In Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, a Bengali immigrant in America called Ashoke Ganguli is a fan of Gogol. When he was a student in India, his grandfather had told him to “read all the Russians, and then reread them.” Ashoke was particularly held by “The Overcoat,” the story of Akaky Aka-kyevich, a poor, much-trampled-upon petty clerk, who grows obsessed with a new overcoat, which he thinks would bring him dignity, and which, just after he has acquired it, is stolen from him. The character reminded Ashoke of his father, who had been a humble clerk in Calcutta. He broke down every time he read about the clerk’s humiliation and death. And the more he read, the more “elusive and profound” the story grew. “Just as Akaky’s ghost haunted the final pages, so did it haunt a place deep in Ashoke’s soul, shedding light on all that was irrational, all that was inevitable about the world.”
Much later in his life, when he is a professor of engineering in America, Ashoke quotes Dostoevsky to his uncomprehending, slightly resentful teen-age son, whom he has named after Gogol, and to whom he presents a volume of stories by the Russian writer. “Do you know what Dostoevsky once said?… We all came out of Gogol’s overcoat.” Gogol, saddled with a name he thinks he shares with no one in the world, is not impressed. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asks before putting the book away, unread, on a “high shelf between two volumes of the Hardy Boys.”*
He doesn’t read “The Overcoat” even when it is prescribed in his high school English class, for he believes that “it would mean paying tribute to his namesake.” His American classmates have a different objection to the story. They find it “too long” and “hard to get through.” It seems that there is little they can relate to in the account of a drab, rather inarticulate man in nineteenth-century Russia sliding to his doom over the small matter of an overcoat.
A hundred and fifty years ago, the protagonist of Poor People (1846), the first novel by Dostoevsky, had no problem relating to “The Overcoat.” In fact, he found it uncomfortably close to his own experience. Like Akaky Akakyevich, he is a lowly clerk, and suspects that the story mockingly describes his own attempts to live an honorable life:
You hide sometimes, you hide, you conceal yourself inside whatever you’ve got, you are afraid at times to poke your nose out—because out of everything that could be found on earth, out of everything they’ll make you a satire, and then the whole of your civic and family life goes around in literature, everything is printed, read, mocked, gossiped about! And then you won’t even be able to show yourself in the street; I mean, it’s all so well demonstrated here, that now you can recognise the likes…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.