June 13, 2016
A Very Special Art of the Novella challenge: The Nose (Installment #46)
by Jonathan Gibbs and Ian Dreiblatt
Title: The Nose
Author: Nikolai Gogol
First published: 1836
Page count: 50
First line: On the 25th of March, there took place in Petersburg a most extraordinarily strange occurrence.
Editor’s note: This week’s is a very special installment of the Art of the Novella Challenge. Our writer, the excellent Jonathan Gibbs, has found himself reviewing a novella he doesn’t much care for. By coincidence, I, Ian Dreiblatt, Melville House’s director of digital media and a confirmed MobyLives-ista, happen to be the translator of said novella. Jonathan graciously offered me the opportunity to respond to his critique, and I, daunted by his eloquence but eager to defend what I consider one of the best things I’ve ever touched as a reader or translator, have accepted. What follows is a two-part consideration of Gogol’s The Nose, followed by a special bonus video, because you work hard all week and deserve something to be happy about.
I’ll be honest. I’ve been putting this one off. Gogol is one of the Russian greats, of course. Not great like Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, naturally, or even really like Pushkin or Chekhov, but certainly once you got past those guys you’d be on the lookout for his name. He has two novellas in the Art of the Novella series, The Nose and How the Two Ivans Quarrelled. The Two Ivans I read, or started to, way back in this extended year-long project, but, um… I managed to leave it somewhere before I finished it.
I didn’t rush to get hold of another copy.
Eventually I got round to The Nose, though. It’s one of those books, or stories, the idea of which you feel you probably know, even if you haven’t read it. (Facile definition of a classic.) In fact, we do have at least one copy of it in the house, as I bought a version of it for one of my children as a Christmas present, in a rather lovely edition from Britain’s Pushkin Press, hardback and lavishly illustrated and retold by Andrea Camilleri. I don’t suppose the child in question has ever opened it. (Another definition of a classic: a book you expect your children to read, even if you haven’t.)
If you don’t know it, the story is simple: a Russian civil servant, Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov, wakes one morning to find his nose gone from his face, leaving “nothing but an idiotic flat patch of skin.” He rushes around town to look for it, but is then astonished to actually meet the nose itself — and is dismayed to find the nose is a better class of person than he is himself. He confronts it, it snubs him, he rushes around some more. Later that day someone returns the nose to him at his home, but he can’t fix it back to his face. Two weeks later he wakes up to find it’s magically reattached itself.
There, you see. You did know it! There are some other bits and pieces, most notably a frustratingly pointless prologue in which the detached nose appears baked in a bread roll served to Kovalyov’s barber at breakfast, and an epilogue in which Gogol basically rips apart his own story. Here is a good-sized chunk of it:
Hard to believe such a story might transpire in the northern capital of our vast realm! Only now, with perfect hindsight, can we see quite how improbable a story it is. To say nothing of the rather peculiar and supernatural disappearance of the nose and its subsequent appearances around town in the guise of a Civil Councillor—how could Kovalyov have failed to appreciate that he should never have tried to place a notice about his nose through the newspaper office? I am speaking here not of the cost of such an endeavor—a mere trifle, that concern, and besides, I hardly count myself among the avaricious. But it is indecorous, incompetent, indefensible! And again—how did the nose end up baked into bread, and how did Ivan Yakovlevich [the barber] . . . no, I can’t understand this in the least, I decidedly cannot! And the strangest, the most inexplicable thing of all is the question of how authors can choose such subjects for their works . . . I confess, this is utterly incomprehensible, it is simply . . . no, no, I cannot conceive of it at all. First of all, there is decidedly no benefit to the fatherland; second . . . but there is also no benefit in listing a second.
In which, basically, Gogol pre-empts my exasperation with the story — or pretends to, as he mixes my quite reasonable objections with other ones that only exasperate me further.
What is The Nose, though? Is it satire, or comedy of the absurd? In other words, is it Swift or Sterne? All the nit-picking over different classes of Russian civil servant, and Kovalyov’s handwringing over his marriageablity to various women, would suggest satire, but for that to be the case wouldn’t it have to funny? (I didn’t find The Nose funny whatsoever.)
(But does satire have to be funny to work?)
(Certainly, nothing dates like it, or travels worse.) All this stuff…
As such, we, too, shall henceforth refer to our Collegiate Assessor as Major. He wore whiskers of the kind you can still see on surveyors in the provinces and territories, and on architects and regimental doctors, and officials conducting various police business, and generally on men who have round, rosy cheeks and play a good game of Boston: these whiskers run across the middle of the cheek and reach all the way to the nose.
…leaves me quite cold. Chekhov can satirise, but he humanises at the same time.
If not satire, then perhaps it’s absurdism, which is nothing more than satire on the whole idea of humanity. Strip away the satirical elements of the book and you’re left with one central, glowing and glorious scene: that in which Kovalyov comes face to face with the nose.
Its uniform was embroidered with gold and bore a broad, stiff collar, buckskin trousers, a rapier on the side. From the plume in its hat one might conclude it had attained the rank of Civil Councillor. All indications were that it had gone out to visit someone. It looked both ways, shouted, “Drive!” to the coachman, and up and left.
