“The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich”* makes a perfect introduction to Gogol, I think—not that it was actually my introduction, of course. But it has it all, starting with the almost pointillist piling of detail on detail along with the intrusive narrator. It opens:
A fine bekesha Ivan Ivanovich has! A most excellent one! And what fleece! Pah, damnation, what fleece! dove gray and frosty! I’ll bet you anything that nobody has the like! Look at it, for God’s sake—especially if he starts talking with somebody—look from the side: it’s simply delicious! There’s no describing it: velvet! silver! fire! Lord God! Saint Nicholas the holy wonder-worker! why don’t I have a bekesha like that! He had it made for him back before Agafya Fedoseevna went to Kiev. Do you know Agafya Fedoseevna? The one who bit off the assessor’s ear?
Not only intrusive, but excitable. There follows a highly excitable description of Ivan Ivanovich: tall, thin, pious, addresses every beggar, speaks mellifluously. His best friend, Ivan Nikiforovich (and here we get into Gogol’s wonderful absurdity—not only will the two Ivans quarrel, but later there will even be another Ivan Ivanovich), is short, fat, taciturn, lazy. “Ivan Ivanovich’s head resembles a turnip tail-down, Ivan Nikiforovich’s a turnip tail-up.” I think that really sums things up here, don’t you? In any case, they are inseparable:
Anton Prokofievich Pupopuz, who to this day still goes around in a brown frock coat with blue sleeves and on Sundays has dinner at the judge’s, used to say that the devil himself had tied Ivan Nikiforovich and Ivan Ivanovich to each other with a piece of string. Wherever the one goes, the other gets dragged along.
There’s another detail, that bit about the brown coat with blue sleeves. Anton Prokofievich isn’t important right now, but he’ll be back, with his coat. He won’t be important then either but there will be more details about it!
Anyway, the two turnip-heads are best friends, but as you can tell by the title they quarrel. The reason for their falling-out is as cracked as everything else in this Mirgorod: Ivan Nikiforovich calls Ivan Ivanovich a goose. Cue the feuding neighbors, encroaching on each other’s property and finally filing official complaints against each other (bonus Gogol bureaucracy here). Throw in a sow trespassing in the courthouse and eating Ivan Nikiforovich’s complaint before it’s been copied. A sow of Ivan Ivanovich’s, which was involved in the original quarrel to boot.
Detail upon detail; intrusive, absurd-loving narrator; Ukrainian village life; wonderfully caricatured characters who always seem to be performing. And a disruptive ending, not uncommon for Gogol’s stories. The poor Ivans, who have had so many near-misses at making things up, now have a neverending, Bleak House–style suit against each other, and the narrator who returns to Mirgorod and finds them aged enemies still waiting on that bureaucracy is much sadder and less excitable. He sighs a lot. And from the “fine bekesha” we end up only with, “It’s dull in this world, gentlemen!”
I’m not hugely familiar with The Russians,** but after reading The Tales of Belkin I think I’ll be revisiting a few of the big names. Gogol was the first stop as he’d already been a favorite. I’ve enjoyed the Ukrainian stories, especially the ones (unlike the Ivans) involving the supernatural. But it’s that unmistakable voice I like best.
*Also known as “The Squabble,” “The Tale of…” and “How the Two Ivans Quarreled.” I read the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation with the title above.
**n.b., Gogol is in fact a Ukrainian. Not to be overlooked.