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Under the Overcoat

Gogol was made uneasy by his works,” notes Richard Pevear in his introduction to his and Larissa Volokhonsky’s admirable new translation of the collected tales. It is an understatement that would have appealed to Gogol himself. He came to regard his extraordinary gift for writing prose as something sent from the devil, something that only prayer, fasting, and slavish obedience to his father confessor might exorcise and expiate. He fasted so fanatically that he died at forty-three. The story of his last years and months makes harrowing reading, more particularly for readers who are themselves fascinated and seduced by the power of words, and by their capacity in the hands of a great artist to exist marvelously and uncannily on their own, like the nose which, to the consternation of its respectable owner, seems to have escaped, even from the tale of which it is the title, to lead a phantom life of its own in the streets of St. Petersburg.

Andrei Sinyavsky’s study In Gogol’s Shadow analyzes Gogol’s gift for language—one could speak of it as the equivalent in Russian prose of Pushkin’s primal genius as Russian poet—that shifts “from the object of speech to speech as a process of objectless intent, interesting in itself and exhausted by itself…. That is why we perceive Gogol’s prose so distinctly as prose, and not as a…form of putting thoughts into words…. It has its content and even, if you wish, its subject in itself—this prose which steps forth in the free image of speech about facts worth mentioning, speech in a pure sense about nothing.” No wonder Gogol came to think that such objectless speech must come from the devil—Satan, in fact, finding words for idle mouths to utter. Pushkin hinted that laughter and tears are the same in Gogol—the same because neither has significance beyond the pure play of the words that convey them? And naturally, as Richard Pevear comments, the images that Gogol’s prose produces “are too deeply ambiguous to bear any social message.”

Nonetheless they must have come from somewhere, and be about something. And indeed they are, and they have: Gogol’s laughter itself is neither sane nor mad, but it is totally and magically localized. He was born in the provincial depths of Little Russia or the Ukraine, in the village of Sorochintsy near the town of Dikanka. His mother, the dominant factor in his emotional life, had a small estate; his father, a more shadowy figure who died young, had been an amateur playwright; Gogol’s sole apparent talent at school was as an actor and mimic. Like many an ambitious young provincial he went to try his luck in the capital; and a setting more different from his home town in the Ukraine could hardly be imagined. As Pevear observes, the road from the depths of Little Russia intersected with the glittering “all-powerful Nevsky Prospect,” in Gogol’s words, and “his art was born at that crossroads.”

Pushkin and Lermontov, we should remember, like Tolstoy after them and Dostoevsky too, were men of the metropolis; the cosmopolitan world was in their blood, however much a writer like Tolstoy might will himself to identify with the life of the peasants and of primitive holy Russia. Tolstoy’s peasants and small folk are creatures of his ideological need:he sees them from above, and is determined that should be how he sees them. Gogol had no idea how to see things: they crowded eerily onto his page, as independent as the nose in his story. Or perhaps rather, as Sinyavsky emphasizes, he preserved, throughout the time of his fame and success in St. Petersburg, a provincial’s “naive, external, astonished and envious outlook.”

And yet within a remarkably short time Gogol was a success in the capital and an established writer, hailed by Pushkin himself as a phenomenon “so unusual in our present-day literature that Istill haven’t recovered.” Pushkin had been reading Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, the tales from the Ukraine which appeared in two volumes in 1831 and 1832, and make up more than half of Gogol’s total output of stories.

Their author was only twenty-two. His first attempt at publication, at his own expense, had been an epic poem so bad that he bought back all the copies and burned them. That was a very provincial gesture, something that Balzac and Flaubert would have understood. All his short life Gogol was apt to do the wrong thing at the wrong time and place. After he became famous as a writer he managed to get himself made professor of history at St. Petersburg University, an episode that ended in predictable disaster and humiliation. Cut off from his homeland, always an outsider in the capital, he rushed off abroad in 1836, at the height of his fame and just after the triumph of his play The Inspector General. He spent most of the sixteen years left to him in Switzerland, Paris, and Rome, able to feed only in memory on the Russian localities which had nourished and inspired him. Most of his unfinished masterpiece about Russian provincial life, Dead Souls, was composed abroad.

