I like my literature how I like my sexual partners: freaky.
Just kidding – my sexual partners are none of your business – but I hope you appreciated, or at least saw some value in, that little bit of silliness. I think surreal, off-beat, or just stupid writing is very important and can express a lot of things very succinctly. Was I perhaps trying to make a point on the kind of relationship readers should have with a text, knowing it intimately but not inwardly, surprising and challenging ourselves with it, and in turn giving it a new life as it interacts with a new readership? Not really, but you could make that argument if you like.
As a student of Russian literature, I am supposed to be exposed to some of the greatest writers in written history: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, ‘the list goes on.’ There are just a few problems: firstly, I am a very slow reader because I have an extremely short attention span, have to frequently re-read information, and find it very difficult to sit still, which for some reason I have never got checked by a medical professional, and for which I worry it is probably now too late. I’m a young man with an active social life and am yet to feel so hopeless as to isolate myself from human contact for the best part of a year to read thousands of pages of a book whose title is just two nouns together. If you’re looking for something shorter, you might come across Chekhov and my second problem. I do not want to read short story after short story of aristocrats and nouveaux riches sitting around in a dacha while it rains trying to think of reasons not to kill themselves, because I end up desperately craving the ending I already know to expect: the Bolshevik revolution. Chop, chop, Mr Chekhov. This is not to say that I think these writers are overrated or undeserving of their praise and influence – I think you can probably already tell I am completely unqualified to make that kind of judgement.
There is, however, an author among the Russian classics that I think is extremely underrated, if I may be allowed that little flourish. Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol was a Ukrainian playwright and author also known as a ‘mysterious dwarf.’ We studied his short story Шинель, or The Overcoat, in first year, but I shall not be discussing it here out of spite for my supervisors. One of his other short stories, Нос, or The Nose – the source of the shoehorned pun that is this article’s title – is one of the most entertaining things I have ever read. Written in St Petersburg between 1835-36, it follows the story of a nose found inside a roll of bread by a barber who recognises it as one of his customers’ – a self-aggrandising Collegiate Assessor (one of the many ranks of the tsarist civil service.) The terrified barber disposes of it in the river, and we suddenly shift perspective to said Collegiate Assessor who has, naturally, woken up with a totally flat area of skin in the centre of his face where his nose should be. That’s a major L for this self-proclaimed ladies man! To make matters worse, he then finds the nose walking around St Petersburg in the official dress of a man several ranks above him, who on questioning denies any affiliation with our Collegiate Assessor. Ghosted by your own nose! The story is filled with lines like ‘the nose had already gone: it managed to slip off unseen, probably to pay somebody a visit,’ which are, in every meaning of the word, incredible.
The tap-dancing noses from Shostakovich’s opera adaptation of the story.
There’s a lot to unpack there.
You might be thinking of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis – another body horror type story published some 80 years later with a very different tone – or David Lynch, whose film Blue Velvet released 150 years later opens with the mysterious discovery of an ear and has a similarly surreal plot. To make a gross generalisation, Russian culture can be divided into two schools – the bleakly depressing, and the insane – and Gogol clearly belongs to the latter. It is also clear from whatever the hell is going on this story that his work fits into an international canon of absurdism; a form of low fantasy where average protagonists are inserted into a grotesque, dream-like version of the world allowing us to re-examine social norms and individual psychologies, if you want to look at it so objectively.
Sadly, Gogol’s short story doesn’t receive nearly the same kind of popular recognition. Everyone has, at some point, used the adjective Kafkaesque without entirely knowing what it means, and most people familiar with film, television, or transcendental meditation will have heard of David Lynch. I even did a Google Trends search to compare the three, and didn’t entirely understand the results, but Gogol’s story performed far worse than the others every time, except for one orientation in which it came out as most popular in the great state of Oklahoma. I am very pleased to see Russian literature appearing in the state’s top interests alongside racism and being made entirely of dust. Regardless, whether it is the assumption that the Russians must be stern and serious, or just that Gogol isn’t usually seen as one of Russia’s biggest hitters, the story is often overlooked.
The Nose was written long before Gogol could comfortably write something so bizarre for a public audience. It even contains sarcastic references to serious academic journals in St Petersburg that had previously criticised his work: a clerk at the city’s Security Office instead of offering help tells our Collegiate Assessor to have his nose written up as ‘a very rare freak of nature and have it published in The Northern Bee […] so that young people might benefit from it.’ Gogol was far wittier than his contemporaries, close friends with major players in Russian literature like Pushkin, and not a career-minded individual. (Coming up, an eccentric author story): he was appointed professor of medieval history at the University of St Petersburg in 1834 without any qualifications, made unfounded sweeping statements through his first lecture, failed to turn up to the next two, and then arrived to another grinding his teeth as he spoke so as to be completely unintelligible. During one final examination he wrapped his face in a handkerchief and pretended to still have terrible tooth ache to force the other examiner to handle the student and avoid all conversation on the topic.
