Nikolai Gogol’s ‘The Nose’ is,primarily, a satirical short story. Written during Gogol’s time is St.
Petersburg in the mid 1830-s, it was originally published in AlexanderPushkin’s literary journal, TheContemporary. At the time, Gogol’s creative work was already focused onsurrealism and the grotesque, two of the things his name is ever since widelyassociated with, and a story about a Petersburg rank-obsessed official whosenose leaves his face one random morning and gets a life fills the criteria asboth a satire to the superficial Petersburg society and a surrealist piece ofwriting matching some of Dali’s finest paintings. Gogol himself was too much of apersonality too be framed with simply being a satirical or surrealist writer.
Gary Saul Morson, on an article of TheNew Criterion titled ‘”Absolute Nonsense” – Gogol’s tales’, wrote that “theword ‘weird’ could have been invented for Russia’s greatest comic writer,Nikolai Gogol (1809 – 1852, though one almost wants to write 1852 – 1809), whoactually managed to be born on April 1. No one understood him, lease of allhimself. ‘What an intelligent, queer, and sick creature!’ exclaimed IvanTurgenev. When he died, one of his best friends, the writer Sergei Aksanov, wroteto his son Ivan: ‘I don’t know whether anyone liked Gogol exclusively as ahuman being. I don’t think so; it was, in fact, impossible. How can you loveone whose body and spirit are recovering from self-inflicted torture?'” (Morson,”Absolute Nonsense”)It is no surprise that Gogol hasbeen deemed to be a realist with fundamental romantic sensibility in hisfiction, using nuances of surrealism and the grotesque and bearing traditionalcultural and folklore elements influenced by his Ukrainian upbringing. Greatly touchedby Pushkin’s death, he wrote his most genial satire of the Russian Empire’spolitical corruption (Dead Souls) in response to that event.
What was meant tobe a three-piece creation reminiscent Dante’s Divine Comedy was burnt by Gogolhimself during the last days of the author’s life, a time of exaggeratedascetic practices that led to his literary decline, depression and eventualstarvation. Naturally, the complexity andqueerness of his personality, even acknowledged by some of his most talentedcontemporaries, was reflected in his work, making ‘The Nose’ accessible fromdifferent analytical angles, one of the most interesting being as an early workof magical realism. ‘The Nose’ is divided in threeparts.
The first starts on the 25th of March, during the morning ofwhich Ivan Yakovlevich, a barber, wakes up to find a nose inside his loaf ofbread, which he recognizes to be the nose of one of his regular clients, theCollegiate Assessor Kovalyov (later referred to as Major Kovalyov). Ivan’swife, who is mad at her husband’s frequent drunkenness, blames him for being inpossession of the nose and threatens to notify the police; this makes Ivan wrapit and hurriedly wander around the city looking for a place to dispose it,until he decides to throw it off a bridge. An officer notices Ivan throwing ‘anitem’ into the river and, dubious, asks what it was. Despite Ivan’s attempt tobribe the officer, he refuses, and that is where the first part ends in the midof dream-like smoke.The second part, also opening withMajor Kovalyov’s morning, does not describe an equally pleasant awakening, ashe finds out that his nose is missing.
Struggling with the idea that there isnothing but a flat patch of skin where the nose used to be, he goes to reportthe incident to the police. On the way there, the Major sees his nose, dressedin the uniform of a higher rank, now human-sized and able to walk andcommunicate. He changes direction, chasing his nose to Kazan Cathedral andeventually manages to address his nose, which seems to be oblivious to theMajor’s claims. As he becomes distracted by a pretty girl at the church, thenose escapes. Being rejected help in all places, the Major returns home, havinglost all hope.
This is when the same policeman from the first part comes tohim, and returns him his nose, now back to normal organ size. The Major’sinitial excitement for the return of the nose turns to horror, as even a doctortells him it is impossible to re-attach it. He goes from asking Madam Podtochina,who he believed had cast a spell on him so that he’d marry her daughter, toundo her spell to trying to glue it back on, but to no avail. In the meanwhile,the word spreads about the nose’s activities and people gather by the crowd tosee it. The third part describes the 7thof April, when Major Kovalyov wakes up and sees his nose has been reattached,as if it was never missing in the first place. After going to his usual barber,Ivan, to shave (seemingly acting even more intolerably than before), he returnsback to his old hobbies of shopping and tactlessly flirting with girls.Viewing ‘The Nose’ as amagic-realist novel is interesting because this genre of literature was widelyused and recognized years after Gogol lived, and is chiefly associated with agroup of Latin-American writers. The earliest European writer to be popularlyassociated with magic realism was Kafka, with his work ‘The Metamorphosis’where, much like Major Kovalyov’s case, the main character wakes up fromunsettling dreams to find out he has turned into a vermin.
The similarities inthe stories are striking actually and both fit the scholarly description ofmagic realism; this proves that Gogol’s ‘The Nose’ was actually the precursorof magic realism works. In ‘Magic Realism: Defining theIndefinite’, Jeffrey Wechsler says that “one of the rare attempts at definingmagic realism is found in H. H. Arnason’s encyclopedic textbook, History ofModern Art. Arnason writes: ‘In general, the magic realists, deriving directlyfrom de Chirico, create mystery and the marvelous through juxtapositions thatare disturbing even when it is difficult to see why'” (293). Though notdifficult to see why the juxtapositions are disturbing in Gogol’s or Kafka’scase, they are still very much present, distorting the unceremonious flow ofevents through extraordinary events. James D. Hardy, on the other hand,has focused solely on how magic realism manifested in the stories of Gogol, inhis paper “Magic Realism in the Tales of Nikolai Gogol”.
