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Entries in Gogol (7)

Monday
Oct242011

The Nose (part 6)

The final part of a story by this Russian writer.  You can read the original here.

III.

The world is replete with utter nonsense.  Sometimes it is a matter of not even the slightest plausibility: suddenly that very nose, which had travelled around at the rank of state councillor and caused such an uproar in the city, turned up as if nothing at all had occurred back in its old place, that is to say, exactly between the two cheeks of Major Kovalev.  This took place on the seventh of April.  He woke up and looked by chance in a mirror and saw – the nose!  He seized it with his hand – it was there indeed!  "Joy, o joy!"  said Kovalev ecstatically, and almost lurched around the entire room barefoot dancing the trepak before Ivan entered and interrupted him.   He ordered Ivan to let him have an hour to himself to wash up, and as he washed, he took another look in the mirror: the nose!  Drying himself off with a washcloth, he took another look in the mirror: the nose!

"Look, Ivan.  I seem to have gotten a pimple on my nose," he said and thought to himself: "Oh, it would be awful if Ivan were to say: no, my lord; not only is there no pimple, there's also no nose!"

But Ivan said:

"There's no pimple whatsoever!  Your nose is clean!"

"Good, dammit!" said the Major to himself and snapped his fingers.  At that very moment, the barber Ivan Yakovlevich appeared at the door looking as frightened as a cat who just had been flogged for stealing some lard.

"Tell me straight out: are your hands clean?"  Kovalev yelled over to him from afar.

"Clean."

"You're lying!"

"They're clean, I swear to you, sir!"

"Be careful, then."

Kovalev sat down.  Ivan Yakovlevich closed his handkerchief, and in a single moment, with the help of a shaving brush, turned his entire beard and cheeks to cream such as is available on merchants' name days.

"Now look at that!"  said Ivan Yakovlevich to himself, looking again at the nose, and then turning his head to the other side and looking at it askew.   "There it is, how wonderful! True, it seems," he went on and looked at the nose for a long time.  Finally very lightly, with carefulness that you can only imagine, he lifted two fingers in order to catch it at the tip.  Such was the system of Ivan Yakovlevich. 

"Hey, hey, hey, be careful now!" shouted Kovalev.

Ivan Yakovlevich did indeed drop his hands: he was dumbfounded and embarrassed as he had never been embarrassed before.  Finally he began tickling below the beard very carefully with the razor, and although this position was very uncomfortable and he had no means of supporting himself on the olfactory part of the body, he somehow managed, leaning his rough thumb in the middle of Kovalev's cheek and against his lower gums, to overcome all obstacles and finish the shave.

When it was all done, Kovalev ran off that very minute to get dressed, hailed a coachman and made directly for the bakery.  Entering, he called out while still far off, "Lad, a cup of hot chocolate!" and immediately looked at himself once again in the mirror: and the nose was there!  He merrily turned back and with a satirical countenance gazed, occasionally squinting, at two soldiers, one of whom had a nose no bigger than a vest button.  Then he went to the offices of the department where there were some concerns about the vice-gubernatorial spot and, in the event of failure, the executor's.  As he passed through the foyer, he again took a look in the mirror: the nose was there!  Then he rode off to see another collegiate assessor, or major, one famed for his mockery whose pointed barbs Kovalev would often answer with, "Well, well, I know you, you old sarcast!"  On the way over he thought: "If the major doesn't convulse in laughter upon seeing me, then that's a true sign that everything that could be is in its place."  But the collegiate assessor was fine.  "Alright, alright, dammit!" Kovalev thought to himself.  On the road he bumped into the wife of the state councillor Podtochina and her daughter, bowed to them, and was met with joyous exclamations; perhaps here again everything was fine, no damage done.  He remained speaking with them for a very long time, and, purposefully pulling out his snuff box, for a long while proceeded to stuff his nose from both entryways as he repeated to himself: "Here you go, women, as they say, a clucky bunch. All the same, I will not marry your daughter.  That's all there is to it, par amour – pardon me!"  And after that Major Kovalev would go out strolling as if nothing had happened – on Nevsky avenue, in the theaters, everywhere.  And the nose, also as if nothing had happened, sat in its spot on his face, not even with the appearance of wanting to separate on the side.  And from that time on Major Kovalev was always seen to be in a good mood, smiling, paying unabashed attention to all the pretty ladies, and even stopping one time at a store in the Great Gostiny Dvor and buying himself a medal ribbon for who knows what reason, as he himself had never been a knight in any order.  

And such a story occurred in the northern capital of our expansive land!  Only now, taking into consideration everything, do we see that it contains a lot of the improbable and implausible.  We are not even talking about the extremely bizarre supernatural separation of the nose and its appearance in various locations as a state councillor – but how did Kovalev not catch on that it was forbidden to make an announcement about the nose through the newspaper office?   Here I do not mean that I found the announcement expensive; that's nonsense, and I have never counted myself among the greedy.  But it was unpleasant, awkward, and simply not good!  And also how did the nose simply turn up in the baked bread, and how about Ivan Yakovlevich himself?   No, this I do not at all understand, not in the slightest ... Yet what is strangest and unclearest of all is how authors could even select plots such as these.  I admit that this is utterly incomprehensible, that's just what it is ... No, no, I don't understand at all.  First of all, there is absolutely no benefit to our homeland; and in the second place ... well, in the second place there is also no benefit.  I simply do not know what this is ...

And anyway, in all this, of course,  one could assume one thing, or a second, or a third; one could even ... well, aren't there here and there some absurdities?  And yet in all this when you think about it, there is something there.  No matter what anyone says, such events do take place in this world – rarely, but they do.

Saturday
Oct222011

The Nose (part 5)

The fifth part of a story by this Russian writer.  You can read the original here.

With a feeling of inexpressible fear he raced to the table and moved the mirror nearer to himself, so as to make sure that he wouldn't put the nose on crookedly.  His hands were shaking.  Carefully and warily he placed it back in its former spot.  Oh, the horror!  The nose was not sticking back on!  He lowered it to his mouth, blew some hot air on it and again raised it to that smooth spot between his two cheeks.  But the nose would not stay on at all.

"Come on!  Come on now!  Get on there, you fool!" he said to it.  But the nose seemed almost wooden and fell on the table with such an odd sound, as if it were a cork.  The major's face convulsed.  "Will it really never grow back on?" he said in panic.  Yet however many times he tried to put the nose back in place, each new attempt was as unsuccessful as the last.

