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Monday, April 21, 2014

The Best Stories in the World: The Nose by Nikolai Gogol

So this guy, Kovalev, wakes up one morning to discover that his nose is missing. He sort of freaks out, because it's his nose and whatnot. He tries to go about finding his nose by going to the police, but on the way he sees his nose. I'll let Nikolai Gogol, by way of translator Andrew R. MacAndrew, describe the vision:

Suddenly he stopped dead near the entrance door of a house. An incredible sequence of events unrolled before his eyes. A carriage stopped at the house entrance. Its door opened. A uniformed gentleman appeared. Stooping, he jumped out of the carriage, ran up the steps and entered the house. A combination of horror and amazement swept over Kovalev when he recognized the stranger as his own nose.

So the nose dresses as some sort of state official and his going about town doing various things. Kovalev confronts the nose, but gets nowhere with that, what with the nose denying that it is his nose. ("Don't you realize that you are my nose?" The nose looked at the major and frowned slightly.) Kovalev then goes to the newspaper to try to put out a notice for help finding the nose, which has eluded him. That
doesn't go well for him, but we are treated to this paragraph:

The reception room in which all these people waited was quite small and the air was getting stuffy. But the smell didn't bother Collegiate Assessor Kovalev because he kept his face covered with a handkerchief and also because his nose happened to be God knew where.

Kovalev then goes to the police, with whom he has even more trouble. Kovalev has lots of anxiety about going through life without a nose. He becomes quite paranoid, assuming that the mother of a young lady Kovalev has been flirting with might have stolen it in the night. He sends her a vague but harshly worded letter, after which she replies in confusion that she would like for him to marry her daughter. Kovalev removes her from his suspect list.

It's not really a mystery. Readers are made aware from the very beginning that Kovalev's nose was in the possession of his barber, who found it in a breakfast roll that very morning, though the barber didn't remember cutting it off. He then threw it over a bridge into a river, though he was accosted by a policeman and accused of suspicious behavior. The point of the story isn't what happened to the nose, it's what happens to Kovalev because of the missing nose. And Kovalev becomes desperate and crazy.

Soon enough the policeman who confronted the barber arrives at Kovalev's house with the nose. Kovalev is grateful, but is now presented with a new problem. Not knowing how the nose was removed, he can't figure out how to get it back on his face. It won't simply stay there when he pushes it into the right place.

Meanwhile, rumors have spread around town, and people tell all sorts of tales about the nose going out for walks and the like. People crowd around places where the nose is said to be strolling, and they generally cause quite a nuisance. Then...

The world is full of absolute nonsense. Sometimes it is really unbelievable. Suddenly, the very nose that used to go around as a state councilor and caused such a stir all over the city turned up, as though nothing had happened, in its proper place, namely between the cheeks of Major Kovalev.

Kovalev is quite happy about this turn of events. He even lets that same barber shave him, though cautioning the barber not to pinch his nose while doing so. And that is the only observable change wrought by this story, which ends with the narrator musing about how strange it all ways, which leads to this conclusion:

But the strangest of all, the most incomprehensible thing, is that there are authors who can choose such subjects to write about. This, I confess, is completely inexplicable, it's like...no, no, I can't understand it at all. In the first place, there is absolutely no advantage in it for out mother country. Secondly...well, what advantage is there in it at all? I simply cannot understand what it is...
 However, when all is said and done, and although, of course, we conceive the possibility, one and the other, and maybe even...Well, but then what exists without inconsistencies? And still, if you give it a thought, there is something to it. Whatever you may say, such things do happen--seldom, but they do.

Now that's how you end a story.

So why is this one of the best stories in the world? Do I even have to answer that question? It's about a nose that dresses up like a state official and tries to take a train to Riga, for reasons never revealed. Isn't that enough?

No? Very well then. I love this story because I love absurdity. And no matter how serious you are of countenance, how grave you are in your daily doings, if you read this story you can't help but picture what a nose dressed up like a state official (a Russian state official, no less) would look like. The nose goes about its business without any comment by all but that police officer, who wouldn't have said a thing if he hadn't had his glasses on at the time. The nose speaks. It denies its identity as a nose. And, knowing apparently that the game is up, it tries to flee. This was written in 1836 or so.

This is the first story I've put into this series that exists in, really, only one form. Aside from translation, there are no particular variants of this story--a literary creation (though it seems to have been adapted for the stage). I've included no pictures this time, because for me much of the magic of the story lies in imagining what the nose would look like as it saunters about town.

Much of what I have used as criteria for greatness has had to do with malleability, with whether or not the core of the story could be held while the surface details can be put to use in new contexts and new tellings. With Nikolai Gogol's "The Nose," I hope that you see the same sort of malleability; the only difference being a malleability of interpretation rather than of retelling. What is the nose? It's a piece of a person, and can stand for any number of neuroses or worries or anxieties. It's phallic, if you want it to be. It's also the only part of a person's face that's visible to the person without a reflective surface. Thus it's as semantically rich as the reader wants it to be. It's something that we lose, some essential part of ourselves that, growing older--perhaps without accomplishing those things that we had hoped for during our youth (there's a lot in the story about Kovalev's worries in what I interpret as this sense)--we didn't even realize had been gone until it's too late. We might find it again, or not. Or finding it, it might not fit quite how we thought it would.

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