After having finished Villette and with some ambitious reading projects coming in April ( Parade's End Read Along, the Read Along of the Brothers Karamazov being hosted by Dolce Bellezzza, and a commitment to post on Zola's Germinal for the Classics Circuit) I decided I would try to read some short odds and ends in the next week or so.
I began to look over my shelves to see what I had on hand that might work. I have seen some very lauding posts on Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol recently. Vladimir Nabokov is often used as an authority figure on literary excellence. Here is what he says about "The Overcoat" in his Lectures on Russian Literature
Steady Pushkin, matter-of-fact Tolstoy, restrained Chekhov have all had their moments of irrational insight which simultaneously blurred the sentence and disclosed a secret meaning worth the sudden focal shift. But with Gogol this shifting is the very basis of his art, so that whenever he tried to write in the round hand of literary tradition and to treat rational ideas in a logical way, he lost all trace of talent. When, as in the immortal The Overcoat, he really let himself go and pottered on the brink of his private abyss, he became the greatest artist that Russia has yet produced.Nabokov is very nearly or is in fact saying "The Overcoat" is the best Russian literary work ever produced and by extension the best ever produced at all.
"The Overcoat" is set in St Petersburg (called Petersburg in the story) Russian in the early 1840s. The story centers on minor government clerk, Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, a copier of documents. (It is hard for us to relate but there was a vast amount of work to be done in copying government documents in the days before Xerox. Those who did this work were called Scriviners. Melville wrote about them in his incredible story, "Bartleby the Scriviner" and the father in Dickens A Christmas Carol was one.). The work was very boring and thankless. Akaky seems to be in his forty's around, he has no wife or children, no friends, and he lives in a room in a modest boarding house in a run down part of St Petersburg. Gogol does a superb job bringing him fully to life for us in just a few paragraphs. (Akaky if alive today would be sitting in a cubicle working for a giant corporation, doing work he hated for people that had contempt for him.) One very cold day he decides he wants an overcoat, keeping in mind he lives in a horribly cold place where a good coat could mean the difference between life and death. He goes to the shop of a very good tailor near him. As he walks the streets Gogol describes for us the conditions that exist. "The Overcoat" is very attuned to the class differences in Czarist Russia and the economic disparities of the times. Akaky finds out the coat he wants costs an amount equal to about twenty five percent of his annual pay. He has been saving money a little bit at a time for years by eating cheap meals and not really heating his room so he has half of the money saved up. He knows he is getting his annual bonus at work and that will almost cover the cost of the coat. We feel his sense of excitement as he orders the coat and also his fear in spending all his savings on an overcoat. The overcoat is way above the quality of coat a man of his station should have. (It is as if the lowest paid worker at a huge firm came to work in his own private limo, almost). Everyone at his work is in awe of his new overcoat and we must assume under their masks of happiness for him that most are terribly jealous. His supervisor decides to throw a party for him in honor of the new coat. Akaky is not a social person at all and he feels very out of place and awkward at the party. On his way home from the party he is mugged and his coat is stolen. Akaky is given the name of a high ranking general by one of his coworkers and told to go to this man and tell him what happened. The general is a man with a very bloated sense of his imnportance, a strict believer in formalities. Akaky has never been in the presence of such an exalted personage before and he does not know how to act. The general is outraged that Akaky has brought this to him petty matter to his attention rather than to a person way down in the ranks who would possibly refer it up the ladder for review. The general explodes in an enraged diatribe of abuse on Akaky for daring to waste his time and Akaky runs out feeling lucky not to receive a beating. Shortly after this, I imagined it brought on by wandering the streets without a cold in the Russian winter, he catches some sort of illness and shortly after dies. Other than by his land lady clearing out his room he is forgotten. Gogol's account of the items left in Akaky's room are very poignant and at least match anything in Dickens for summing up a life in a few artifacts. His ghost begins to roam the streets, creating a lot of fear among the local population as he steals overcoats from a lot of people. I will tell no more of the plot but the ending is kind of a satisfactory one and revenge of a sort is acheived.
I really liked this story and I do find it difficult to explain its real power. It takes us deeply into the minds of the people we encounter. We know exactly how Akaky feels. He is anyone who has ever tried to deal with a mindless government, to figure out how to live on just enough money to get along barely. "The Overcoat" is a forerunner of "magic realism". There is no one to admire in this tale. It has the humor of a grim, cold, nasty world where your life can be lost over nothing. It is really a vicious attack on society in Russia in the 1840s. There are no noble peasants in this work. There no are reflections on the great ideas of life, no revelations achieved. "The Overcoat" is funny in the asides, the small observations of the self-conscious narrator and in the social satire. In a post on a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakimi I said that I found short stories somehow unsatisfying as they do not construct complete alternative worlds for the reader to enter into. In "The Overcoat" there is a complete world. We know what it is like to walk the streets on the poor side of St Petersburg. We can get inside the mind of the characters in this book. A lot of readers feel the central character is them in a meaningless job in a world without values. Nabokov admired literature that took us out of our comfort zone, that plays with notions of reality, and that has the power to change how we see the world. I
I am reading this in conjuction with the LuAnn's Spring into Short Stories Reading Challenge. I am planning to periodically do posts on short stories and am open for suggestions as to the world's best short stories.