He summoned Ivan and sent him for the doctor, who happened to occupy in the very same building the nicest apartment on the second floor.  The doctor was in all appearances a manly sort, with handsome, resinous sideburns and a lovely, healthy-looking wife.  In the mornings he would eat fresh apples and kept his mouth unusually clean and pure, rinsing for at least three-quarters of an hour every morning and polishing his teeth with five different types of brushes.  The doctor appeared that very minute.  Having asked how long ago the misfortune occurred, he seized Kovalev by the chin and pushed his thumb down so hard on the spot where the nose had been that Kovalev snapped his head back and knocked it against the wall.  The physician said that this was nothing and advised Kovalev to move away from the wall a bit.  He then ordered him to turn his head to the right and, having felt about the nose's former spot, said "hmmm!"  Then he ordered him to turn his head to the left and, having felt about the nose's former spot, said "hmmm!" Finally he again pressed his thumb onto the smooth spot with such force that Kovalev yanked back his head like a horse being looked at in the mouth.  His test now complete, the doctor shook his head and said:

"No, it's not going to work.  You're better off staying the way you are, because you could make it worse.  Of course, it can be reattached; perhaps I could even reattach it for you right now.  Yet I am convinced that this would be worse for you."

"Well that's just swell!  What I am supposed to do without a nose?" said Kovalev.  "It can't get any worse than it is now.  Who knows what the hell it is!  Where could I possibly show myself with such an absurdity?  I know a large circle of people; this evening, for example, I was supposed to attend events at two different homes.  A great many people know me: the wife of the state councillor, Chekhtareva, Podtochina, the wife of the staff officer ... although after her most recent act I will no longer have any dealings with her apart from those conducted by the police.  Be so good as to tell me," said Kovalev with a pleading tone, "is there really no way?  Just stick it on; it doesn't matter how as long as it holds.  I could even prop it up with my hand in dangerous situations.  And I won't dance so as not to harm it by some careless movement.  Please be assured that with regard to my gratitude for your visit, all that my resources permit will be put to use ..."

"Believe me," said the doctor in neither a quiet nor a loud voice, but in a voice both extraordinarily tender and magnetic, "I never treat patients for mercenary reasons.  This is against my rules and my art.  True, I do take payments for house calls, but that is only so that I do not feel bad if I fail.  Of course, I would reattach your nose; and yet I tell you upon my honor – if you don't happen to take me on my word – that it will be much worse.  Leave that to nature itself.  Wash more often with cold water and I assure you that you without a nose will be just as healthy as if you still had a nose.  And I advise you to place your nose in a jar with some alcohol or, even better, pour in there two spoonfuls of sharp table vodka and a bit of heated vinegar.  And then you could get quite a pretty penny for it.  I could even take it off your hands if you don't ask too high a price ..." 

"No, no, I won't sell it for anything!"  screamed the desperate Major Kovalev.  "It would be better if it simply disappeared!"

"I beg your pardon!" said the doctor, taking his leave.  "I only wanted to do you a favor ... but what can I do?  At least you see that I made an attempt."

Having said this, the doctor left the room with a rather noble bearing about him.  Kovalev did not even notice his face, and in his profound numbness only saw the pure, snow-white sleeves of the doctor's shirt sticking out from under his frock coat.   

The next day he decided, before formally filing a complaint, to write to the wife of the staff officer as to whether she would agree, without a struggle, to return to him what she owed.  The contents of the letter were as follows:

"Dear Aleksandra Grigorevna!

Madam, I am still at a loss to understand an act on your part that I found strange.  Rest assured that you will gain nothing in taking such a measure; in no way will you oblige me to marry your daughter.  You should know that the story regarding my nose is well-known to me, just as it is known to me that you, and no other, are the main instigator in that affair.  This sudden departure from its habitual place, its flight and its masking in the guise of a functionary, and, ultimately, in its own guise, are nothing more than the consequences of sorcery performed by you or by those who practice those arts precious to you.  For my part I feel it my duty to warn you that if the aforementioned nose is not back in its place by today, I will be forced to resort to the defense and protection afforded me by the law.

Nevertheless, I have the great honor of remaining

Your most humble servant,

Platon Kovalev."

"Dear Platon Kuzmich!

Sir, I was extraordinarily surprised by your last letter.  I admit to you in all sincerity that I did not expect such a letter, and even less so the unjustified reproaches that you directed towards me.  I will have you know that I never accepted into my home the functionary whom you mention, neither masked nor in his real identity.  It is true that Filipp Ivanovich Potachnikov was at my house.  And although he sought the hand of my daughter and is of good, sober manners and the highest personal integrity, I never allowed him any hope.  You also mention the nose.  If by this you mean that I wish to put your nose out of joint, that is, give you a formal refusal, then I am surprised that you are even talking about this since I, as far as you know, was of the contrary opinion.  And if you now were to propose to her in accordance with the law, I would be prepared at this very minute to satisfy your request: for this has always comprised the subject of my most vivid desire, in the hope of which I remain

Most sincerely yours,

Aleksandra Podtochina."

"No," said Kovalev over and over again, having read the letter, "she is not guilty at all.  It cannot be!  The letter is written as no letter could possibly be written by someone guilty of a crime."  The collegiate assessor was well-versed in such matters because he had been sent out several times on investigations in the Caucasus region.  "How then, by what stroke of fate did this occur?  May the Devil take it all!" he said at length, dropping his arms.

Meanwhile rumors about this unusual occurrence spread to all corners of the capital, and, as is almost always the case, not without a few additions.  At that time everyone was in the mood for the extraordinary, and just recently had the effects of magnetism engrossed the public.  Moreover, the story of the dancing chairs in Konyushennaya street was still fresh in everyone's mind, so it was hardly surprising that people began talking as if the nose of collegiate assessor Kovalev was strolling along Nevsky avenue at precisely three in the afternoon.  Everyday a multitude of curious onlookers gathered.  Someone had said that the nose was purportedly in Junker's store – and so a crowd assembled by Junker's and became such a throng that the police had to intervene.  One whiskered spectator of very respectable appearance, having sold a number of dry baked goods at the entryway to the theater, intentionally set up some beautiful solid wood benches and offered a seat to curious onlookers for eighty kopecks.  One very distinguished colonel intentionally left his home early and, with no small effort, made his way through the crowd.  To his great chagrin, however, instead of a nose he espied in the shop window a run-of-the-mill woolen jersey, as well as a lithograph with the image of a girl mending a stocking and a young man with an open vest and burgeoning beard staring at her from behind a tree – a picture that had been hanging in the very same place for at least ten years.  Walking away, he said in disappointment: "How can people get so worked up about such idiotic and absurd rumors?"

Then the rumor spread that the nose of Major Kovalev was not out strolling on Nevsky avenue, but in the Tauride garden, and it seemed as if it had been there for a long time already; even that Khosrow Mirza was still living there and that he was very surprised at this odd whim of nature.  Several students from the surgeon's academy made their way there.  One prominent, honorable lady in a particular letter asked the caretaker of the garden whether he couldn't show this rare phenomenon to her children and, if possible, with a didactic and edifying explanation for youths their age.