In his brilliant and original little study of Gogol, Nabokov was inclined to belittle the early Ukraine tales and to concentrate on the last and greatest of the stories with a St. Petersburg background, the famous “Overcoat.” Pushkin was surely nearer the mark in exclaiming with pleasure and surprise at the extraordinary freshness and originality of the Dikanka series—“Here is real gaiety—honest, unconstrained, without mincing, without primness!”—qualities that the present translators have contrived to reveal to the non-Russian reader at last, and virtually for the first time. They have managed the almost impossible task of finding expressions and equivalents in English for the onward rush of Gogol’s prose, at once disheveled and uncannily precise, and packed with inconsequential detail. In his Gogol study Nabokov gave a bravura rendering of the passage in Dead Souls describing the luxuriant entanglement of the miser’s garden, with a huge broken birch tree slanting whitely upward like a ruined classical column. (Gogol wrote the passage when he was in Rome.)Gogol’s precipitate ramblings, which can find time in their rapid flow for all sorts of still-life detail—provided those details are irrelevant enough—are equally well rendered by the present translators, who have succeeded in conveying the early Dikenka stories in all their complicated richness and humor.

The black earth of the Ukraine produces weeds as luxuriant as its crops, and Gogol seems himself to luxuriate in the feel of their opulent density.

Except for one path beaten down on household necessity, the rest was hidden by thickly spreading cherry trees, elders, burdock that stuck its tall stalks with clingy pink knobs way up. Hops covered the top of this whole motley collection of trees and bushes like a net, forming a roof above them that spread over to the wattle fence and hung down it in twining snakes along with wild field bluebells. Beyond the wattle fence that served as a boundary to the garden, there spread a whole forest of weeds which no one seemed to be interested in, and a scythe would have broken to pieces if it had decided to put its blade to their thick, woody stems.

Gogol’s pleasure in a kind of suggestive indelicacy—without mincing or primness, as Pushkin noted—is possibly more a Ukrainian than a Russian trait. That path “beaten down on household necessity” (to the privy presumably) suggests it well; and the translation finds a Dickensian equivalent for the tendency of Gogol’s characters to express themselves in reductive convolutions of normal language. Afraid of a beating from the Cossack hetman, the “philosopher” seminarian in “Viy” observes that “everybody knows what a leather whip is: an insufferable thing in large quantities.” Gogol’s apparently artless prose seems mildly surprised that one seems to be interested in the forest of weeds that flourishes beyond the already weed-crowned and decorated garden, while it is the scythe itself that has to make the “decision” not to risk being broken on the sturdy weed stems.

Gogol’s world is full of objects rank and vegetable in their nature, with lives of their own. Together with the way his characters talk, as if the sophistications of Beckett or Pinter were to have become wholly destylized and naive, Gogol’s prose seems ripe to bursting with too many other preoccupations to bother about plot. And yet of course there is a plot, concocted by the author along the lines of Ukrainian folk or fairy tale, but reversing the normal expectations of the genre. The classic Russian simpleton or Holy Fool, who undergoes miraculous trials and torments but gets the girl in the end, is replaced in “Viy” by an ecclesiastical hanger-on, a down-at-heels “philosopher” merely hoping to get by somehow or other, but who in the course of a binge finds himself jumped on by a witch and ridden through a kaleidoscopic Gogol landscape, rendered brilliantly by the translators:

