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Unimportant Musings

Where an amateur attempts at divining somewhat passable insights.

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War and Peace: Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear, Leo Tolstoy
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Review: The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol

The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol (Vintage Classics) - Nikolai Gogol, Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky

Nikolai Gogol, based on the image results my Google search spat back, reminds me of that quietly excited classmate who's usually game to tag along with you for some mischief-making. Whoopee cushions and joy buzzers presumably hadn't been around then, so one shudders at the tricks his imagination must've improvised. From his eyes shines a look too knowing not to have exposed his hastily-planned cover-ups and landed him in a few or hundred detentions, spent here sweeping grounds and there copying lines. In short: my kinda guy. Russian literature, since books began making me feel things, has been for me that scary mountain whose lack of obvious footholds has sent me running home into the squishier bosoms of easier genres, whose peak is peopled with happy campers roasting marshmallows while animatedly discussing scenes from this Dostoevsky classic or that Tolstoy epic. What sure hand would, as soon as I attempt the climb, save me from tripping over the first loose rock and snap my neck? Gogol's, while mindful to point out where not to step, wouldn't hold mine, yet what convinced me more to turn to his works first of all was learning of the ripples they caused that soon impacted on others' in waves. "We all came out of Gogol's 'Overcoat'," some dude said, which, prisoner to that tedious no-stones-left-unturned school of thought that I am, rather finally shut the case.

No gripes to be had here about that, to be on the same page, as evident by how finding no more of the book to savor left me so restless my withdrawal dissipated only when I spent half an hour the next day at the bookstore, head-deep inside The Inspector-General a similar collection of another company included (and, along with several other shorts, this one has omitted for crimes against humanity convenience). Let's come back to the point: the hype? It's real. Where Gogol's praisers have stumbled is that they haven't been louder about it. Each of the stories, 13 in all (and more besides that lay scattered elsewhere), springs from a mind able to hop between moods as simply as switching socks and, more impressively, capture all that in writing that not so much reads as flows. By no means, mind, does Gogol here achieve infallibility: St. John's Eve, where the roller-coaster rolls out of the station, and The Terrible Vengeance get so twisty and turny I had to read the latter twice before heads and tails could be made of it. The Carriage, fangirled over to no end by Anton Chekhov, fell short of my hopes, which, granted, the preceding unbeatable trifecta kicking off the second half of the book set impossibly high. The Overcoat, too, didn't much measure up to those same expectations. People, at least in the earlier parts, are either regularly found with their "arms akimbo" or perennially "vexed." But for all that, any misgivings don't matter so much the more I think on them. If they're not because my attention wandered, they're a placement issue; if not that as well, then nitpicks. Where there are strike-outs, Gogol makes up for a hundredfold in home runs.

The Night Before Christmas is hugely fun and entertaining, the vibe throughout fit for a 90's Saturday-morning cartoon, albeit one soon headed for the chopping block on account of complaints from parents outraged at their bumpkins' being exposed to such degenerate content as "a devil who had one last night to wander about the wide world and teach good people to sin." Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt contains the strangest dream sequence that, contrasted with the mundane goings-on its characters face in the waking world, not enough weed will ever exist to help make sense of it. Old World Landowners, even without witches and devils, is still plenty captivating with two old couple, developed masterfully, taking center stage. The second-scariest short of the lot, Viy, proves books can take years off such scaredy-cats as me as well as that closet scene The Ring have long sucker-punched unsuspecting viewers with. Wrapping up the first half of Gogol's colorful re-imagining of his country's rural life is The Quarrel, which boasts of a higher laugh-per-page rate than any other short to date—"Excuse me for appearing before you in my natural state," says the more corpulent main character called Ivanovich Nikiforovich after being barged in on by his friend, neighbor, and soon-to-be-bitter-rival. St. John's Eve, either, doesn't lack for bright spots, and even those are soon outshone into white oblivion by a passage of just astounding imagery in The Terrible Vengeance that describes the Dnieper river to musical perfection.