All these events were especially pleasing to those worldly, unnecessary attendees of balls, those who loved to make ladies laugh and whose reserve of wit had been exhausted by that point.  A small group of honorable and well-intentioned people were extraordinarily unhappy.  One gentleman said with no small indignation that he did not understand how in our enlightened age such silly inventions could possibly gain any currency, and he was just as astonished that this had not garnered the attention of the government.  Obviously this fellow belonged to that rank of gentlemen who wanted to have the government interfere in everything, even in their daily quarrels with their wives.  As a result ...  and yet again the whole event is shrouded in fog, and what happened next is decidedly unknown.

Thursday
Oct202011

The Nose (part 4)

The fourth part of a story by this Russian writer.  You can read the original here.

The collegiate assessor was crestfallen.  He let his eyes slip down to the newspaper where there was an advertisement about shows, and his face was all ready to smile as he recognized the actresses, such pretty things they were, and his hand reached for his pocket to see whether he had a blue banknote because, in Kovalev's opinion, staff officers should sit in armchairs – but then the thought of his nose spoiled it all!

Even the functionary, it seemed, was affected by Kovalev's predicament.  Wishing to alleviate the collegiate assessor's grief somewhat, he deemed it proper to express his sympathy in a few words:

"I am truly sorry that you've had to endure such a story.  Would you like, perhaps, to snort some tobacco?  It relieves headaches and depressive moods; it's even good for hemorrhoids."

As he spoke the functionary lifted the snuff box towards Kovalev and nonchalantly flipped open the lid; inside was a portrait of a lady in a hat.

This unintentional act deprived Kovalev of his patience.

"I do not understand why you find it appropriate here to joke around," he said in earnest.  "Or can you actually not see that I have nothing with which to snort?  The Devil take your tobacco!  Even if you brought me rapeseed I couldn't look at it now, and not only at that vile Berezino stuff."

Having said this, Kovalev walked out of the newspaper office in titanic disappointment; he then made for the house of a district commissioner who had an extraordinary sweet tooth.  The entire antechamber – which was also the dining room – of the commissioner's house was lined with sweets brought to him by merchants out of friendship.  At this very moment the commissioner's cook was removing his public jackboots; his spurs and all his military armor were already draped around in corners; his three-year-old son was already playing with his father's triangular hat; and he, after a life of belligerence and verbal abuse, was ready to enjoy the pleasures of the world.

Kovalev came to him at that very time when he had stretched out, grunted, and said: "At last I will sleep two blissful hours!"  And so it was easy to foresee that the collegiate assessor's arrival would be very inopportune; and even if he had brought him several pounds of tea or fabric, I don't know whether Kovalev would have been warmly received.  The commissioner was a great patron of the arts and all types of manufactured goods, but he preferred government banknotes to all of that.  "That thing," he would often say, "there is nothing better than that thing.  It doesn't ask to be fed; it takes up little space; it always fits in your pocket; and if you drop it, it doesn't bruise."

The commissioner received Kovalev rather dryly and said after lunch was no time to conduct investigations, adding that it was natural, having gorged oneself, to relax a bit (from this the collegiate assessor could see that the district commissioner was unfamiliar with the dictums of medieval sages), that a decent, proper person would not have his nose cut off, and that there were also many majors in this world who didn't even have any underwear in good condition and loitered around obscene places.

And there he hit the nail right on the head!  One should remark that Kovalev took umbrage quite easily.  He could forgive anything that people said about himself personally, but could not endure any slight of his rank or position.  He even suggested that while one could permit anything in theatrical plays that related to junior officers, one should leave staff officers unscathed.  The commissioner's reception had so embarrassed Kovalev that he shook his head and said, with a feeling of dignity and spreading his arms somewhat: "I confess that after these hurtful comments on your part, there is nothing more I can add."  And he left.

He arrived home, barely hearing the feet beneath him.  Dusk had already set in.  His apartment seemed either sad or extraordinarily disgusting after all these fruitless searches.  Entering his vestibule he was surprised to find his servant Ivan lying on his back on the filthy leather coach, spitting on the ceiling with no small amount of self-satisfaction and often rewetting the very same spot.  Such indifference enraged Kovalev; he slapped his servant in the forehead with his hat, proclaiming: "You swine!  You're always up to some stupidity!"

Ivan jumped up from the coach and threw himself on Kovalev to help him remove his coat.

Entering his room the mayor, tired and sad and threw himself onto an armchair.  Finally, after several sighs, he said:

"My God! My God!  Whence this misfortune?  If I were without arms or legs it would be better; if I were without ears, it would be admittedly rather horrible, but still more bearable; the Devil only knows, however, what a person without a nose is.  A bird is not a bird; a citizen is not a citizen; just pull it off and toss it out the window!  May it have been sliced off during war or a duel; may I myself have been the cause; but it actually disappeared without a reason, for nothing, for free!  But no, that cannot be ..."  he added, having thought the matter out a bit more.  It is unlikely that the nose disappeared; it is in every way unlikely.  I either dreamed it or daydreamed it; maybe by accident I drank instead of water the water from my washbasin after I shave my beard.  That fool Ivan never took it away, and I seized it."

To prove to himself once and for all that he was not drunk, the major pinched himself so strongly that he screamed.  That pain proved to him conclusively that he was acting and living in reality.  He meekly made his way to the mirror and began to squint at the thought that his nose would be back in its place; but at that moment he jumped back and said:

"How horrible, what a denigrating sight!"

This was, as one might have expected, unclear.  If a button had disappeared, a silver spoon, a watch or something like that; but disappear, and from whom would it disappear?  What is more, in one's own apartment!  Major Kovalev, imagining all the circumstances, came up with hardly anything closer to the truth than it should be the fault of none other than the staff officer's wife Podtochina, who wanted him to marry her daughter.  He did enjoy pursuing her, but avoided a conclusive parting.  When the staff officer's wife told him straight out that she wished to give him her daughter, he moved away from his compliments and said that he was still young, that he still had five years of service remaining so as to be exactly forty-two years old.  And then the staff officer's wife, probably out of vengeance, decided to spoil it all and hired for the task some witchy old women because she could never ask for the nose simply to be cut off.  No one visited him in his room; the barber Yakovlevich had shaved him on Wednesday; and all through that Wednesday and the next day, Thursday, his nose had been whole – this he remembered and knew very well.  Moreover, he would have perceptible pain now, and, doubtless, in this time the wound could not possible have healed so quickly and become as smooth as a pancake.  In his head he hatched a plan: should he formally sue the state officer's wife or simply appear in person and expose her.  His ponderings were interrupted by the light, gleaming through all the cracks in the doors, which let him know that Ivan had already lit the candle in the antechamber.  Soon Ivan himself appeared carrying the candle in front and brightly illuminating the entire room.  Kovalev's first gesture was to reach for his handkerchief and cover up that place where yesterday his nose had sat, with the result that even an idiot looking at this gentleman would notice such an oddity.  

