I’m in love with Nikolai Gogol. I say this based on one story in a recently purchased four by five inch book, published by Penguin in 1995—a Penguin 60s—part of Penguin’s 60th anniversary celebrations. The book contains two stories: ‘The Overcoat’ and ‘The Nose’. It was ‘The Overcoat’ I read Sunday morning. And it was then that I fell in love.
Here is a chap with a mighty sense of humour. And that’s always irresistible. Plus control and subtlety and things that really aren’t at all what they seem. The story centres around Akaky Akakievich, a titular councillor—essentially a lowly civil servant in early 19th century Russia—(a whole beautiful long riff is done on how he got his unfortunate name, which culminates in…”The child was christened and during the ceremony he burst into tears and made such a face it was plain that he knew there and then that he was fated to be a titular councillor.”)
In a nutshell, the piece is about a man who needs a new overcoat to survive the winter; he doesn’t ask for much in life and gets even less. But in his way, he’s happy. Though he lives an extremely simple life (the list of his possessions include two buttons that have fallen off some clothing) and has been a devoted employee to his ‘company’ for many years, he has to scrimp and practically starve to save money for the coat and then when he has it, it’s stolen. And no one cares. When he dies he returns as a ghost to steal the overcoats of others.
But of course that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s actually a brilliant political statement that (sadly) still resonates today…
Here is my favourite sentence—
“Even at that time of day when the light has completely faded from the grey St. Petersburg sky and the whole clerical brotherhood has eaten its fill, according to salary and palate; when everyone has rested from departmental pen-pushing and running around; when his own and everyone else’s absolutely indispensable labours have been forgotten–as well as all those other things that restless man sets himself to do of his own free will–sometimes even more than is really necessary; when the civil servant dashes off to enjoy his remaining hours of freedom as much as he can (one showing a more daring spirit by careering off to the theatre; another sauntering down the street to spend his time looking at cheap little hats in the shop windows; another going off to a party to waste his time flattering a pretty girl, the shining light of some small circle of civil servants; while another–and this happens more often than not–goes off to visit a friend from the office living on the third or second floor, in two small rooms with a hall and kitchen, and with some pretensions to fashion in the form of a lamp or some little trifle which has cost a great many sacrifices, refusals to invitations to dinner or country outings; in short, at that time of day when all the civil servants have dispersed to their friends’ little flats for a game of whist, sipping tea from glasses and nibbling little biscuits, drawing on their long pipes, and giving an account while dealing out the cards of the latest scandal which has wafted down from high society–a Russian can never resist stories; or when there is nothing new to talk about, bringing out once again the old anecdote about the Commandant who was told that the tail of the horse in Falconet’s statue of Peter the Great had been cut off; briefly, when everyone was doing his best to amuse himself, Akaky Akakievich did not abandon himself to any such pleasures.” (—from ‘The Overcoat’ by Nikolai Gogol)
And this in 1842.
And you wonder why I’m in love?