A reverse crescent moon shone in the sky. The timid midnight radiance lay lightly as a transparent blanket and steamed over the earth. Forest, meadows, sky, valleys—all seemed to be sleeping with open eyes. Not a flutter of wind anywhere. There was something damply warm in the night’s freshness. The shadows of trees and bushes, like comets, fell in sharp wedges over the sloping plain. Such was the night when the philosopher Khoma Brut galloped with an incomprehensible rider on his back. He felt some languid, unpleasant, and at the same time sweet feeling coming into his heart. He lowered his head and saw that the grass, which was almost under his feet, seemed to be growing deep and distant and that over it was water as transparent as a mountain spring, and the grass seemed to be at the deep bottom of some bright, transparent sea; at least he clearly saw his own reflection in it, together with the old woman sitting on his back. He saw some sun shining there instead of the moon: he heard bluebells tinkle, bending their heads. He saw a water nymph swim from behind the sedge; her back and leg flashed, round, lithe, made all of a shining and quivering. She turned toward him, and her face, with its light, sharp, shining eyes, with its soul-invading song, now approached him, was already at the surface, then, shaking with sparkling laughter, withdrew—and then she turned over on her back, and the sun shone through her nebulous breasts, matte as unglazed porcelain, at the edges of their white, tenderly elastic roundness. Water covered them in tiny bubbles like beads. She trembles all over and laughs in the water…

The philosopher in his turn manages to change places and ride the witch until she sinks down utterly exhausted, revealing herself as a beautiful young woman. Later he finds himself summoned by a rich Cossack hetman, whose daughter the young witch turns out to be, and who is now lying at the point of death. Her father commands our hero to say prayers for her soul in an empty church, where she suddenly sits up in her coffin, her green eyes blank and sightless, and attempts to possess him and to steal his soul. He escapes her, and then tries to escape from the Cossacks, but they catch him and force him to continue reading the prayers until he too falls down, dead of terror in the fiend-ridden church.

In “Viy,” the richest and most suggestive of the Dikanka stories, Gogol’s lyrically evasive eroticism gradually gives way to real nightmare when the assembled witches, cavorting about the church and churchyard, summon the shapeless monster Viy, who kills the unfortunate philosopher with the touch of his iron finger. (The word “Viy,” incidentally, is virtually the Russian for “you”: a Gogolian indication of the place where nightmares actually come from.) But of course it is Gogol’s electrifying power over words that frightens at the same moment as it absorbs and delights us, rather than the comparative banality of his spooky apparatus. The lyrical passages in “Viy,” like the brilliantly shining description of the river Dnieper in another of the stories, retain all Gogol’s normal air of frenetic detachment. The philosopher’s death is itself a contingent incident, as offhand as the rapid demise of poor Akaky in Gogol’s last and most famous St. Petersburg story, “The Overcoat.” Unlike Dickens’s, Gogol’s words are never interested in exploiting emotion or in their own luxuriant freedom and sentiment: they are much too absorbed in themselves.

This can make their abrupt impact unexpectedly piercing at moments, when a different sort of writer would be systematically pulling out the stops of tenderness and compassion. In “The Diary of a Madman,” one of the St. Petersburg stories, poor Mr. Poprishchin, who is Gogol’s most intimate and sympathetic character, finds himself by making the discovery that “there’s no place” for him “in the world.” In the same spirit, and as if something really terrible had just occurred to him, the meekly contented Akaky of “The Overcoat,” happily absorbed in his dull copying job, startles himself and his fellow clerks by asking with sudden intensity why they persecute him, ordering them to leave him alone. He behaves, in fact, totally out of character.

Such moments are quickly over, but they are as telling as Akaky’s own outburst; and it is revealing to compare the way Gogol’s own words (like Akaky’s fellow clerks) themselves treat Akaky with the lingeringly insistent fashion in which Melville writes about his clerk Bartleby. Bartleby is too much of a subject: Akaky, we may feel, is too humble to get much attention from Gogol’s language, absorbed as it is with the dreamlike details of St. Petersburg life, its ranks and humiliations, fingernails, watermelon rinds, hemorrhoids, onions, cockroaches, and of course the great Overcoat itself, the obsession for which Akaky comes to live and to die. In Gogol’s Petersburg the homely and contingent shabbiness of living is itself both a dream and a kind of squalid nonreality, lost in the same vast physical space, like the endless square which poor Akaky is attempting to cross when the overcoat robber assaults him.