Ivan had hardly managed to crawl into his tiny closet of a room when a familiar voice could be heard in the antechamber:

"Does the collegiate assessor Kovalev live here?"

"Please come in.  Major Kovalev is here," said Kovalev, quickly jumping up and answering the door.

The policeman of reddish appearance entered.  He had sideburns that were neither very light-colored nor very dark and very full cheeks.  This was the same policeman who was standing at Saint Isaac's bridge at the beginning of our story.  

"Did you happen to let your nose get lost?"

"That is correct."

"It has now been found."

"What did you say?" screamed Major Kovalev.  Joy had removed his tongue.  He gazed upon the policeman standing before him, at the policeman's full lips and cheeks through which flashed a flickering ray of light.  "How?"

"A strange case: it was intercepted, so to speak, on the road.  It was sitting in a stagecoach with the intent of being driven to Riga.  Its passport had long been in the name of a certain functionary.  And the strange thing is that even I first took it for a gentleman.  But thankfully I had my glasses with me and was able to see at that moment that it was the nose.  After all, I'm near-sighted; so if you were to stand before me, I would only see that you have a face, but I would not notice your nose, your beard or anything else.  My mother-in-law, that is to say, the mother of my wife, also sees nothing."

Kovalev was beside himself.

"Where is it?  Where?  I'll run over there."

"Do not worry!  Knowing that you needed it, I simply brought it along with me.  And the strange thing is that the main participant in this matter is that swindler barber on Voznesensky street who is now sitting in a holding cell.  I had long suspected him of thievery and drunkenness, and already just the day before yesterday he pilfered a dozen buttons from a store.  Anyway, to make a long story short, your nose is just the way it was."

And saying this, the policeman reached into his pocket and pulled out the nose wrapped in a paper.

"That's it!"  shouted Kovalev.  "That's it, for sure!  Officer, please stay and have a cup of tea with me."

"I would do so with great pleasure," said the policeman, "but I simply cannot.  I have to depart immediately for the asylum.  Prices on all supplies have been skyrocketing ... in this house lives my mother-in-law, that is, the mother of my wife, and children; the eldest one, in particular, gives us the most hope; he's a very smart lad, but there are no means by which to raise him ..."

Kovalev caught on, grabbed some red banknotes off the table, and stuffed them in the hands of the police guard, who bowed and scraped perfunctorily then beat a path out the door.  Within a minute Kovalev heard his voice again outside, where he was railing some dumb bumpkin who had driven his cart almost directly onto the boulevard.     

Upon the policeman's departure the collegiate assessor remained in an indefinable state, and it was only several minutes later that he could see and feel again.  During this almost unconscious swoon he was overcome with incredible joy.  He carefully took the retrieved nose hidden in the joint hollow of both his hands and looked at it again with rapt attention.

"That's it!  That's it for sure!" said Major Kovalev.  "There's the pimple that appeared on the left side yesterday."

The major almost started cackling in joy.

But nothing on this earth lasts a long time, and for that reason joy, too, from the first minute to the second is no longer as vivid.  In the third minute it grows even weaker and, in the end, dovetails unnoticeably with the standard state of the soul, just as the circle upon the water created from the tossing in of a stone in the end becomes yet again part of the smooth surface.  Kovalev began to think more deeply and realized that the matter was far from over: he had found the nose, but it still needed to be reattached and put back in its place.

"And what if it doesn't go back?"

At such a question, asked silently to himself, the major became very pale.   

Sunday
Oct162011

The Nose (part 3)

The third part of a story by this Russian writer.  You can read the original here.

This drove Kovalev to despair.  He stepped back for a moment and stood beneath the colonnade, sedulously looking in all directions to see whether by chance the nose's location might be detected.  He remembered quite clearly that the nose was wearing a feathered cap and a uniform in gold trim; but he did not notice his overcoat, or the color of his carriage or his horses, or whether there was a servant in livery in the back seat.  What is more, there were so many coaches careering back and forth at such breakneck speed that it would have been hard to notice anyway.  And even if he did identify the coach from the throngs racing about, he had absolutely no means of pulling it over. 

It was a beautiful, sunny day.  A fog lay over the Nevsky folk; a waterfall of motley ladies spilled out onto the sidewalks starting from Police bridge all the way to Anichkov bridge.  There he ran into a court councillor whom he knew and whom he called "lieutenant colonel," particularly if they happened to be among outsiders.  Then there was Yarygin, a desk director in the senate, his great friend who always lost by remise in Boston whenever eight played.  Finally he encountered another major, who had also received his assessorship in the Caucasus, waving his hand for Kovalev to approach. 

"Damn it all!" said Kovalev.  "Coachman, take me directly to the police superintendent."

Kovalev hopped into the open carriage and shouted at the coachman, "Drive, drive like the dickens!"

"Is the police superintendent in?" he asked, seated in the canopy.

"Nope," said the doorman, "just left."

"So much for that!"

"Yes," the doorman added.  "It wasn't a long time ago, but he left.  Had you come maybe a minute sooner, you might have caught him."

Not removing the handkerchief from his face, Kovalev got back onto the coach and yelled in a desperate voice at the coachman:

"Drive!"

"Where to?"

"Just drive straight ahead!"

"What do you mean, "straight ahead"?  There's a turn up there, so left or right?"

This question stopped Kovalev and forced him yet again to think.  In his position he ought, first of all, to head for the City Presidium, not because it was directly associated with the police, but because its forces could be made available much more quickly than in other places.  To seek out resolution at the workplace where the nose had declared himself employed seemed reckless since, from the nose's own responses, it was clear that there was nothing sacred for this person, and he could have lied to his office just as easily as he had lied when he claimed never before to have set eyes on Kovalev.  And so, Kovalev was just about to order the coachman to make for the City Presidium when another thought engulfed him.  Namely, that this crook and swindler, who already at their very first meeting had comported himself unconscionably, could have in the meantime slipped out of the city without any great hassle or discomfort, and all efforts to seek him out not only would be in vain, but could, God help him, last an entire month. 

Finally the Heavens themselves brought Kovalev to reason.  He decided to make haste to a newspaper office and have published, in a timely fashion, a circumstantial description of all the nose's qualities so that anyone who might encounter the nose would be able to identify him on the spot, or, at the very least, report his whereabouts.  Thus, having decided on such an act, he ordered the coachman to make for a newspaper office, and the whole way did not cease to jab him with his fist, yelling, "Faster, you scoundrel!  Faster, you swindler!"  "Really, sir!" said the coachman, shaking his head and yanking on the reins of his horse whose wooly hair was as long as that of a miniature poodle.  The carriage finally stopped and, panting, Kovalev burst into a not very large foyer where a grey-haired functionary in glasses and an old frock coat was sitting at a table, holding a pen in his mouth, and counting the receipts of copper coins.

