His short story The Nose (1836, republished in 1842 with some changes) is said to be one of the most puzzling works of C19th fiction. I read it with the Yahoo 19th Century Lit group earlier this year in October but am only just catching up with my ‘review’ of it now.
I have to admit that when I first read The Nose, and then found a summary at eNotes which proved to me that there were several ‘Plot holes’ I had thought that it was a draft or a posthumous unfinished story. But it’s not, because Gogol revised it with minor changes: first published in 1836 after earlier drafts were rejected for being vulgar. It is meant to be as it is … i.e. very weird and strange.
I am not going to summarise the plot or the characters in any detail because eNotes and Wikipedia are available anyway. Suffice to say that one day, for no apparent reason, Major Kovaliov wakes up to find that his nose is missing. It’s actually in a loaf of bread at his barber Yakovlevich’s place but the Major doesn’t know that and of course he goes looking for it. As you do. Various embarrassments ensue, even when he is reunited with his uppity nose which has been off having adventures of its own…
The first book I ever read that was absurdist in a similar way was Kafka’s Metamorphosis where Gregor wakes up and he’s become a cockroach. I remember being quite shocked because I was so used to realist literature and even the fantasies I’d read had been ‘realistic’ (as in Lord of the Rings and Watership Down). But Gogol’s level of absurdity defeated my imagination entirely: I had trouble imagining how a nose (even a large one) could actually fit into a uniform…
From what I’ve been able to find online there are various exotic interpretations of it, including (see eNotes again) that it’s
- a social satire on Russian culture;
- a Marxist critique of socioeconomic class;
- a psychosexual fantasy; and/or
- a meta-narrative about the process ofstorytelling.
It’s not very long and it’s worth reading if only because it is a classic of its type, but rather than make any vain attempt to analyse it, I’m just going to share the way in which my recent visit to Russia enhanced my reading of the story…
The story takes place in St Petersburg, one of the loveliest cities in the world. The inspiration of Peter the Great, was built from a swamp. Unlike other European cities which grew out of villages which became towns, St Petersburg was a blank canvas so Peter the Great – the most Europeanised of all the Tsars – could have it built exactly to his design without having to fit into any existing structures. He was unspeakably rich and unspeakably powerful so no expense was spared and neither were the lives of the unfortunates who died working on it throughout the Russian winter. Nevertheless, it is exquisitely beautiful, with canals and waterways winding their way through the city, three major arterials forming a radial axis meeting in the centre and magnificent palaces lining all the major boulevards. Russia in the 19th century was the richest country in the world. And not the least bit embarrassed about flaunting it.
The astonishing thing is that it was a communist government that restored so many of the city’s most ostentatious buildings after they were damaged in WW2. St Petersburg was besieged by the Germans for 900 days during WW2 and although they did not penetrate beyond the outskirts the bombardment did an enormous amount of damage – as well as the deaths of between 650,000 and 800,000 people, mostly from starvation and mostly civilians i.e. women and children.
The story of how the treasures of the Hermitage and the Summer Palace at Peterhof were hidden away and saved from the onslaught is amazing – and when you see photos of how the palace at Pushkin was totally trashed by the Germans as they retreated – you can begin to imagine what would have been lost if people hadn’t risked their lives to do save the Hermitage.
The Nose explicitly refers to
- The Isaac Bridge – so named because it’s by St Isaac’s Cathedral. You can see my slide show of this cathedral here;
- Nevsky Prospekt (translated in the Gutenberg edition as Neffsky Avenue). It’s the main arterial running through St Petersburg;
- Voznesensky Prospekt (translated as Ascension Avenue in the Gutenberg edition), another radial through the city;
- The Tauris Gardens, which formed part of the Tauris Palace, but are now taken up by roadway. See here; and
- Koniouchennaia Street. I’m not sure where this is, and couldn’t find anything online to help.
Nevsky Prospekt is a dead straight boulevard full of gorgeous buildings, as lovely as anything you may have seen in Venice or Paris. This Virtual Nevsky site offers virtual tours of Nevsky Prospekt north and south. They are a bit tricky to view but worth it because you can scan along the entire length of the Avenue where all the palaces remain intact (or restored) to this day. (And you can see by the ostentatious size of them why the peasants were a bit indignant about the disparity between rich and poor in pre-Revolutionary Russia too.) When you open the page you will see a long line of tiny buildings up at the top of the page, but if you mouse over them you will see a little magnifying glass. Click on it and the buildings will enlarge and you will be able to see the scroll bar at the bottom of your screen and can then move from left to right.
On the south side starting from the LHS you can see two of the four horses on the Anichkov Bridge across the canal and also the Kazansky Cathedral where the Nose pays a visit (it’s the one with a tower and colonnade). The really monstrous building was actually built as a shopping centre, was badly damaged in the Nazi Siege and was one of the first to be restored. If you really want to know what all the buildings are, see here (north side) and here (south side).
And just for fun, here’s a little slide show of my dinner out at Gogol’s Restaurant in St Petersburg, one of many Bookish Moments in Russia and elsewhere that you can see on my Travel Blog, if so minded.
The Nose was adapted for opera by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (first performed in Leningrad (as St Petersburg was then known) in 1930, and one of our Yahoo group members found these You Tube videos of a 1963 ‘pinscreen’ film created by Alexandre Alexeief. (Thank you, Bekah!):
The film presents a more sympathetic view of the Major, the pathos arising from his travails with love when he has no nose, whereas Gogol’s story is more satirical, poking fun at how quickly the Major’s pretensions and social status can be punctured simply by the loss of his nose.
My next Gogol will be Dead Souls, but I’d like to read The Overcoat too. (Update: see my review of Dead Souls).
The Nose is a story that invites a personal response, see this one here from Becky.
Author: Nikolai Gogol
Title: The Nose
Translator: Claud Field
Publisher: Project Gutenberg, 2011 [EBook #36238
Source: Free from Project Gutenberg, read on my Kindle
It’s available free on heaps of sites, but if you want to read a print version, it’s widely available online.