Gogol doesn’t describe the nose as nose, he doesn’t offer any indication as to how a nose can wear clothes, or leap into a carriage, even whether it’s nose-sized or person-sized, and so it’s up to the reader to imagine it. Doing an image search for “Gogol nose” produces no shortage of attempts to do just that, and it’s for this reason, you assume, that the story has been retold as a children’s book, as films and of course as an opera.
But is that image — that invitation to absurdism — enough? It’s not enough for me, I’ll tell you that for free. But then — whisper it — I’m more of a fan of Tristram Shandy (an obvious inspiration to Gogol) in the abstract than in practice. In other words, my appreciation of it is no less firm when the book is on the shelf than when it’s open on my lap, and perhaps moreso. The Nose is at least short, even if I’d have had it shorter still. Sorry — no Gogol for me.
Oh, and The Two Ivans. I don’t really have to finish that, do I?
Suppose you read a short Russian book in which vivid depictions of bustling urban streets formed the backdrop to physically implausible events, wealthy and supercilious bureaucrats were compelled by imponderable forces to confront the pettiness and impotence of their existential condition, and a guy’s nose disappears from his face only to pop up in, variously, a loaf of bread, an Orthodox church, and the pocket of a policeman. I once read a book like that — and reader, I translated it.
The Nose is, one level, a very lucid satire of life in the capital of the Russian empire, written by a non-Russian from the boonies who moved to Petersburg and found that his jaw quickly struck up a permanent closeness with the floor. That sense of astonishment at the brisk realities of city life is everywhere in The Nose, a book in which insouciant café workers, haughty media elites, thuggish cops, and weird, gawking neighbors all take their turns in the spotlight. (This is one of the angles William Kentridge’s much-lauded production of the Shostakovich opera really plays up.)
It’s also a biting satire of the rigid stratification that permeated nineteenth-century Russia, where the Table of Ranks ruled and forms of address between members of the civil service were intricately codified. This is largely what’s at play in the scene—which I happen to find hilarious—where Kovalyov is horrified, on at last tracking down the nose that’s gone missing from his face, to discover that he can’t approach it because it outranks him:
“But how to approach him?” thought Kovalyov. “By all appearances—the uniform, the hat—he ranks as a Civil Councillor. Devil knows how to accomplish this!”
A dude is too déclassé to talk to his own nose. I find that funny.
I also, in another light, find it oddly verisimilar. We are, after all, afraid of our bodies, afraid of how they change, of what they do when we’re not looking, of their sometimes outsize importance in how others perceive us. We work hard to bring their outward appearances into conformity with the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, even as they assert something that feels uncomfortably like a will of their own. And I think I’m demonstrating only a healthy prurience in observing that a nose happens to somewhat resemble another body part, one that’s a particularly salient locus of desire and anxiety, and a particular node of social contact, for the considerable portion of humanity that has one.
On another level, The Nose is a satire of narrative itself, a kind of burlesque on the act—a strange one when you think about it—of investigating the mysterious experience of being alive by elaborating imaginary series of events that overtake imaginary groups of people, or, as the practice is also known, writing fiction. In The Nose, characters don’t feel real, events don’t make sense, and Great Ideas never hear their entrance music. Instead, psychology and narrative tension are airlifted in with frank indifference to their abruptness and improbability. And that’s the point: we know this is happening, to some degree, in all the fiction we read, and Gogol teases it with the same genial astonishment he brings to bear on the upper echelons of Petersburg society. The physical implausibility of the nose it/himself — in one scene fitting comfortably inside a loaf of bread, in another standing haughtily and carefully attired in a church — is of a piece with this: we understand this nose to be a species of fauna endemic to writing, one that can be described but can’t be pictured, and so one that points back to literature’s artifices, which writers all too often endeavor to make invisible.
Of course, on a deeper level still, this is not only a way of razzing fiction for its contrivances, but a thrillingly off-kilter presentation of life—which, friends, makes no sense—less the stories with which we overlay it in a Sisyphean effort at finding it meaningful. As Gogol asks, “And after all, do we not encounter incongruities everywhere in life?” While it’s pretty much unheard of for government bureaucrats to wake up mysteriously noseless, in the presentation of one person’s story as a grab-bag of bizarre events jostling up against each other without reason I find a great deal of realism, of a salutary and, yes, uproarious kind.
In fact, I find all of The Nose pretty uproarious, from the Margaret Dumont-esque Aleksandra Podtochina, who takes the accusation that she has stolen the titular nose as an opportunity to marry off her daughter, to the loathsome Kovalyov’s refusal to reveal his last name to the newspaperman from whom he wants to buy an ad, insisting only that “I have many fine acquaintances!” And when Kovalyov finally does confront the nose, only to receive the response that “there couldn’t be any relationship between us: judging by the buttons of your uniform we serve in different departments,” I lose it every time.
In sum, my honest — if hardly impartial — suggestion: read The Nose. It’s something rare and terrific, a work of compassionate satire and meaningful absurdity. It traces a wonderfully rendered narrative arc while simultaneously copping to how deeply embedded are the arbitrary and the inane in our conceptions of narrative. It’s a picture of life that I find deeply resonant, realer and more proximate in many ways than most fiction that’s far more plausible. In short, to answer the question of whether it’s Swift or Sterne, I say: it’s neither. It’s Gogol. And that’s the best reason of all for reading it.