It’s been a little while since we had any Russians on the Ramblings, isn’t it? ;D So today is the perfect day to take a look at a shiny new volume which has just been released in the rather wonderful Columbia University Press Russian Library imprint – “The Nose and Other Stories” by Nikolai Gogol, translated by Susanne Fusso.

Gogol is one of my favourite authors, and he’s made any number of appearances on the Ramblings – most recently when I reviewed a new version of his classic play “The Government Inspector” and a collection of essential stories from Pushkin Press. I’ve also revisited his magnum opus, “Dead Souls” and loved a beautiful little edition of one of his stories, “The Night Before Christmas“. You might think, therefore, that I would be all Gogoled out and a new collection would hold no appeal – but you would be very, very wrong! ๐Ÿ˜€

“The Nose…” is branded as “the first major English translation of his stories in more than twenty years”. Pushkin Press might argue with that, but I guess the word ‘major’ is the qualifier here, as the Pushkin volume had five stories, whereas the Russian Library goes for nine. The books have four stories in common – three of which are probably Gogol’s most famous – but the variances are interesting, and I’ll be posting in a couple of days about Gogol books and collections generally.

However, “The Nose…” contains a fascinating and fairly wide-randing selection of Gogol’s stories, and of most interest to me was the inclusion of works I hadn’t read before – and in one case, a story I’ve never seen translated! So I thought that it might be interesting if I looked at those here, as they really are a wonderful set! For info, the works included in the Russian Library volume are:

The Lost Letter
Viy
The Portrait (1835 version)
Nevsky Avenue
Diary of a Madman
The Carriage
The Nose
Rome (A Fragment)
The Carriage

Gogol’s works are often split into two categories: his Ukraine stories (more country and village settings) and his Petersburg works (later stories with that urban setting and plenty of alienation). This collection focuses mainly on the latter though some early works are included; and it’s the titles in bold that are my focus here.

The Philosophers’ voices were a whole octavo lower; there was nothing in their pockets except strong shag tobacco. They didnโ€™t store anything up, but just devoured whatever came their way right on the spot; sometimes you could smell their pipes and vodka so far off that a tradesmen walking by would stop and sniff the air like a hunting hound for a good long while.

The Lost Letter was published in the 1831 collection “Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka” and is set in the Kiev area of Ukraine. Like many of Gogol’s early works, it contains elements of the supernatural and it’s narrated by an old sexton, Foma, who tells the tale of his grandfather’s encounters with devils on a journey to delivery an important letter to the empress. It’s a lively and dramatic story, funny and atmospheric at the same time, and somewhat sets the scene for what comes next…

Viy (from 1835) is another dark story, full of witches and devils, and it really makes quite spooky reading. A young student Philosopher Khoma Brut is tormented by a witch riding on his back; he eventually manages to throw off by chanting exorcisms, and he beats her with a stick. He thinks he is free of her, but is mysteriously summoned by a powerful Cossack; the latter’s daughter is dying and wishes Khoma to pray for her for three nights in a row. Despite his best efforts, Khoma is unable to get out of this and ends up spending three nights in a church with the woman’s corpse, calling on all the powers of good to protect him. What happens in the church is vividly and chillingly portrayed – Gogol really *could* write the forces of evil very effectively…

The Portrait is another work in a similar vein, and interestingly Fusso has chosen the 1835 version. She explains in her fascinating foreword that the later version in the 1842 edition of Gogol’s works was extensively revised by the author and he toned down many of the supernatural elements. However, the 1835 original presented here was a wonderful read; split into two sections, the first relates the story of a young artist Chertkov; a promising painter, just learning his trade, he stumbles across a portrait of a man at an auction house. The painting is compelling, but not in a good way; portraying a money lender, the eyes of the man seem to burn out of the canvas, alarming all who see it. Chertkov nevertheless buys it and it comes home with him (though not in a conventional manner…) It seems as though this portrait is possessed in some way, and it will have dramatic and catastrophic effects on Chertkov. The second section of the story reveals the history of the painting and how it came into being; and once again, the forces of evil are vividly and scarily portrayed. Each of these three tales really chill the blood…

His life was reaching the years when everything that breathes of impulse begins to shrink within a person, when the powerful violin bow reaches the soul more faintly and does not twine about the heart with piercing sounds, when contact with beauty no longer transforms virginal powers into fire and flame, but all the burned-out feelings become more open to the sound of gold, listen more attentively to its alluring music, and little by little, imperceptibly, allow it to put them completely to sleep.

Of course, larger than life, surreal and supernatural elements appear in Gogol’s later works; “The Nose” itself is a case in point, where that organ becomes detached from its owner and takes up an existence of its own. However, social satire and commentary also crept in, with “Diary of a Madman” being a particularly poignant study of the gradual mental deterioration of an impoverished clerk. “Nevsky Prospekt” (as I know it, though titled “Nevsky Avenue” in this collection) has more social commentary, too, as Gogol tackles the illusions abroad on the streets, as two men with very differing temperaments encounter women who may not be what the seem.

However, the last piece I want to consider is one which I’ve never seen translated before, and that’s Rome (A Fragment), published in 1842, the same year as “Dead Souls”. It’s a piece unlike anything else I’ve read by Gogol, I think, and I absolutely loved it. There’s minimal plot as such; the story opens with a carnival vision of a beautiful Roman woman, observed by a twenty-five year old Roman Prince, lately returned from several years in Paris. The tale goes on to relate the Prince’s past; his disillusion with the place of his birth; his initial love of, and the rejection of, Paris with its glittering modern lifestyle; and his return and reconciliation with Rome.

Bert Kaufmann from Roermond, Netherlands / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

โ€œRomeโ€ is beautifully written, a really gorgeous love-letter to the city, and quite unlike anything else I’ve read by Gogol. Although he writes marvellous prose, his focus is often dramatic or satirical, but here it’s anything but. The contrast between the modern city of Paris (and the descriptions make it seem remarkably current) and the ancient city of Rome, with all its history, is very finely drawn and actually brings both settings alive quite vividly.

Rome, of course, was a place Gogol lived; from 1836 to 1848 he spent much time travelling Europe, including Paris, and eventually settling in Rome. He adored Italy and its culture, and it’s obvious from this piece that his soul felt attached to it; whether by something spiritual, aethetic or a combination of both, it’s quite clear his heart belonged to Rome and that comes out in the reactions of the Prince on his return to his city. Of course, Gogol was deeply religious and so Rome would also appeal to him on that level. But whatever elements drew him to Rome, the result was a most beautiful, vivid and evocative piece of writing. Whether it was actually a fragment, or intended to just stand as a tribute to the city I guess we’ll never know; but I am so glad to have read it!

So “The Nose…” is a really wonderful collection of Gogol’s writings, and essential for any lover of his work I would say. The fact it contains the early version of The Portrait as well as Rome really is a bonus, and the introduction and extensive supporting notes are an excellent resource too. The translation reads in a very Gogolian way to me (although I have to say I never find myself happy with the odd Americanism – ‘gotten’, for example – but then the book *is* an American one!) The Russian Library books I’ve read so far have been a really wonderful array of works from one of my favourite countries, and “The Nose and Other Stories” is a very welcome addition to the range! ๐Ÿ˜€