After “The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich,” The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol moves its setting from the Ukraine to St. Petersburg and with the spatial change comes a change in tone, or ambience, or something. Are the stories more Russian? Is it that they are still more concerned with rank, class, and bureaucracy than the Ukrainian stories? That they don’t have the healthy offsetting effect of pastoralism? The muzhiks and landowners and country superstition are a different side of Russia than the pomp of the northern capital, and the Petersburg stories are an important early literary portrait of the city.
The first story of the St. Petersburg section, “Nevsky Prospect,” starts as a detail-ridden observation of “the beauty of our capital” and its character at the different times of day. There is great vanity in Petersburg, and strong delineation of rank and position (“everyone is either an official, a shopkeeper, or a German artisan”)—lots of fodder for Gogol’s descriptions as well as his irreverence.
Here you will meet singular side-whiskers, tucked with extraordinary and amazing art under the necktie, velvety whiskers, satiny whiskers, black as sable or coal, but, alas, belonging only to the foreign office. Providence has denied black side-whiskers to those serving in other departments; they, however great the unpleasantness, must wear red ones. Here you will meet wondrous mustaches, which no pen or brush is able to portray; mustaches to which the better part of a lifetime is devoted—object of long vigils by day and by night; mustaches on which exquisite perfumes and scents have been poured, and which have been anointed with all the most rare and precious sorts of pomades, mustaches which are wrapped overnight in fine vellum, mustaches which are subject to the most touching affection of their possessors and are the envy of passers-by.
Petersburg makes an even better setting for the absurd than did Dikanka or Mirgorod, with its collegiate registrars and titular councillors and actual state councillors. “The Diary of a Madman” is not only a hilarious send-up of the bureaucracy but also a brilliant melding of Gogol’s cracked perspective with real nonsense and madness. The horror stories are better than the Ukrainian ones too; “The Portrait” is deliciously creepy and “The Overcoat” has a real bleakness to it. And “The Nose” is a gem of absurdism in this perfect new voice Gogol has.
…a gentleman in a uniform jumped out, hunching over, and ran up the stairs. What was Kovalev’s horror as well as amazement when he recognized him as his own nose! …Two minutes later the nose indeed came out. He was in a gold-embroidered uniform with a big standing collar; he had kidskin trousers on; at his side hung a sword. From his plumed hat it could be concluded that he belonged to the rank of state councillor.
“But you’re my own nose!”
The nose looked at the major and scowled slightly.
“You are mistaken, my dear sir. I am by myself. Besides, there can be no close relationship between us. Judging by the buttons on your uniform, you must service in a different department.”
What, you couldn’t tell by his side-whiskers?
Gogol admits that it has “much of the implausible in it”—but not so much because of the nose disappearing and reappearing as a state councillor thing. “[H]ow was it that Kovalev did not realize that he ought not to make an announcement about the nose through the newspaper office?” We can back up still further. “[W]hat is strangest, what is most incomprehensible of all is how authors can choose such subjects…I confess, that is utterly inconceivable, it is simply…no, no, I utterly fail to understand.”
This is really enough to make you wish Dead Souls had been finished, though it’s amazing all the same, and that there were more in general.