Sunday, January 22, 2012

Back to Classics: Two of Gogol's Petersburg Stories


The Writer: Nikolai Gogol’

Dates: The story “Невский Проспект” (“Nevsky Prospect”) was published in 1835. “The Nose” was published in 1836.

Why they’re important: I’ll forgo the scholarly and methodical in favor of a selfish big-picture summary that fits my current reading: “Nevsky Prospect” and “The Nose” are part of a cycle of Gogol’s stories based in St. Petersburg that contribute to the city’s mythos. (I’m appropriating the word “mythos” from Antonina Bouis’s translation of Solomon Volkov’s St. Petersburg.) Gogol contributes to a curious procession of Petersburg prose and poetry—which includes Pushkin in the early years and (I suspect) continues to the present day—that describes a city with dualistic dreaminess, devilish figures, apparently inanimate objects that come to life, and other strange occurrences. “The Overcoat” (previous post) is still my favorite of Gogol’s Petersburg stories.

Some basic writings about the stories: I’ve particularly enjoyed reading chunks of Dina Khapaeva’s Кошмар: литература и жизнь (Nightmare: Literature and Life), an inviting book that takes an appropriately nightmare-driven look at Gogol’s stories. I also appreciate Vladimir Nabokov’s mentions of Russian nose expressions, plus a discussion in Gogol’ of the nose-conscious writer, dying, with “hideous black clusters of chaetopod worms sucking at his nostrils.” And I still enjoy Gary Saul Morson’s article “‘Absolute nonsense’”—Gogol’s tales,” from The New Criterion, which calls “The Nose” “totally absurd.”

Another appreciation: Victor Terras’s statement in A History of Russian Literature that “’The Nose’ is a piece of virtuosic writing. Still the vast scholarly attention it has received seems excessive.” I dearly love “The Nose”—I’ve read it many times over the years—but, as an individual with a rather long nose that’s highly sensitive to pollen, down, and dust, I have to say that sometimes an annoying nose is just an annoying nose. And sometimes I wish mine would disappear.

ИМХО/IMHO: First, a bit of context: I read “Nevsky Prospect” and “The Nose” to begin what I envisioned as a brief St. Petersburg reading spree: Gogol, Bely’s Petersburg, and then a contemporary Petersburg novel… but then I started wondering why I hadn’t begun with Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades,” which I’ve always loved, and why I hadn’t considered rereading something from Dostoevsky—maybe Crime and Punishment or The Double?—before Bely. The more I read and reread, the more connections I make, and reading Volkov’s St. Petersburg only adds to the fun. Meaning: I’ll probably focus a lot of this year’s reading on fiction based in St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad… though much of my spring reading will center on writers coming to BookExpo America in June.

Onward! I picked up Gogol’s “Nevsky Prospect” because the first page of Bely’s Petersburg mentioned Nevsky Prospect, the main street in St. Petersburg. Accordingly, my focus on Nevsky and Petersburg, as literary settings, frames my thoughts on the story. The story begins by telling the reader that there’s nothing better than Nevsky—at least not in St. Petersburg—and Gogol quickly establishes it as a place where people promenade and forget about whatever needs to be done. Though a part of everyday life, Nevsky is also apart from everyday life. At the end of the story, the reader is instructed not to believe Nevsky, it’s all a (day)dream and a deception, and a demon lights the lamps to show everything in a false light.

Gogol’s sandwich of a story has two substantive subplots that begin as one line: two men walking down the street espy women that they follow. [Warning: spoilers follow...] An artist follows a woman to a house of ill repute and dreams of saving her, and an officer follows a woman to her home, where she lives with her husband, a German craftsman named Schiller, who has a friend named Hoffman(n). Cultural references, anyone?

I found the artist thread particularly interesting, with its fuzzy combination of reality, dreams, and opium use: the poor man finds himself in a fog, drawn by beauty and glad for a миг (an instant) of happiness, but his life becomes a topsy-turvy mess of sleepy days and alert nights. The officer thread offers a fight that reminded me a bit much of Gogol’s Ukraine-based stories, but a nose-threatening scene was a plus. Most striking: I was surprised at how uncomfortable and uneasy, even queasy, I felt after reading “Nevsky Prospect” at night: everything felt grotesque and distorted thanks to Gogol’s mishmash of the grotesque and the romantic plus that demon lamplighter who feels like an evil emcee for his city, a place where any twisted thing might happen. Be careful what you wish for.