"Who here can take down an announcement?" screamed Kovalev.  "Ah, hello!"

"That honor is mine," said the grey-haired functionary, lifting his eyes for a moment then lowering them anew to his stacks of money.

"I would like to place an announcement ..."

"I'm sorry, I will have to ask you to wait a little bit," said the functionary, writing down with his right hand a figure on some ledger and moving two beads on his abacus with his left.

A servant in galloons and with the appearance of one accustomed to an aristocratic household stood by the table with a written note in his hands.  This servant decided it would be proper to exhibit some public-mindedness:

"Rest assured, sir, that the doggie costs no more than eighty kopecks, that is to say I wouldn't pay more than four kopecks for him.  But the countess loves him, truly, truly, she loves him.  And that's why the person who finds him will get one hundred rubles!  In proper terms, as you and I have been on proper terms, there is just no accounting for some people's tastes.  As you know, a hunter will keep a setter or a poodle and not hesitate to pay five hundred or even a thousand rubles, provided it is a good dog."

The honorable functionary listened with rapt interest on his face and yet at the same time was trying to calculate how many letters the written note contained.  On the side stood a multitude of old women, merchant's clerks, and watchmen with notes.  One note indicated that a coachman of sober habits was sought for employment; another advertised a little-used pram brought over from Paris in 1814; a serf girl, nineteen years of age, was seeking employment having had experience in cleaning and laundry and was also good for other types of work; a durable carriage without suspension; a young, fiery, grey-dappled steed, seventeen years of age; new radish and turnip seeds imported from London; a dacha with all amenities, including two horse stalls and room to plant a magnificent birch or spruce garden; there was also a call for all those interested in purchasing old soles to come to a bazaar every day from eight in the morning until three.  The room which held all these people was small and its odor was extraordinarily thick.  But collegiate assessor Kovalev could not perceive the odor because he still had a handkerchief over his face and because his nose was still God knows where.  

"Forgive me, my dear sir," he finally said with some impatience, " but I simply must ask you.  I am in very urgent need of –"

"Presently, presently!  Two rubles forty-three kopecks!  Yes, this minute!  One ruble sixty-four kopecks!" said the gray-haired gentleman, tossing notes back at the old women and watchmen.  "How can I help you?" he said finally, turning to Kovalev.

"I would like," began Kovalev.  "Whether this is a matter of chicanery or cheating, I still have no way of knowing.  I would simply like for you to print that whoever brings this cur to heel will be sufficiently compensated."

"May I ask your surname?"

"Why do you need my surname?  I cannot tell you what it is.  I have many acquaintances: Chekhtareva, the wife of the state councillor, Palagea Grigorevna Podtochina, the wife of the staff officer ... They will know immediately, may God preserve me!  You can simply write: collegiate assessor, or better yet, someone with the rank of major."

"And the person who ran off was your serf?"

"What serf?!  That would not have been as great a swindle.  No, what ran off was ... my nose."

"Hmm, that's a queer name, that!  And did this Mr. Nosov bilk you out of a large sum of money?"

"The nose, that is ... you're not thinking of the right thing!  My nose, my very own nose has disappeared without a trace.  The Devil wished to play a trick on me!"

"How do you mean 'disappeared'?  Perhaps I don't quite understand something."

"Well, I'm not sure how that happened.  The main thing is that the nose is now gallivanting around the city claiming to be a state councillor.  And that's why I ask you to print that whoever catches him should hand him over to me at the soonest possible time.  Can't you imagine, as it were, how it must be for me without such a significant body part?  This is no little toe off my foot which I can hide in my boot so that no one could see whether or not it was there.  On Thursdays I visit Chekhtareva, the wife of the state councillor; Palagea Grigorevna Podtochina, the wife of the staff officer, and her very pretty daughter are also close acquaintances – so you can imagine how it would be for me now ...  Now I can no longer show my face there."

The functionary began to ponder the matter deeply, which meant that he squeezed his lips together with great force.

"No," he said finally after a long silence.  "I can't print that announcement in the newspaper."

"What?!  Why not?"

"It is so.  The newspaper could lose its reputation.  If everyone started to write that his nose had run off ... People already claim that we publish a lot of absurdities and lies."

"Now why is this matter absurd?  Here, it seems to me, there is nothing of the sort."

"It only seems to you that there isn't.  Yet just last week we encountered precisely the same incident.  An official came in exactly the way you came in now; he had a note with him, the entry would have cost him two rubles, seventy-three kopecks.  And all the announcement said was that his black-haired poodle had run off.  Does it seem like we would print such stuff?  It turned out that this was scurrilous nonsense: the poodle turned out to be the treasurer, I don't remember of which department."

"But I'm not placing an announcement about a poodle, it's about my very own nose!  Consequently, it's almost as if it were about myself."

"No, I can in no way print such an announcement."

"But I tell you my nose has disappeared!"

"If it's disappeared, then that's a matter for a doctor.  They say there are people who can stick on any nose.  But then again, one could think that you must be a person of jolly temperament who really enjoys a public joke."

"I swear to you as God is holy!  Perhaps it has even come time for me to show you."

"No need to get upset!" the functionary went on, snorting some tobacco. "Then again, if you're not upset," he added with a gesture of curiosity, "I wouldn't mind taking a look."

The collegiate assessor removed the handkerchief from his face.

"It really is extraordinarily strange!" said the functionary.  "The spot is completely smooth as if it were a freshly baked pancake.  Yes, almost impossibly flat and even!"

"Well, are you going to keep arguing now?  You see for yourself that it is impossible not to print this.  I would be particularly thankful, as well as glad that this event would have made meeting you very satisfying."

As could be deduced, the major had decided here on a bit of toadyism.

"Printing it, of course," said the functionary, "is no big deal.   Yet I do not see any advantage for you in doing so.  If you still wish to have it printed, leave the matter to a skilled writer and describe it as a rare phenomenon in nature, then print the piece in "The Northern Bee" (here he snorted some more tobacco) for the benefit of our youth (here he wiped his nose) and as an item of public interest."

Thursday
Oct132011

The Nose (part 2)

The second part of a story by this Russian writer.  You can read the original here.

II.

The collegiate assessor Kovalev woke up rather early and his lips chirped "brr," as they always did when he woke up although he could never figure out why.  Stretching out, he ordered the mirror standing on his night table to be fetched.  He wanted to examine the pimple which had appeared on his nose last night; to his great astonishment, however, he saw that instead of his nose there was nothing more than a completely smooth spot!  Scared, he ordered that water be brought and rubbed his eyes with a towel: indeed, no nose!  He began groping around to see whether he wasn't dreaming; apparently he was not.  The collegiate assessor Kovalev bestirred himself and got out of bed: no nose!  He ordered that he be immediately dressed and betook himself with all haste to the police superintendent.

