Short Story Of the Day, The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol

There is nothing more irritable than departments, regiments, courts of justice, and, in a word, every branch of public service.

—-Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat

Poppies, by W. Stanley Proctor
Liberty Plaza
Farmer’s Branch, Texas
(click to enlarge)

Yesterday, I wrote about George Saunders and his story – The Red Bow

I included this Youtube video of George Saunders and some writing tips.

The first question is “What is your favorite short story?” and he answered “The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol. He said, “It’s funny and sad and I think it’s the way that God actually thinks of us if he in fact does.”

I have had the story “The Nose” by Gogol as one of my short stories before.

Like “The Nose” – “The Overcoat” is written in an older style – more telling than showing – but it is as genius, funny, and shattering as Saunders says it is. I had read “The Overcoat” before – long ago – but didn’t remember all the details… only the sadness and feeling of helplessness. Reading it again it was even more heartbreaking, knowing what was going to happen to the hopeless protagonist.

Read it here:

The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol

from East Of the Web

The next question on the interview is “Best piece of writing advice?”.

He replies that a mentor Tobias Wolff told him, “Don’t lose the magic.” Great advice.

I am a huge fan of Tobias Wolff – if you ask me Wolff’s story “In The Garden Of The North American Martyrs”  is my favorite short story (or at least one of them) and one of the best ever written.

I’ve used a couple of online Tobias Wolff stories for my stories of the day before:

Bullet in the Brain

Hunters in the Snow

On both of those entries I wrote about my favorite Tobias Wolff story:

I remember one time, years ago, he was giving a talk at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of the Arts & Letters Live series. Well, I’m poor and can’t afford the full price ticket to these lectures, but, for a lower price, you can attend and sit in an auditorium off to the side where the lecture is beamed in on a screen. I was sitting there, waiting with a few other people (the main room was packed) when I looked up and there was Tobias Wolff, walking between the rows talking to us. He said he didn’t think it was fair that we had to sit in the other room and had arranged for an extra row of seats to be installed down across the front. We all marched into the big room and saw the live lecture, right up on the first row, thanks to the author.

It was really cool and thoughtful of him – and I’ll never forget it.

A Month of Short Stories 2015, Day 5 – The Nose

The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day five – The Nose, by Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol

Read it online here:

The Nose

Farce really does occur in this world, and, sometimes, farce altogether without an element of probability.
—-Gogol, The Nose

For day 5 we have something a little longer, a little harder to read. Written in 1836, it’s in that formal, stilted style of classic prose, especially translated from Russian.

But the story is anything but stilted. It’s the mysterious story of a missing body part, and it’s as postmodern as anything you will read tomorrow. It is full of what we now know as magic realism – dream sequences – and surreal asides directly from author to reader.

I don’t really know what to make of it. Is it a satire of Russian society and culture? Is it a thinly-veiled psycho-sexual fever dream? (take a text version of the story, do a find-and-replace with “nose” and “penis” and see how that changes the story… but it doesn’t quite work) Or is it simply a joke told by the author… a bit of silly nonsense – an entertaining trifle?

Is Batman a transvestite? Who knows?

Even Gogol is confused. In two places the story becomes shrouded in mist and the author admits that further developments are beyond the kin of man. Near the end he confeses that he doesn’t know what happened or why it did – why Kovalev didn’t know not to place a newspaper ad looking for his nose, or how the nose ended up in the loaf of bread at the beginning of the story, no less. Plus, he, as the author, should know these things.

And the strangest, most unintelligible fact of all is that authors actually can select such occurrences for their subject! I confess this too to pass my comprehension, to — — But no; I will say just that I do not understand it.

And if he, Gogol himself, doesn’t understand it, how can we, almost two hundred years later, reading his words translated into a foreign tongue, looking, not at paper, but at a matrix of glowing diodes hooked to a vast network of wires and radio waves… how can we hope to understand?

What I really don’t understand is that the great composer, Shostakovich, actually wrote an opera (his first) based around this story. What is that all about?