Foreign Book Review: Short Stories – Nikolai Gogol

Fancy some surreal satire? Then Gogol might just be for you. Often when you think of 19th century Russian literature you think of worthy tomes which you suspect might be rather heavy going. However the short stories of Gogol are a delight, of manageable size and definitely worth a read!

As someone who has a degree in Russian but nonetheless would need a dictionary and a Russian grammar book just to tell the time in that language (in my defence I have two words which any Russian student will appreciate: genitive plural), I read the stories in English. And in the translation by Ronald Wilks the stories jump off the page with both great humour and a brilliant turn of phrase.

Despite the surreal and absurdist nature of the stories you nevertheless go along with the narrative, drawn in as you are by the chatty and confiding narrator. To give a flavour of the absurd nature of the stories, the narrator informs us in ‘The Nose’, that the said nose’s owner, Kovalyov, wakes up one morning to discover his nose has gone missing and is parading around St Petersburg as a state councillor, and only stopped in the nick of time from leaving town in the Riga stagecoach, disguised as he is as a civil servant. In the story ‘How Ivan Ivanovich quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich’ their argument, instigated by the latter calling the former that most terrible of epithets – a goose, is exacerbated even further when Ivan Ivanovich’s pig decides to enter the court buildings and steal Ivan Nikiforovich’s plaint against the said pig’s owner.

The use of the chatty narrator adds to a lot of the humour in the stories. For example in the short story ‘Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt’ the narrator describes the aunt thus: “At that time Aunt Vasilisa Kashporovna was about fifty. She had never married and used to say she valued a spinster’s life more than anything else. Still, if my memory serves me right, no one had ever courted her.” Gogol also uses the narrator as a tool to provide sideswipes at Russian society. After all, in an age of rigid censorship you had to be subtle about these things. In the story ‘How Ivan Ivanovich quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich’, Gogol’s targets the Russian law courts. The narrator duly notes: “Subsequently the case proceeded with the normal rapidity our courts normally pride themselves on. Documents were dated, entered, numbered, sewn together, recorded – all in one day, and the case was filed away in a cupboard where it just lay and lay and lay , one, two, three years.” As it turns out the case goes on and on for 15 years and is never settled despite all promises to the contrary.

One of Gogol’s skills as a storyteller is his ability to bring to life such a diverse range of vivid characters with just a few strokes of his pen, from the fearsome Aunt Vasilisa Kashporovna to his description of Akaky Akakievich in one of Gogol’s most famous stories ‘The Overcoat’. This put upon clerk is drawn in such a way that you can’t help but feel an immediate empathy with Akaky Akakievich, the downtrodden hero of the story who scrimps and saves to buy the overcoat of the title.

So if you fancy a snapshot of 19th century Russian life through the prism of the absurdist eye of one of Russia’s most able writers; or even if you just simply want an enjoyable read which will guarantee to bring a wry smile to your face, then you can’t go far wrong in reading a short story or two by Nikolai Vasilevich Gogol.

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