We will need, however, to say something about Kovalev so that the reader might understand what type of collegiate assessor he was.   One may not compare collegiate assessors who have received such titles by dint of diplomas and certificates to those collegiate assessors who were educated in the Caucasus.  These are two distinctly different types of collegiate assessors.   But Russia is such a wondrous land that if you say something regarding one collegiate assessor, all collegiate assessors from Riga to Kamchatka will invariably take it to mean you are talking about them – and this, you will understand, is true of all ranks and titles.  Kovalev was a Caucasian collegiate assessor.  He had only been possessor of such a title for two years and therefore could not forget about it even for a minute.  Yet to imbue himself with even greater nobility and weight, he never referred to himself as a collegiate assessor, only as a major.  "Listen, sweetheart," he would say whenever he encountered a young woman on the street selling shirt fronts.  "Come over to my place.  My apartment is on Sadovaya street.  Just ask: Is this where Major Kovalev lives?  Everyone will be able to direct you."  And if he met an especially pretty young thing, he would give her an additional, secret command: "Ask for Major Kovalev's apartment, love."  For this very reason we will henceforth refer to this collegiate assessor as "major."

Major Kovalev had the daily habit of strolling along Nevsky Avenue.  The collar of his shirt front was always extraordinarily clean and well-starched.  His sideburns were of the type that one may now notice on provincial and district land surveyors, on architects and military doctors, as well as on police officials of various rank and authority, and on all men of full and ruddy cheek who were gifted players of Boston.  These sideburns reached to the very middle of his cheeks and led directly to his nose.  Major Kovalev wore a host of carnelian signets with coats of arms as well as those on which Wednesday, Thursday, Monday, and so forth were engraved.  Major Kovalev came to Petersburg out of need, to wit, to select a building befitting his title; if he succeeded, he would find something on the vice-governor level; if he did not, then some kind of executive-looking apartment would do.  Major Kovalev was not adverse to getting married, but only if his bride brought him at least two hundred thousand in dowry.  Thus, the reader can now judge for himself what the position of this major was and how he looked with, instead of a rather nice-looking and well-shaped nose, that imbecilic flat and even spot.

Alas, not one coachman rattled down the street and he was obliged to go on foot, wrapped in his raincoat with his face mostly covered by a handkerchief, all of which gave him the appearance of bleeding.  "Perhaps I imagined it after all; it simply cannot be that my nose stupidly fell off!" he thought and entered a bakery with the express purpose of taking a look at himself in the mirror.  Thankfully, there was not a soul in the bakery.  The apprentices were sweeping rooms and setting up chairs; a few with sleepy eyes carried trays stacked with hot pastries; on the chairs and tables lay yesterday's coffee-stained newspapers.  "Thank heavens, no one's around," he said.  "Now I can take a look."  He timidly approached a mirror and looked.  "What the devil!  What is this nonsense?!"  he spat.  "You would think there would be something instead of the nose, but there's nothing at all!"

Biting his lips in disappointment, he exited the bakery and decided, against his habit, not to look or smile at anyone.  Suddenly at the doors of a certain building he stopped dead in his tracks.  An inexplicable phenomenon passed before his eyes: a carriage pulled up before the entryway; the doors swung open, and a man in uniform bent over, hopped out, and raced up the stairs.  What horror and astonishment then came over Kovalev when he saw that this was none other than his own nose!  Given this extraordinary sight, the world seemed to be spinning around before his very eyes; he felt that he could barely stand on his own two feet; and as he remained there shaking as if febrile he decided that, no matter what it took, he would await its return to the carriage.  And two minutes later the nose did, in fact, emerge.  He was in a gold-stitched uniform with a high, standing collar and suede pants; at his side rattled a sword.  From his feathered cap one might have been able to conclude that he deemed himself the peer of a State Councillor.  From all indications he was off somewhere on a visit.  He glanced both ways then hailed a coachman: "Hither!"  He got on and rode off.

Poor Kovalev almost lost his mind.  He didn't know what he should even think of this oddest of events.  How could it be actually possible that a nose, which just yesterday was sitting happily on his face unable to walk or ride, was now in a uniform?  He chased after the carriage, which fortunately had not gotten far and had stopped in front of Kazan Cathedral.      

He raced towards the Cathedral, fought his way through a row of wretched old women with faces knitted in wrinkles and two slivers for eyes whom he used to mock, and entered the church.  There were few worshippers within; almost all of them were standing outside by the entryway.  Kovalev was so upset and in such a state that he simply could not pray, and he cast his eyes around every corner in search of that certain gentleman.  Finally he espied him standing on the side.  The nose had almost completely hidden his face behind his high-standing collar and was praying with an expression of greatest piety.

"How should I approach him?" thought Kovalev.  "It's obvious from everything, from the uniform, from the hat, that he's a state councillor.  What the devil do I do?"

He began coughing in his vicinity; but the nose did not forsake his piety for even a minute and even made some low bows.

"My dear sir," said Kovalev, internally obliging himself to perk up, "my dear sir."

"How may I help you?" the nose replied, turning around.

"It is strange, my dear sir, but it seems that you should know your place.  And all of a sudden where do I find you?  In a church.  You will agree that ..."

"Pardon me, but I fear I do not quite understand what you mean.  Pray explain."

"How can I explain?" thought Kovalev, and mustering his courage, chimed:

"Of course, I, um, as it were, I am a major.  You will agree that, for me, walking around without a nose is very unpleasant.  Any old merchant woman selling peeled oranges on Voskresensky bridge could make do sitting there without a nose; but as I intend to receive ... well, being known to many ladies in many houses, such as Chekhtareva, the wife of the State Councillor, and others ... Well, you judge for yourself ... I don't know, my dear sir (here Major Kovalev shrugged his shoulders).  Pardon me ... but if one were to examine this matter from the point of view of duty and honor ... you yourself would understand ..."

"No, I do not understand anything whatsoever.  I would wish for a more satisfactory explanation."

"Dear sir," Kovalev began again, this time with a sense of personal dignity.  "I do not know what to make of your words.  Here the matter is, well, a rather obvious one.  Or do you wish to say ... Well, after all, you are my nose!"

The nose looked at Kovalev and his brows frowned somewhat.

"You are mistaken, my dear sir.  I am my own person.  Whereby there can be no close relations between us.  Judging by the buttons of your uniform, you must be working in a different department."

And with these words the nose turned back again and continued to pray.

Kovalev was utterly confused; he knew neither what to do nor what to think.  At that moment the pleasant noise of a woman's dress could be heard, and there approached an elderly woman all decked out in the most tender white lace dress elegantly fitted on her tiny body, and a straw hat as light as a pastry.  Behind them a tall heyduck with large sideburns and a good dozen collars stopped and opened a snuff box.

