Here is another collection of four little gems by Gogol, and as is typical, they run the gamut of tender and touching, laugh-out-loud funny,
ironic and bittersweet. I love Russian literature for its deep and probing expressions of the human condition, yet each author had such a unique style.
Gogol expresses many of the same emotions and situations as Dostoyevsky or Gorky, yet there is little in common in their writing.
Old Fashioned Farmers tells the story of an older rural couple in Little Russia (Ukraine), as recounted by an unnamed narrator who seems to have visited them frequently, yet was not related, or perhaps not even a special friend. But his visits were so memorable, and now that they have both passed away, he looks back with poignancy. Pulcheria Ivanovna was the ideal wife and housekeeper, constantly busy preserving and storing away, cooking and even running the estate. Their servants and stewards robbed them blind, but there was such an abundance, no one noticed. Afanasii Ivanovich eloped with her against her parents wishes, and it seems in his old age, his main occupation was eating and listening to guests talk. Their little cottage was plain and comfortable, and always kept very hot. Each door squeaked its own tune, and when many doors were opening, it was like a concert.
Afanasii Ivanovich liked to tease, but Pulcheria Ivanovna was more serious, and both had a gift for hospitality. It seems there was never enough that they weren't willing to do for guests, which included insisting they stay the night, even if the visitors lived a few miles away:
But the old people were most interesting of all to me when they had visitors. Then everything about their house assumed a different aspect. It may be said that these good people only lived for their guests. They vied with each other in offering you everything which the place produced. But the most pleasing feature of it all to me was, that, in all their kindliness, there was nothing feigned.
This is a sweet and sad story.
The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich is hysterical. If you liked The Inspector General, you will enjoy this one, too. It pokes fun at the stupidity and incompetence of small-town officials. Here, the two Ivans are the closest of friends; inseparable. Ivan Ivanovich is very polite and good at speaking charmingly. Ivan Nikiforovich says whatever he wants without regard to politeness, and is extremely corpulent. One day, Ivan Ivanovich sees Ivan Nikiforovich's housekeeper airing out all his clothing, and also a sword and a gun. Ivan Ivanovich already has everything he needs, but suddenly decides he wants the gun, so he pays a visit, finding Ivan Nikiforovich napping and naked. Ivan Ivanovich offers the brown sow and two sacks of oats as trade. Ivan Nikiforovich doesn't want to trade, but even worse, calls him a goose. This is the ultimate insult, and they begin a terrible quarrel. And as they are fighting, his housekeeper and her boy walk in:
The group presented a striking picture: Ivan Nikiforovich standing in the middle of the room; the woman with her mouth wide open, and the most senseless, terrified look on her face; Ivan Ivanovich with uplifted hand, as the Roman Tribunes are depicted. This was an extraordinary moment, a magnificent spectacle: and yet there was but one spectator; this was the boy in the extensive surtout, who stood quite quietly, and picked his nose with his finger.
And speaking of noses, the next story is called The Nose, and is written in a dreamy, surreal style. Gogol frequently inserted
elements of the paranormal into his writing, and here we find that the barber cuts into a loaf of bread and finds a nose. He know it belongs to the Major
Kovalyov, but does not remember if he was drunk while he shaved him. So he tries to dispose of it in the river, but a policeman catches him, and the nose
gets away. Meanwhile, the Major awakens to find that his nose is gone, only to soon see it wearing a higher ranking uniform than himself, and it snubs him and
I have to admit that there is probably a lot in this one that I didn't get. The Dover edition blurb says it is about the “snobbery and complacency of the Russian upper classes.” Wikipedia, however, sees the missing nose as a phallic symbol, because the Major is obsessed with its loss and the effect it will have on the ladies. I think there is probably elements of both of those themes, and the story is open to different interpretations. In any case, it will make you chuckle.
The most bittersweet of all is The Overcoat, about a poor titular councillor named Akakii Akakievich, whose only enjoyment in life is doing his copy work. It pays very little, but he is unaware of much of anything else in his life except his work. But now he learns that his overcoat is so threadbare that the tailor can no longer mend it, so he scrimps and saves and even gets a bigger-than-expected Christmas bonus. He is finally able to have a new coat made, and his life and attitude begin to change. But his happiness is short-lived. This is a very sad, pathetic story about snobbery, poverty and low self-esteem, and also contains a supernatural element.
In all, this is a fine and entertaining collection of stories by a most gifted master of Russian literature.
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