P-47S fly over in squadron box formations, four checkmarks apiece RedWhiteBlueYellow on the un-amended form of the whitish sky, squadron after squadron: it is either some military review, or another war. A plasterer is busy around the corner, smoothing over a bomb-scarred wall, plaster heaped on his hawk luscious as cream cheese, using an unfamiliar trowel inherited from a dead friend, still, these first days, digging holes like an apprentice, the shiny knife-edge not yet broken to his hand, the curl of it a bit more than his own strength could have ever brought it to … Henry was a larger bloke…. The fly, who was not dead, unfolds its wings and zooms off to fool somebody else.
—-Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
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:
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?