Hardy believes thatthe nature of magic realism is exploring “the realistic and quotidianconsequences of an impossible action”, while he says that the genre manifestedin two ways in Gogol’s stories. The first involves the direct involvement ofsomething divine, demonic or supernatural in an otherwise mundane flow ofevents. The second evolves through the unexpected violation of the laws ofnature without a supernatural explanation. ‘The Nose’ belongs in the first category. As explained by Hardy, in ‘TheNose’ “magic realism takes the form of an abrupt abrogation of natural law, forno discernible reason and to no clear purpose” (Janushead.
org, 2017). At nopoint during the story does the narrator, who is sometimes subjective andintruding, explain how or why a nose of different dimensions at different timesis going around, sometimes able to speak, sometimes pocket-sized, sometimesriding a carriage…
until the natural order of things is restored withoutnotice. This makes ‘The Nose’ an extraordinary tale about the ordinary (beingthe seriousness of life in Russia at the time Gogol was writing).A particularity of Gogol’s magicrealism is his inversion of the typical dynamic of the genre as we know it.
Usually, “canonical modern magical realism expects the fantastic to precede andgive rise to the real” (Janushead.org,2017), but in Gogol “the real gives rise to the fantastic, the unnatural explainsthe real and quotidian” (Janushead.org, 2017). We see this, of course, in thefact that the mundane reality of St.
Petersburg is brought to attention byGogol’s use of the fantastic, like when we get to see how obsessed MajorKovalyov is with rank when he gets embarrassed to speak to his own nose,because it is dressed in higher-rank uniform. Despite Gogol’s inversion of thisdynamic, the narrative structure of his work corresponds with standardnarrative structure. While the inexplicable occurs suddenly, the realisticconsequences of its event are told through a funny, pathetic or outré point ofview. This is also apparent through all the confrontations the Major has withother characters, asking for help or understanding, but getting absolutelynowhere. Thus, Hardy states that ‘The Nose’can be interpreted on three synergetic levels of magic realism, with the firstbeing the standard narrative structure employed.
Then, at the base, is “theinherently surreal quality of daily life in St. Petersburg, so different fromthe daily life of all other Russian places, made the ordinary itself appearfantastic” (Janushead.org, 2017).Moreover, on another level, “the appearance ofthe everyday can be regarded as not only the narrative consequence of the magicmoment, but also its cause” (Janushead.org, 2017).
Mark Spilka, who wrote ‘Kafka’ssources for the Metamorphosis’, also shares the view that part of the laterauthor’s inspiration came from Gogol, saying that “its blend of fantasy withurban realism began with Gogol and Dostoevsky in succeeding decades” (290) andthat Gogol was first to “shift magic events to urban settings and exploit theircomic possibility” (291). Because of Gogol’s use of magicrealism before the term itself was conceived, it is senseless to expect thathis creativity matches the contemporary definition of magic realism, but it isalso enlightening to play the opposite game and explore how much his earlytechnique in the genre, mixed with surrealist and grotesque elements,influenced writers, Kafka simply being one of many. It is for this reason thatSpilka’s conclusion in his comparative paper better describes what Gogol did,saying “they have jointly produced a special kind of fiction, urban in genesisand grotesque in form, whose function is to express and transcend the pressuresof a bureaucratic and commercial age” (307). In conclusion, it is almostimpossible to explore all the ways that Gogol’s work influenced both hismotherland and the Western world, both at the time he was alive, and after hisdeath. Before Gogol and Pushkin, authors complied with traditional ways ofexpression, highly extravagant and romanticized – Gogol’s use of everydayspeech in literature changed that. The social impact of his works mattered somuch that many of his quotes became and remain Russian axioms to this day.
Yet,translating Gogol’s work has been a challenge on its own, with use of Russianwords such as ‘poshlost’, a noun which, as Ken Kalfus writes for the New YorkTimes, “defies easy translation but suggests the vulgar and commonplace – ‘thefalsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever'” (Kalfus,”Waiting for Gogol”). Concerning the translation of Gogol’s books, Kalfus writesthat “For the most part, all these translators serve their author well. Bothversions of the novel are lively and funny, keen in their pursuit of Gogol’selusive, protean metaphors. Yet both frequently stumble into the brier ofincomprehension” (Kalfus,” Waiting for Gogol”).The difficulty of translatingGogol’s prose, filled with intricate words, metaphors, idioms and otherparticularities, in addition to wondering if one can ever understand Gogol’shidden meanings in his use of the grotesque, surrealistic and magic realist,makes one wonder whether it is possible to ever fully comprehend the author,let study the major influence his works had on the Western word afterwards. Andyet, based on the above-mentioned facts and the use of magic-realism today froma variety of authors, it is certain that Gogol’s books, without having to furtherbe analyzed, were the precursors of magic realism and impacted the creativityof the great authors that later read them.
WORKSCITED1. Gogol, Nilolai, “Diary of a Madmanand Other Stories” Penguin Books,1987 reprint, pp. 42-70, translated by Ronald Wilks. 2. Kalfus, Ken.
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5. Morson, Gary S. “”AbsoluteNonsense” – Gogol’s Tales.” The New Criterion, Roger Kimball, Nov.1998.
6. Spilka, Mark, “Kafka’s Sources forthe Metamorphosis” Comparative Literature, vol. 11, no. 4, 1959, pp. 289-307,JSTOR.
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