The overcoat, whose physical reality has been so satisfyingly and so laboriously established—we remember how the tailor Petrovich brought it wrapped in a clean cloth which he then folded and pocketed “for further use”—vanishes into thin air like one of the props of a Ukrainian sorcerer from the fantasy tales. “Realism” is for Gogol just another aspect and source of verbal magic. It is surprising that he has never been claimed, so far as Iknow, as the father of Magic Realism, perhaps because his writing is in fact far more free-floating and evasive than anything by that genre’s more conventional practitioners today. As Pevear says, Gogol imitates the cautionary tale which has something to tell us, some admonishment to offer, just as he imitated the full-blown epic style of old Cossack and country legend. In reversing expectation he is doing what Pushkin did in his Tales of Belkin, but Pushkin’s prose is always calm and sane and open, in contrast to Gogol’s slipperiness and excitement. The genuine function of magic in Gogol’s tales, and one that came to frighten its owner as if he were indeed a sorcerer’s apprentice, is to make the very possibility of message and meaning vanish away like the overcoat.

Because, as Pevear puts it, “he does not know where the act of writing will lead him,” Gogol’s stories leave nothing that can be passed on. At first his magic words merely seem surprised by this, but in his last years it became a source of torment for him, of real spiritual misery. No wonder the influential social critic Belinsky, and Dostoevsky after him, strove to straighten out Gogol, and to put him on the side of those who were using literature in the fight for political reform, or in Dostoevsky’s case, for moral and spiritual regeneration.

In the second part of Dead Souls, embarrassingly lifeless as it is, Gogol strove to meet such objections, to make sure that he knew what he wanted to tell his audience before he began to write. Total failure in consequence. Belinsky, a brilliantly perceptive critic as well as a man of dogma, clung to the conviction that Gogol, great writer as he undoubtedly was, must for that reason be—could only be—a champion of the Little Man, and of his struggle against an unjust society. Does not the persecuted Akaky cry out words of protest which have as their echo “I am your brother”? So he does, but the story forgets it at once, just as Akaky himself doubtless did. Gogol’s prose bustles him on, and the reader with him.

Poor clerks like Akaky were becoming a feature of Russian writing in what is known as its Golden Age. Pushkin’s tale of the stationmaster and his daughter, in Tales of Belkin, and of the demented clerk Evgeny in The Bronze Horseman, reverse in their own remarkable way the sentimental genre represented by Karamzin’s popular tale “Poor Liza.” In his own way the young Dostoevsky was concerned to bring back into fashion such direct and earnest sentiment as Karamzin’s.

The clerk Makar Devushkin in Dostoevsky’s first novel, Poor Folk, a tale of St. Petersburg, actually reads Gogol’s “Overcoat” in the course of the narrative, and is deeply offended by it—“a nasty little book.” He accuses Gogol of dehumanizing Akaky. “It’s not even possible there could be such a civil servant,” he objects. “I will make a complaint…a formal complaint.” There is a touch here, it may be, of Dostoevsky’s own Gogolian brand of humor, but it remains nonetheless the case that Dostoevsky is trying deliberately to humanize the clerk figure, to give him an inner life, a need to love, and even the wish to be a writer and critic himself. Ironically, in view of such good intentions, it is Makar Devushkin who comes to seem a puppet in his creator’s hands, while Akaky is not only moving and highly memorable but independent as well, with that eerie independence Gogol came to mistrust so much, just as he came to fear and distrust his own powers as a writer. It seems likely that Stravinsky remembered Gogol’s story in the ballet Petrushka, where the showman’s puppet, killed off during the performance, returns at the finale into a life of his own, confounding the showman’s assurance to the audience that he was only a puppet made of straw and sawdust.

My Tatiana has gone and got married,” wrote Pushkin to a friend as he was composing the last part of Evgeny Onegin. “I should never have believed it of her!” In his own lighthearted way Pushkin is expressing the same wonder at the seeming independence of his own creative power that was eventually to cause Gogol such heartfelt anguish. It is this primal power of creation that distinguishes Russia’s “Golden Age” of writing, an age of Shakespearean freedom, innocent of social messages or ideological intentions. Those were to come later, with stern critics like Belinsky, who bossed Turgenev around as he would like to have bossed Gogol, and with the great committed and opinionated geniuses of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. And yet, as Dostoevsky himself is said to have remarked, “We all came out from under Gogol’s Overcoat.”

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