A monument to the nose
in question
As for “The Nose,” well, it’s the pure absurdity that’s always appealed to me: a story that begins with a barber finding a nose in a loaf of fresh breakfast bread is my kind of story. Gogol continues by introducing the reader to a certain Mr. Kovalev, former possessor of the nose, who later locates his nose as it walks the street, in uniform and with eyebrows. Of course the fact (or not?) that The Nose prays adds further appeal.

Though “The Nose” is funnier and less ominous than “Nevsky Prospect,” the two stories share plenty. It should come as no surprise that Mr. Kovalev is given to strolling Nevsky, in a clean and starched collar. Later in the story he says that the devil played a trick on him, though a bit later still he’s not sure whether he’s been dreaming. Or perhaps drank vodka instead of water. Like “Nevsky Prospect,” “The Nose” also includes references to dreams, reality, and event-obscuring fog. The narrator also tacks on a confused summary of events, not quite sure himself what was true and what was invented but concluding that these things can happen, albeit rarely. Sweet dreams!

P.S. I enjoyed looking at artist Mikhail Bychkov’s illustrations for “Nevsky Prospect.”

P.P.S. Mapping St. Petersburg has two maps, with helpful tags, for Gogol's Petersburg Tales, here

Level for non-native readers of Russian: 4.0/5.0.

Up Next: Andrei Bely’s Petersburg. Leonid Iuzefovich’s Князь ветра (Prince of the Wind), the last of Iuzefovich’s three Petersburg detective novels: this one fits with Bely because there’s a Mongolian connection. I’ll also report on Volkov’s St. Petersburg at some time: I’m reading it slowly and enjoying it very much. I’d love to hear readers’ recommendations of novels written by contemporary writers that take place in St. Petersburg, Petrograd, or Leningrad. I may also put together a brief post about some of Max Frey’s “Echo” stories, which (surprise!) blend reality and dreams. I’ve read four or five of the stories in the last year or so, and they’ve come in handy lately as filler reading when I’m overloaded on the intense wordplay of Petersburg.


9 comments:

  1. I highly recommend Анциферов's Быль и миф Петербурга (available online here, though I dearly love my nicely bound hardcover); he assembles a bunch of well-chosen literary quotes about his beloved city and discusses them learnedly and intelligently. And the illustrations are wonderful.

    Other good books about the city: Julie Buckler's Mapping St. Petersburg: Imperial Text and Cityshape and W. Bruce Lincoln's Sunlight at Midnight: St. Petersburg and the Rise of Modern Russia.

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    1. Thank you, Languagehat! I'll keep these books in mind if I'm looking for more nonfiction.

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  2. Musical bonus:
    Being of an older generation, to me
    «Пиковая Дама» it is also this (funny) song by Аркадий Северный (from leningrad) ;-)

    http://prostopleer.com/#/tracks/4496727SCBa

    He also sings a beautiful song about Leningrad:
    those seem to be now available on CDs... I am still playing a old (35 y. old) plain tape of a great concert he gave underground...

    http://www.russiandvd.com/store/product.asp?sku=50318&genreid=

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    1. Thank you for mentioning Северный again, Catherine! I wasn't familiar with him but suspect he'll get some air time in my classroom this semester... I like to include some older songs as an antidote to Europop!

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  3. ...and the city as if you were in it... Don't get dizzy :)

    http://www.panoramas.classic-ru.org/russian/city/index4.html

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    1. That's great, thank you, Catherine! The very first panorama gave me sentimental thoughts back to my summer study in (then) Leningrad...

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  4. Hiya, could you please tell me where you bought your copies of Nevsky prospect and the Nose? Short of going to Russia to get them I can't find anywhere that sells them online (amazon and booksinrussian.co.uk were incredibly unhelpful). Thanks!

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    1. I mean Russian copies, not English translations!

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    2. Thanks for the question, S Collins. It's been a few years since I bought that book so I don't remember where I got it... but I usually buy Russian books online at either kniga.com or ruskniga.com.

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