Kovalev stepped closer, liberated his cambric shirt front collar, straightened his gloves hanging on a gold string, and smiling in every direction, turned his attention to this delicate lady who, like a spring flower, bowed slightly and raised to Kovalev's forehead her white hand and half-transparent fingers.  The smile on Kovalev's face became broader still when he espied from beneath that straw hat her rounded chin in its gleaming whiteness, and that part of her cheek shaded like a flower of the first spring rose.  But all of a sudden he snapped back as if he had been burned.  He remembered that instead of a nose he had nothing at all and tears streamed from his eyes.  He spun around with the firm intention of telling that gentleman in a uniform that he was merely pretending to be a state councillor, that he was a cad and a rascal, and that he was nothing more than his very own nose ... But there was no longer any nose: he had managed to slip away, in all likelihood off on another official visit.

Monday
Oct102011

The Nose (part 1)

The first part of a story by this Russian writer.  You can read the original here.

I.

On March 25th in St. Petersburg an extraordinarily strange occurrence took place.  The barber Ivan Yakovlevich (his surname has been lost; even his placard featuring a sudsy-cheeked gentleman with the inscription "And there will be blood" has nothing more), residing on Voznesenski Avenue, the barber Ivan Yakovlevich awakened rather early and detected the smell of hot bread.  Sitting up a bit in his bed he saw that his wife, an utterly honorable woman who loved to drink coffee, was removing just-baked breads from the oven.

"Today, Praskovya Osipovna, I won't be having coffee," said Ivan Yakovlevich.  "Instead, I would like a hot bun with onion."

(That is to say, Ivan Yakovlevich would have liked to have both, yet knew it was fairly impossible to demand two things at once as Praskovya Osipovna really did not like such megrims).  "Let the fool eat bread; all the better for me," thought his wife to herself.  "There'll be an extra serving of coffee."  And she tossed a bun on the table. 

For propriety's sake Ivan Yakovlevich put on coattails over his shirt and, having sat down at the table, sprinkled some salt, prepared two heads of onion, and took up a knife in his hands.  Then he made a knowing face and set to cutting his bread.  Having cut the bread in two halves, he looked at the center and espied something white.  Ivan Yakovlevich prodded it carefully with his knife then groped it with his finger.  "Solid!" he said to himself.  "What could it be?"

He stuck his fingers in and pulled out – a nose!  Ivan Yakovlevich let his hands fall; rubbing his eyes, he began to grope the object.  Indeed, it was a nose!  It seemed to him somewhat familiar – and Ivan Yakovlevich's face was suddenly filled with horror.  But this horror was nothing compared to the indignation that came over his wife. 

"Where did you cut off that nose, you pig?!"  began her wrath.  "Swindler!  Drunkard!  I'm going to report you to the police personally, you thieving swine!  I already heard from three people that you fiddle so extensively when you shave your customers that their noses can barely stay on!"

But Ivan Yakovlevich was neither alive nor dead.  He realized the owner of the nose was none other than the collegial assessor Kovalev, whom he shaved every Wednesday and Sunday.     

"Hold on, Praskovya Osipovna! I'll just wrap it in a handkerchief and place it in the corner.  Let's let it lie there a wee while, and then I'll take it back."

"Absolutely not!  So that I can have a sliced-off nose sitting around my house?  You blubbery worm!  A worm, I might add, who only knows how to sling his blade around and in no way ever fulfills his duties, you idling, amoral lump!  So that I defend you to the police?  Now that is some twaddle, you filthy rat!  Begone with it!  Begone!  Remove it anywhere you please, as long as I do not have to inhale its fumes!"

Ivan Yakovlevich was still standing there as if dead.  He thought and thought and still didn't know what to think.

"Who the devil knows how this happened!" he said at length, scratching behind his ear.  "At this point I probably couldn't tell you whether I came home drunk yesterday.  But impossible events must befall all objects, because bread is a baked item and noses most certainly are not!  I just can't figure it out!"

Ivan Yakovlevich fell silent. The thought of the police searching him for the nose and then accusing him made him completely numb.  He imagined now the scarlet collar, handsomely lined in silver, the sword, and his whole body trembled.  He soon found his underwear and shoes, threw on this ragged heap, and, accompanied by Praskovya Osipovna's unmild remonstrances, tucked the nose into a handkerchief and went out onto the street.

He wanted to stash it under something, beneath the curbside stone by the gates, for example, or accidentally drop it somewhere then hasten down an alley.  Alas, he immediately bumped into an acquaintance who began with that terrible question, "Where are you off to?" and Ivan Yakovlevich could not get away for even a minute.  His second time around he actually managed the drop, but a distant sentry waved his halberd and beseeched: "You dropped something!  Pick it up!"  And Ivan Yakovlevich had to retrieve the nose and return it to his pocket.  Despair prevailed upon him, all the more as the pedestrians incessantly multiplied and stores and shops pushed open their shutters.

He opted to head for Saint Isaac's bridge – couldn't he at least manage to toss it in the Neva? ... And here I'm afraid I am somewhat guilty, as I have said nothing about Ivan Yakovlevich, an honorable man in many respects.

Ivan Yakovlevich, like every honest, decent Russian workman, was a stupendous boozehound.  And although every day he shaved the chins and cheeks of others, his own jaw remained forever unshaven.  Ivan Yakovlevich's tail coat (Ivan Yakovlevich never wore a frock coat) was piebald; that is to say, it was black with grey and brownish-yellow clouds. His collar was glossy, and instead of three buttons only threads hovered.  Ivan Yakovlevich was also a remarkable cynic, and when collegiate assessor Kovalev would habitually inform him during the shave, "Your hands, Ivan Yakovlevich, always smell!" – Ivan Yakovlevich would answer "Now why would they smell?"  "I don't know, friend, but they smell," the collegiate assessor would reply.  And having snorted some tobacco, Ivan Yakovlevich would lather him for that on his cheeks, under his nose, behind his ears and below his beard – in a word, wherever he jolly well desired.

Now this honorable citizen had already reached Saint Isaac's bridge.  First, he took a quick look around; then he leaned over the railing as if he were looking under the bridge to see whether there weren't some fish splashing about – and the handkerchief and nose were surreptitiously tossed.  He felt as if he had just shed ten poods!  Ivan Yakovlevich even laughed!  And instead of shaving bureaucrat chins he headed for an institution by the name of "Food and tea" (so read the sign) to order himself a glass of punch, when suddenly at the far end of the bridge he noticed a housing inspector of aristocratic appearance sporting a sword, broad sideburns and a triangular hat.  Ivan Yakovlevich went numb; just then the housing inspector wagged his finger at him and said:

"Come hither, my dear sir!"

Knowing the procedure, Ivan Yakovlevich removed his hat even though he was still far away, swiftly approached the inspector, and then said:

"To your health, your lordship!"

"No, no, my good sir, no lordship.  Tell me now, what you were you doing standing out there on the bridge?"

