Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Mantle and Other Stories by Nikolai Gogol

Russian satire and Ukrainian folklore
Nikolai Gogol
The Mantle and Other Stories is an English-language collection of short fiction by Russian author Nikolai Gogol. The date of publication for this volume is unclear, but the five stories in the collection were originally published in Russia from 1831 to 1842. The title selection “The Mantle” is perhaps better known as “The Overcoat.” In addition to Gogol’s writing, this volume also includes a preface by French author Prosper Mérimée, a distinguished crafter of short stories himself. The funny thing about this preface is that Mérimée delivers a quite unflattering critique of Gogol’s writing. In fact, throughout the entire essay he goes on and on about all the things he doesn’t like about Gogol’s stories: Gogol takes satire to far, to the point where it becomes farce. Gogol’s characters depart from reality to become mere caricatures. Gogol’s humor is too broad; his criticism too general and too severe. Gogol’s short stories have a “vagueness” that makes them feel like “experiments” rather than mature works. This preface by Mérimée was likely reproduced from a previous publication, and it is a very odd choice on the part of the editor to include it in this volume. Nevertheless, after reading this collection, I mostly agree with Mérimée.

For roughly the first half of his career, Gogol wrote stories set in his native Ukraine. His writings of the latter half of his career are mostly set in St. Petersburg. This collection reverses the chronology and presents the St. Petersburg stories first. “The Mantle” is about a meek government clerk who is the butt of jokes at his office. Given his limited means, he gets upset when he discovers that he needs to buy a new overcoat, but once he purchases the garment he becomes rather obsessed with it. This satire of government bureaucracy has a tendency toward broad humor and feels like a 19th century Russian counterpart to the film Office Space. The comedy is even more outlandish in “The Nose,” which begins with a barber finding a nose in a loaf of bread. Its bizarre premise in a way calls to mind strange works by Franz Kafka like The Metamorphosis, but without the existentialism, “The Nose” is too absurd to even function as satire and just comes across as silly. “Memoirs of a Madman” (a.k.a. “Diary of a Madman”) is another bureaucratic satire featuring a low-level government functionary. Given the title, one wishes this might have been a realistic look at mental illness, but instead, once this madman goes off the deep end his narrative devolves into pure farce, good for a few chuckles and not much else.

The Ukrainian stories are more satisfying because they at least make an attempt at regional realism. In “May Night,” which takes place in a Cossack village, a young man swoons with love for his sweetheart until he finds out his father is also trying to woo her. Gogol still makes fun of his subjects—provincial small-town folk—but the story is relatively engaging. It includes some slapstick scenes and some supernatural elements drawn from folk tales. “The Viy” is also based on folklore, the title being the name of a supernatural being. Three seminary students from Kiev ramble into a remote village in Cossack country, where one has an encounter with a witch. This horror story is the most successful entry in this collection, probably because it takes its subject more seriously than the others.

Gogol is one of Russia’s most highly regarded writers, but personally this collection just didn’t appeal to me. Though he was considered a pioneering realist, in most of these selections any realism is undermined by sheer absurdity. Humor doesn’t always translate well between cultures and over centuries, and despite my enthusiasm for classic literature I fear many of Gogol’s witticisms were lost on me.

Stories in this collection
Preface by Prosper Mérimée 
The Mantle 
The Nose
Memoirs of a Madman 
May Night 
The Viy

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1 comment:

  1. The only Gogol I ever read is Dead Souls, very long ago. I remember it as being a sardonic black comedy. I want to reread it, and I suspect it might make either a good miniseries or an entertaining film. After all, the concept (buying up the ownership rights of dead serfs to inflate the protagonist’s (Pavel Chichikov) net worth) is very Russian (my own ancestry) and the portrayal of the living ”dead souls” that populate the book is very much a Voltaire-like commentary in the manner of Candide. btw, sardonic humor is my favorite kind. For a great SF short story of this type, I recommend Instructions (Bob Leman, 1984). (IMO, its ending is reminiscent of the very very last shot of the first Men in Black film.)