What I learned by reading Nikolai Gogol

Reading Nikolai Gogol challenge my expectations...in a good way.

Reading Nikolai Gogol challenge my expectations...in a good way.

How much do our expectations for a book factor into how we end up assessing it?

Most of us have some experience having expectations for books. Especially when it comes to super-hyped bestsellers. We hear a book praised from every corner of the inter webs and expect to have a transcendent experience. We read the book with those expectations at the forefront, and reality can’t compare to the grandness of what we imagined it would be. A book we might have had a great experience of ends up leaving us shrugging, “It was okay.”

This can happen with narrative structures as well. We have certain expectations for how a story should unfold: There should be a series of tightly woven events of increasing tension that lead to a dramatic climax after which there’s a period of wrapping up the story. There should be resolution at the end, but maybe not too much resolution.

Reading Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat and Other Short Stories last week made me think about these narrative expectations I carry unconsciously. It made me think about how those expectations can intrude on my experience of classic books – and any books I read outside of my time and cultural context – if I’m not aware of them.

The collection I read featured four short stories: “Old-Fashioned Farmers,” “The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich,” “The Nose,” and “The Overcoat.”

I read “The Nose” first because I knew it had an element of the absurd. (I love the absurd because isn’t life just ridiculous sometimes? “Might as well laugh as cry” is generally my motto.) The story begins with a barber discovering a nose in his bread and realizing it belongs to a councillor he shaves. He freaks out and tries to get rid of the nose but is foiled by a policeman. Next, we wake up with the councillor, a vain, imperious sort, who is distraught to find himself sans nose. He goes out to look for his nose and finds it parading around town dressed up as some sort of official. He confronts the nose. It professes to know not of what the councillor speaks and rushes off. The rest of the story is basically the councillor’s various frustrations trying to recover his nose, which include many unsatisfying (for the councillor) encounters with public officials.

Most of “The Overcoat” is about a clerk’s efforts to get himself a decent overcoat so his co-workers will stop abusing him. Also, it’s winter in Saint Petersburg, and his raggedy old coat doesn’t keep him warm. The story goes into loads of detail about the coat acquisition efforts, the various humiliations the clerk suffers, and what happens after he finally gets his coat. (I’m leaving out the twist at the end so as not to be too spoiler-y.) It’s quite a heartbreaking story, really.

The first story in the collection, “Old-Fashioned Farmers,” is about an elderly couple living on their farm. It feels, essentially, like a word painting of rural 19th century Russian life.

“The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich” is just what it’s called: the story of an increasingly melodramatic quarrel between neighbors, the lengths to which each goes to one up the other, the friends who try to bring them together, and the forces (human and other) that conspire to keep them apart.

Reading the stories, I experienced an underlying feeling of unease. I wondered what the stories were “doing” – what they were trying to tell me. They go into exquisite detail, but each detail, isn’t necessarily tied to what came before or what comes next. The stories are not tidy, symmetrical things. There’s a feeling of chaos almost, where it can feel as if we’re meandering from one detail to another.

If I want a story to proceed a certain way, with a degree of so-called narrative cohesion, purposeful progression, this meandering can feel frustrating. But if I approach the structure from another angle, it begins to make sense.

In different ways, each of the stories highlights human foibles – vanity, pettiness, hypocrisy, self-absorption, cruelty towards others perceived as somehow lesser in importance. I can see the social commentary underlying what can feel like chaos. I can see how the structure of the stories mimics the structure of our societies. We try to create order – through narrative in a story, through systems in cultures and civilizations – but fissures and cracks inevitably emerge, a result of our human limitations.

Reading The Overcoat and Other Short Stories reminded me, once again, of the reader I want to be: capable of seeing a story on its own terms rather than assessing it against an abstract standard of what a story *should* be or do. This doesn’t mean glossing over problematic aspects. But it does mean getting beyond like/dislike and good/bad. It means trying to find meaning in my experience of reading.

It’s not like I haven’t lectured myself about this time and again. But I sure do seem to need reminding!

What books have challenged you as a reader?