"I swear, sir, I was on my way to shave, but I simply wanted to see whether the fish weren't bustling about."

"Lies, lies!  You won't get out of it that easily!  Kindly answer the question!"

"I am prepared, your grace, to shave you twice even three times a week, without the slightest objection," answered Ivan Yakovlevich.

"Sheer poppycock, friend!  Poppycock, you hear me?  I already have three barbers shaving me and they all deem it a great honor.  Now kindly explain what you were doing on that bridge!"

Ivan Yakovlevich grew very pale ... And here a fog engulfs our events, and about what happened next nothing more is known.

Wednesday
Mar052008

Nikolai Gogol

Ten years ago, I happened to attend a conference on the literature of this country whose name has been slightly amended since 1993.  One of the conference’s more spirited speakers, an ethnic Ukrainian, recalled a conversation he had had with a famous Russian–born writer at a cocktail party years before.  After the usual small talk on wind and weather, the Russian became curious:
Writer: You have an accent in English.  Are you from Europe?
Ukrainian: I’m from Ukraine.
Writer: From Urania?   [walks away]
Whether such an exchange ever occurred (the joke has the bitter flavor of truth) is not as interesting as the context.  Contempt for Ukrainian literature and the concept of Ukraine as a cultural and political entity independent of both Poland and Russia is still widespread, owing largely to its lack of famous men and women of letters.  Although the founder of the modern language was a poet and artist whose balding head, handlebar moustache, and resigned chin (to the fate of his native tongue, some would say) are engraved into numerous monuments worldwide, his existence is practically unacknowledged outside Slavic departments.  Even in those hallowed halls enthusiasts tend, after Russian, to study Polish, Czech, Serbian, and Bulgarian before knitting their brows at the oddities of the Ukrainian alphabet, Cyrillic with a sprinkling of one–eyes and two–eyes.  Most Ukrainian writers, history regrets to inform us, chose other mediums in which to express themselves.  And none was weirder and more brilliant than this small dainty man, the subject of one of the English language's most succulent literary biographies.              
 
Succulent thanks to the slow, effortless circles which the biographer, himself one of the finest craftsman in both Russian and English, sketches around young Gogol.  We begin with Gogol’s death and end with his birth, and in–between we find that our long–standing impressions of nineteenth–century Russia owe much to his handiwork:
Symbolism with him [Gogol] took on a physiological aspect, in this case optical.  The mutterings of passers–by were again symbolic, this time an auditory effect which was meant to render the hectic loneliness of a poor man in an opulent crowd.  Gogol, and Gogol alone, spoke to himself as he walked, but the monologue was echoed and multiplied by the shadows of his mind.  Passing as it were through Gogol’s temperament, St. Petersburg acquired a reputation of strangeness which it kept up for almost a century, losing it when it ceased to be the capital of an empire.
This is very much the oddness of Petersburg that pervades Russian literature from Pushkin to Bely, the incongruity of traditional European architecture and customs against the thoughts and rapturous originality of its natives.  I have not been to Petersburg in a few years, but little has changed.  Thirty years passed between Nabokov’s last spring in his hometown and the passage above, which, fifty years later felt like it had been culled from the evening edition of Argumenty i fakty.  The point is that Gogol, and Gogol alone, changed Russian literature both for its creators and its admirers, domestic and otherwise.  With the possible exception of Pushkin, he is more responsible than any author for how Slavic literary scholars have evaluated the last two hundred years.  

gogol.jpgHe did not, however, come about this brilliance by living the simple and successful life of an academically–minded writer who spends days in a library and nights behind his desk.  A soft, effeminate man, Gogol was completely impractical in mind and body: he was constantly impecunious, ill, or both; he loved to fib and exaggerate because, like all great writers, fiction was far richer than the worries of a mortal; he listened to no one but himself, fled from creditors and would–be benefactors alike, and traveled alone and aimlessly in Europe for years as if trying to absorb its culture by sponging its streets with his boots.  The results were few (Gogol would die, we are told immediately, in his early forties after an abortive leeching cure) but magnificent and his modest corpus is still studied with avidity by Russianists everywhere.  Nabokov demolishes some previous attempts at rendering Gogol’s eccentric prose (so badly, in fact, that I don’t think any publisher would have ever hired these poor dead souls ever again) and supplies his own passages, which display his own mastery and wit and swell and ebb with the same unmistakable rhythm of Nabokov’s discursive writings.  All of which, I may add, could probably not be written any more clearly or concisely, nor with more passion and understanding for his subject.

Yet Gogol’s most significant contribution may well be his obsession with a rather untranslatable word, poshlost’, about which Nabokov digresses for over twenty pages.  Poshlost’ has no precise English synonym (the German Kitsch is probably the closest, although this latter is strictly speaking an aesthetic term), but might be explained as the "the belief in or propagation of superficial, sentimental and populist values as true culture."  Examples would be pop and paparazzi shows and magazines or any Hollywood love or war story, but with a modicum of discipline these can be ignored.  Much more egregious offenders are books which might portray an earnest young man who, in an effort to "make it in the world," befriends some multicultural characters, falls in love with sunsets, dogs and soft jazz, repeats to himself that life is really not about the pursuit of material wealth — although he doesn't quite convince the reader of that — and, at the end of his "journey," metaphorically envisions humanity's fate in the hands of the scattered few around him.  Most books, as it were, fall into this disreputable category.  The word itself is in very common usage in modern Russian, and has come to signify the unshakeable twitch that surfaces upon hearing or seeing something so absolutely false and so infuriatingly pandering to common thought and common happiness that even pacifists like myself want to smack someone in the vicinity.  To Russians' great credit, the word is extremely old and consistently applied; and to Gogol’s credit, he is in every way the opposite of it, just like Tomas is a “monster in the kingdom of kitsch” in this novel.

And to Nabokov’s credit, he restrains himself for the most part from overtaking his beloved forerunner.  Yes, it is Nabokov’s show; but if you are familiar with his work, you know that he cannot share a stage to save his life and that his imprint is indelibly left on everything he touches.   He even has time to tell us about his deepest fears:
In his Dikanka and Taras Bulba phase .... Gogol was skirting a very dreadful precipice.  He almost became the writer of Ukrainian folklore tales and ‘colorful romances.’  We must thank fate (and the author’s thirst for universal fame) for his not having turned to the Ukrainian dialect as a medium of expression, because then he would have been lost.  When I want a good nightmare I imagine Gogol penning in Little Russian dialect volume after volume of Dikanka and Mirgorod stuff about ghosts haunting the banks of the Dneipr, burlesque Jews and dashing Cossacks.
This alternative reality may sound terrifying to Gogol connoisseurs, but some Ukrainians probably would not have minded.  And they would have deeply resented any comments on their status as a minor literature just as much as crude puns, of which Nabokov was particularly fond.   Pity that young Ukrainian writer could only remember Nabokov's last two comments.