Gogol's genius, aimed at the then-capital, burns even hotter. While not as inventively and unapologetically fantastic and outrageous as their Ukrainian predecessors, the Petersburg Tales, far from stumbling for their lack of broomstick-riding witches, moon-stealing devils, and the odd incest, are likelier than the former to worm their way into the collective subconscious to there make a permanent home. The devil, representative in Gogol's wacky world of the ubiquitousness of bad influences whose seduction every day tempts us, lurks even in the city, but almost as an afterthought: what need have we of the ultimate troublemaker when man himself can beat the master at his own game? In the majority of the shorts, no puppet master hides behind purple curtains, pulling levers and pushing buttons to nudge events his way. The result is often spectacular. Nevsky Prospect throws a knockout from the opening bell, soaking us with ejaculations the narrator makes over what a great place Nevsky Prospect is, and then magnifies the microscope over two acquaintances, each different in their approaches, chasing after two women spotted there. Gogol, at one point, shows so powerfully what it is to fall in love that it would still be a more effective form of communication than if telepathy were possible. The Diary of a Madman, as the title gives away, takes us into the mind of an apparently healthy everyman whose mental deterioration should well satiate that morbidly curious class of gawkers-by who gravitate towards car-accident sites. Dogs exchanging letters and talking politics aren't even the weirdest things here.

Next, The Nose seems straightforward enough, almost too straightforward: someone finds someone else's nose inside his bread one morning and, after his story's more or less wrapped up, we trail the said noseless man as he tries to locate it. No other story, however, has ever so completely robbed me of my words, myself prostrate with awe at Gogol's audacity, as this one where he blindsides you with the last expectation you can think of. It's a tough act no one wants to follow, so The Carriage, with its relatively normal happenings, can be forgiven for not wowing some people. The Portrait, on the other hand, picks things up and Gogol is back where he's comfortable: keeping therapists in business by sending to their recliner chairs us traumatized readers. The story, separated into two parts, details the rags-to-riches-to-ruin life of an artist called Chartkov, whose painting skills are moderate and potential unmistakable, who happens upon a mysterious portrait of a creepy old man. His stare, which Gogol's description gives major heft, is worse to imagine than to watch the best horror has to offer cinema. In a nutshell: there's gold hidden behind the portrait's frame that Chartkov exploits to better his position in society and that in the end destroys him. The second part delves fully into the portrait's origins and is no less mesmerizing. Along the way, Gogol touches on the artist's life and their creative process, social manipulation and superficiality, competition and obsolescence. It's a meaty story with something for everyone and, as with most of his works so far, to relish anew with every reread.

The Overcoat, the last in line, continues the supernatural element The Portrait brought back, but dominated by the more down-to-earth routines of mediocre, bullied outcast Akaky Akakievich, it takes a backseat. After his tatty overcoat, a source of ridicule at work, became useless as protection against the brutal Russian winter, Akaky gets another made, which gains him confidence and popularity. His moment in the sun doesn't last, though, and from there does the story return to more familiar grounds: doom and gloom. This second bookend may have suffered from the same positional problem The Carriage did (the lesson here: short-story collections read from cover to cover are bound to favor some and hurt others), but hindsight is its friend. There's a matter-of-fact, deadpan quality to the narration that gets funnier in retrospect. A long-suffering tone there also can't be missed when the writing takes great pains to explain how Akaky Akakievich came by that name, the purpose of which section is obvious and hilarious when (Wikipedia to the rescue!) you read later that it is the Russian equivalent of "John Johnson" as well as sounds like the Russian word "obkakat" or "kaka," meaning "to smear with excrement," that makes it read as "Poop Poopson." The idea that the likes of Dostoevsky wasn't above toilet humor warms these cockles greatly. Then, on the aforementioned Russian winter, it's not generally that it's the enemy of poor people, but that it's the enemy of people "earn[ing] a salary of four hundred roubles or thereabouts." The exactitude is killer. Another: "An order was issued for the police to catch the dead man at all costs, dead or alive." Added to Gogol's in-jokes and humor is a question that, if given any consideration, is an easy road to a panic attack: what's your overcoat? Another character features in the story that goes by no other name than "the important person," and in answer, he would probably bring up his rank, which is as much smokes and mirrors as Akaky's overcoat is that masks their total ignorance about certain workings of the world. The balance between such introspective moments and the satirical asides in this story and the others is, if you ask me, not a half-bad explanation for why Gogol is ducking awesome.