This collection contains five short stories by the esteemed 19th century Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol. (According to marketing materials, the finalized edition may have a sixth story located in the book’s second half.) For a small collection, it’s a diverse set of stories including surrealism, speculative fiction, and grim and gritty realism. That said, there is a theme that runs throughout, and it’s the social humiliation and envy of being in the middling territory of a hierarchical / aristocratic society.
The first three stories, which are among Gogol’s best known, are set in Saint Petersburg, and feature low-level bureaucrats. In other words, the bottom tier of the upper crust – not peasants, but poor relative to what they were expected to maintain and lacking status compared to almost everyone around them. Whatever else is going on throughout these stories, these characters are striving to save face — and the odds of doing so are against them.
“The Nose” is a story in which a barber finds a human nose in a loaf of bread he’s eating for breakfast. [Lest this seem gross beyond measure, the story is completely surreal / dream-like and there is no gore.] The barber recognizes the nose as one belonging to a civil servant who is one of his regular customers. The barber panics and pitches the nose in the river, trying to get rid of the evidence. The story picks up with the civil servant who lost the nose, and his attempts to discern its whereabouts.
“Diary of a Madman” is – as the name suggests – a chronicle of a man who descends into madness. Gogol does an artful job with pacing. He begins by establishing a lead character that one might find quirky, but not particularly insane. Then we see the character as he registers a conversation between two dogs in the street. As the story continues, at first the only anomaly is the man’s belief that dogs communicate in words (spoken and written) and that he can uniquely understand them. Then, when the man begins to believe he is the King of Spain, his madness becomes complete and all-encompassing. It’s interesting to see how Gogol communicates this madness, down to the change of sensible diary headings (i.e. the date) to bizarre substitutes.
“The Overcoat” is a story about a poor civil servant whose coat is falling to shreds, so – though he can’t afford it – he invests in a new one. While the story is mostly realistic, it does take turns into speculative territory near the end. However, the themes of envy, obsession, and the glee of apparent upward mobility (even if it’s for something as superficial as a new coat) provide the story’s tension.
The book takes a little turn at this point. The first three stories were set in Saint Petersburg, but the latter stories are set out in rural villages.
“Old World Landowners” is about a cute old couple who owns the lands encompassing a village and surrounding territory. It is Gogol’s take on a myth from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” but instilled with a grimmer, more Russian, sentiment. The couple are not only adorable, but are essentially the glue that binds the community.
“The Carriage” is about a gentleman from a small and boring village. At times, a military unit takes up residence in this village, and – when they do – they instill life in an otherwise bleak small town. The gentleman comes to visit the General and his officers — desiring to impress them. He is most proud of a Viennese carriage that he recently acquired. He invites them to lunch the next day, but all does not go as planned and the man is faced with utter humiliation.
I enjoyed this collection immensely. Despite the nineteenth century prose, the stories are readable and engaging. While the stakes are more often saving versus losing face (as opposed to life-and-death) Gogol does a great job of building the feelings of humiliation and woe – even for readers from a very different form of society. The stories may feature uniquely aristocratic Russian circumstance, but they still work because they deal in universal human emotional experiences.
I’d highly recommend the book for readers of fiction.