What makes The Nose so powerful for me is the combination of his wit with the totally surreal and the vagueness of some parts of the narrative. How does the nose first arrive in the roll without leaving a trace on the Collegiate Assessor? How does it go from being thrown into the river to impersonating a State Councillor? How exactly are we supposed to visualise a nose capable of speech, and what’s more, wearing a Civil Servant’s uniform? It is far too abstract, incomplete and absurd to be some kind of allegory for the social importance of being wealthy and attractive – it is too satirical to be a satire. Some of my favourite lines in the story are flat-out stupid, like the otherwise intelligent police officer who continuously brings up ‘My mother-in-law (that’s to say, on my wife’s side.)’
There is also something unique about the form the absurd takes in this story. While Kafka’s ‘insect-like creature’ (or ungeheures Ungeziefer for all meine Lieblinge out there) is grotesque because we naturally dislike vermin, a nose is familiar, personal, and unclean – filled with snot and narcotics (snuff is regularly used throughout the story, to clarify that’s not me inserting myself into the narrative.) It makes us feel uncomfortable about our physicality; it is unsightly without being strictly unpleasant; it’s weird, and we don’t know how to feel about it. Gogol carefully treads the line between fantasy and the everyday. The Collegiate Assessor’s main complaint isn’t the actual loss of his nose, but the fact that all he has to show for it is this flat, unblemished skin where it should be. He hates that he has been embodied with neither natural appearance nor pitiful deformity, but an absurd, unimaginable, limbo land: looking a bit strange.
The storyline finishes with the Collegiate Assessor’s face back to normal, the excitement among the city inhabitants at spotting a runaway hooter dying down, and the narrative voice noting that ‘these things do happen—rarely, I admit, but they do happen.’ The miracle is over; everything is back to how it should be; we have accomplished nothing. There is no quiet tragedy to this situation, as in The Metamorphosis, but an anti-climax, because the story never had to be significant, just like life, and we leave feeling bemused, confused, and slightly disgusted, just like life. Gogol has an enormous amount of fun, then casts the whole thing as totally mundane.
And I’ve saved best to last: the Russian language has many nose-related idioms, notably водить за нос – literally ‘to lead someone chasing after their nose’ or, to make a fool of someone. That’s right: the entire story is also one long pun. It’s a surreal enactment of an everyday expression. In addition to the images we are presented with during the story, we have this continuous play on words, making the actual narration itself seem completely ridiculous.
The more you read Gogol the more you begin to feel that everything he writes, in some way or another, is absurd. The socialites of high society are idiots; the workers of the city are drunks; nothing is sacred: in the holy Kazan Cathedral we encounter ‘the nose’s face […] praying with an expression of profound piety.’ Gogol turns narrative into a long joke, playing with and reformulating all the material around him, be it language, social order or physical form itself, and ultimately reduces all ad absurdum, because nothing is real and none of it matters. Sound familiar? This is what I was aiming at with ‘expressing a lot of things very succinctly,’ by writing something strange: the existentialist attitude, summarised by this story about a walking, talking schnoz. I won’t bang on about how Gogol was ‘ahead of his time’, because you could say that about anyone talented from any time in history. It’s a moot point.
The real joy of the The Nose comes from just how funny it is, which is something that the authors of that school often lack.
Some of the French writers are so witless that reading them you really do begin to question continued existence. This is the philosophical premise we can take from Gogol: you can have fun without making sense, and once you’re having fun you have some kind of purpose. We’re given a reason to carry on, because we’re laughing, and we’re enjoying ourselves. That’s the beauty of this bizarre short story: The Nose is a very silly drawn-out joke, and I think far more people should enjoy and appreciate it for its complexity, its beauty, and its stupidity.
So how is Gogol remembered today? Two years ago I watched a new film they had just released about the author, entitled Гоголь. Начало (Gogol. The Beginning.) I had only studied Russian for a year, so I could only make out about 40% of the dialogue, but from what I got it seemed to follow the author, depressed and unsuccessful, being dragged into a police investigation because his epileptic seizures contain the clues to a series of satanic ritual murders carried out by a witch and a man on a horse somewhere in Ukraine. Pushkin bullied him in his dreams, and the moon ran red with blood.
Like Gogol, it was bizarre and fanciful. Unlike Gogol, it was dreadful.
Tom White is a freelance opinion writer in his fourth year of studying French and Russian.
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