eyes with a towel.” There follows a solemn discussion of the “kind of collegiate assessor this man was” that typifies Gogol’s use of a narrator to distance himself from his material so as to intensify its satirical thrust. The narrator seems to be serious, but by the end of the paragraph it’s plain that the collegiate assessor’s self-regard is based on thin air. On the contrary, in “The Diary of a Madman” there is no narrator and thus the reader is directly confronted with the deterioration of a mind, not unlike Dostoevsky’s Notes of an Underground Man except that Gogol’s intentions are hardly didactic.
In the story of its name, the nose becomes a character in its own right, a state counselor no less, complete with a carriage. So, too, the famous overcoat takes on a life of its own, although it requires a ghost in the shape of the victimized clerk Akaky Akakievich to animate it. It seems only right to end with a plea to read this endlessly subtle story again, even if you think you know it well. Yes, Akaky is a victim, yes, the clerks who lure him into drinking too much and falling prey to thieves are villains, and yet, and yet, he’s a deluded fool to let them do so. Yes, the Dickensian manner of his dying is terrible and his few worldly possessions pathetic, but the revenge of the overcoat is his revenge too. The ghost, after all, triumphs over the stupidity of the police and the woes of “such high-ranking officials as privy counselors, whose backs and shoulders were being subjected to quite nasty colds through this nocturnal ripping off of their overcoats.” That’s Gogol for you, comic, and yet deadly serious.