Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol


"The Nose" is a satirical short story by Nikolai Gogol. Written between 1835 and 1836, it tells of a St. Petersburg official whose nose leaves his face and develops a life of its own.
Amazon description

Whilst in 1915 Gregor Samsa woke up to find he had been transformed into a monstrous bug, in 1836 Major Kovalyov woke to discover that he did not have a nose. Kafka's The Metamorphosis is often said to be the first piece of European magic realism, but Gogol's The Nose is every bit as magic realist. 

This is a delightful and witty short story with that very Russian sense of the surreal combined with satire, that one sees in Bulgakov's writings (Bulgakov was an admirer of Gogol's work). I could go into all sorts of linguistic and psychological analysis of the symbolism of a man losing his nose, or I probably could if I knew Russian. But I suspect that rather misses the point. As the story says: Nonsense really does occur in this world, and, sometimes, nonsense altogether without an element of plausibility.

Major Kovalyov clearly cares a lot about social status and appearances, with the result that the loss of his nose, which one suspects had been held in the air rather more than it merited, is a major blow (if you forgive the double pun). Things take an even more surreal turn when the Major encounters his nose dressed in the attire of a senior civil servant (of a higher grade than the Major's). 

As is the way in magic realism, there is no attempt at an explanation for the errant nose and in some ways the story drifts at the end, as Gogol starts to directly address the reader. An early version apparently revealed that the story was in fact a dream, but this resolution was abandoned by the author. I am glad that Gogol chose not to take this course - dream resolutions always seem something of a cop-out and the weirdness of the story works for me. It has worked for many other people as well, inspiring an opera by Shostokovich, various theatrical productions and the animated film (above) by Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker, which uses pin-screen animation, probably one of the most time-consuming forms of film production ever invented, with over a million pins creating shadows on a white screen.

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