Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"The Nose" by Nikolai Gogol-The Reading Life Version of a part of The March of Literarture

"The Nose" by Nikolai Gogol ( 1842, 26 pages, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky from Russian)

In March this year I read Nikolai Gogol's (1808-1852-Russian) short story, "The Overcoat", also written in 1842.     "The Overcoat" is listed on most "top short stories of all times" lists.    Vladimir Nabokov comes close to saying it is the best work of literature ever produced.    (I recently listened to some videos on Youtube relating to the lectures of Nabokov and I could not help but imagine him refering to "The Nose" as a purely "Gogolian" work.)  

"The Nose" is the story of a nose that somehow falls off the face of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov (also known as "Major Kovalyov").  Gogol writes a lot about sort of mid-level civil servant types.    As the story opens a barber finds a nose on the floor of his shop and is horrified to see it is the nose of one of his regular customers.    Perhaps fearing he may have accidentally cut the nose off while shaving Kovalyov the barber tries to throw the nose in the river but is caught by the police who of course see it as hiding the evidence of foul play, maybe even murder.     Now the story takes on the elements of a dream.    Kovalyou awakes to see his nose is missing and there is just a smooth place on his face where his nose once was.     He goes out looking for his nose and he finds the nose in front of the local cathedral.    However the nose has now taken on a life of its own and has a higher rank in the civil service than Kovalyov himself.

Then story  at this point takes some twists.  There is more to the plot but the story is a lot of fun and just plain crazy so I will not say more of the action.   It opens itself up to a diverse range of interpretations.    We wonder if it has all been a dream brought on by the anxieties of Kovalyov in the face of a marriage he is being pressured into.    Some have said it is about male anxieties.  

"The Nose" is a powerful work.     Maybe it gets overlooked because "The Overcoat" is the Gogol story taught in schools world wide and the one on "best story ever lists".    

In addition to reading the translation by Pevear and Volokhovsky (1998) I also read the first page of an older translation now in the public domain (trans. name not given).     Of course I cannot judge the veracity of the translations but the new one was a much more enjoyable read.  

In The March of Literature  Ford Madox Ford makes no mention of Gogol or Kafka.     Here is a very simplified march of literature just for fun -Gogol to Kafka-then we branch from Kafka into several splits-in Continental  Europe we get much of  modern Literature including so called existential novelists and thinkers-in South America the lineage turns into Magic Realism,  the works of Borges and the novels of the absurd such as those of Bolano-in post war Japan the writers and thinkers find the means for coping with the destruction of their culture and world view in the thoughts of French heirs to Kafka and their  vision of an absurd society.    In Russia it is said that all Russian literature flows from "The Overcoat",  Tolstoy being an exception.     In the contemporary Filipino novel the influences are very clear.    In England and the USA the story is too big to encapsulate but it is there.   In Rushdie's use of magical reality to cope with the nightmare like history of India we also see it.   Gogol is a writer of aloneness just as Kafka was.  

Here is a  break down to give an example of the influence of this trend in Japanese literature:

Gogol to

Kafka to

Sarte-Camus to

Kobe and Oe-(Oe wrote a dissertation on Sarte), Murakami to

21th century Japanese literature- abounds in depictions of a culture without root values-the Japanese writers found no  comfort in their own culture for  dealing with their defeat in WWII and turned to European models.

I know this is hyperbolic and is not meant entirely seriously and I invite others to give their own March of Literature.    

Mel u


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Fantastic stories, "The Nose" and "The Overcoat" both.

F. R. Leavis has a book, The Great Tradition, which is just the sort of exercise you're doing. It's really A tradition, of course. His goes Eliot -> Hardy -> Larwence, or something like that. Dickens, for example, does not really fit.

It's a useful way of thinking about the transmission of ideas and styles. In your list, for example, I want to insert Sholem Aleichem in between Gogol and Kafka.

Hannah said...

Ah yes--yet another great author I've not read at all...

The FM Ford book looks really terrific. I can't wait to pick it up at the library!

Mel u said...

Amateur Reader-I will have to read some Sholem Aleichem in 2011-thanks for telling me of the Lewis book-

Lifetime Reader-in the case of Gogol you can easily read online for free one of the world's greatest works of literature, "The Overcoat" in under an hour-