The Carriage & The Overcoat

These last two in the Folio Society collection of Gogol’s stories, which I finished reading this afternoon, each exhibit his dark humour aimed at the military and government classes; each concerns an attempt to secure a desired object which backfires.

The author’s fluid descriptive skills show the environment and personnel involved in the escalation of a bid for an alleged magnificent horse to become  a desire for an even more magnificent carriage, neither of which lived up to their expectations. As we move up the hierarchy it is apparent that it is they who are being ridiculed. The circumstances of the exposure of the falsities was farcical. 

Deception, and promises of unprepared splendid meals has been employed to ensnare a military gentleman in The Carriage, a story in which the deceiver is exposed by accident.

“…many times afterwards in his life he shuddered, seeing how much savage brutality lies hidden under refined, cultured politeness, and, my God! Even in a man whom the world accepts as a gentleman and a man of honour” – so speaks Gogol of a man who has been the butt of cruel jokes as he struggles to work at a boring occupation throughout his life. It is his coveted overcoat that is the subject of the story of which I will say no more except to show 

Peter Sturt’s illustration. There is no picture attached to The Carriage.

This evening we dined on more of Jackie’s penne Bolognese with green and runner beans sautéed in garlic butter, with which she drank Hoegaarden and I drank more of the Fleurie.

A Madman’s Diary & The Nose

These next two tales in the Folio Society’s collection of Gogol’s Stories belong together in my series of posts. Schiller, in “The Nevsky Prospect”  has already pleaded that “i don’t want a nose! Cut off my nose!”

In “A Madman’s Diary” and the following story our author presents a world where the boundaries of existence are redetermined by a maniac, perhaps Gogol as he sees himself, who in “The Nose” states that “What is utterly nonsensical happens in the world.

It seems that the terrors of his abusive childhood were at last catching up with him, and perhaps to stimulate his suicide at aged 41.

Peter Sturt has provided an illustration for each story.

The madman talks to dogs, and reads their private letters; claims to be the king of Spain; and is carried metaphorically in a straitjacket to be kept in hospital subjected to what he experiences as torture.

The owner of “The Nose” wakes up without it; conducts a search; finds it dressed up in splendid clothes.

Perhaps this is the author’s parody of the imbeciles who he believed could be promoted beyond their competence in his Russia, or anywhere else in the world.

Attempting to alleviate his position Kovalyov seeks to persuade a clerk to publish an advertisement for the discovery of his olfactory member; we see sick humour in the official offering him his snuff box when he had not the capacity to sniff. Was his desperate, lonely cry “My God, my God! Why has this misfortune befallen me?” a reference to Jesus on the cross?

The Nevsky Prospect

Once again in this next tale in the Folio Society selection of the stories of Nikolai Gogol, the author has displayed his facility for evoking place and person in apparently effortlessly fluent descriptive prose.

We are immediately introduced to this famous Petersburg street and its populace in the first two paragraphs covering five closely packed pages of glorious language. This technique is repeated throughout the work in different settings.

Gogol takes us through a typical day from morning to night showing the nature and numbers of visitors at work and play at different times. He details types and condition of clothing and presentation bearing in mind the impression walkers wish to impact on others of either sex. As the day progresses it is the self-display that becomes the more important.

“Thousands of varieties of hats, dresses, and kerchiefs, flimsy and bright-coloured, for which their owners feel sometimes an adoration that lasts two whole days, dazzle everyone on the Nevsky Prospect. A whole sea of butterflies seem to have flown up from their flower-stalks and to be floating in a glittering cloud above the beetles of the male sex……….And the ladies’ sleeves that that you meet….are like two air balloons and the lady might suddenly float up in the air, were she not held down by the gentlemen accompanying her, for it would be as easy and agreeable for a lady to be lifted into the air as for a glass of champagne to be lifted to the lips.”

The above quotation, part of the second paragraph mentioned above,contains samples of the descriptions, including the writer’s prolific use of metaphor and simile.

Two different gentlemen of dissimilar backgrounds and occupation meet and exchange observations of different young ladies.

We follow their diverging dreams and experiences culminating in Gogol’s belief in the falseness of the Nevsky Prospect. Peter Sturt has illustrated one man’s dream.

This evening we all dined on pork spare ribs in barbecue sauce, Jackie’s savoury rice, and breaded halloumi sticks, with which she drank more of the sauvignon blanc and I drank more of The Guv’nor.

The Portrait

I have not mentioned our heating problem recently because I am bored with it. However, ever since the end of November several of our radiators have resisted all our efforts to bleed them. Because this has been, until now, a comparatively mild winter in terms of temperature, and because one or more of our residents has been battling a virus we have managed without engineers reluctant to enter a plague house.

Now, during the coldest two or three days of the year the boiler has decided to pile on the agony. We have had no heating for two days and nights. Ronan, of Tom Sutton Heating, responded immediately this morning with an emergency visit on which he discovered and replaced a blocked filter between the oil tank outside and the pipe entering the house.

After lunch I read the next story in the Folio Society Gogol selection which serves as the title of this post.

Beginning with an engaging description of a range of local people from all walks of life the author continues in this vein with a further range of individuals, displaying a thorough knowledge of characters through their physiognomy, their clothing and its condition, their occupations, and their activities or otherwise.

One of those interested in the works in the art shop is our main protagonist who recognises the quality of one painting among the dross –

as depicted by Peter Sturt, a striking, well executed, portrait with seemingly magical powers, which had a profound effect on the skill and the lot of Tchertkov who, tempted by fame and fortune, abandoned his early love of sensitive depiction for more traditional commercial work.

Eventually he does his best to reverse the process by changing his life in a way which I do not wish to reveal, and it is only in the second part of the story that we realise the subject of the portrait.

This evening we all dined on tasty Ferndene sausages; more of yesterday’s piri-piri chicken; creamy mashed potatoes; firm cauliflower and carrots; chopped cauliflower leaves, and meaty gravy, with which Jackie drank Pique-Nique rosé 2022, and I drank The Guv’nor.

The Tale Of How Ivan Ivanovitch Quarrelled With Ivan Nikiforovitch

“The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovitch Quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovitch” is the seventh story in the Folio Society’s collection. I finished reading it this afternoon.

These two lifelong friends, suddenly estranged with the aid of a mischievous woman, because of the desire of one for an object hanging up to dry belonging the other rushes along after escalating provocation to a farcical court case conducted in a manner reminiscent of Dickens’s Jarndyce v Jarndyce and conveying in a few sentences the incompetence and delay that occupied our English novelist throughout Bleak House.

Opening with delightfully bucolic description including that of the clothes on the washing line, on which “an old uniform with frayed facings stretched its sleeves out in the air and embraced a brocade blouse” – in the process indicating the presence of the breeze, as the garments detail the uniform.

Such detail is also described later in this metaphor: “in the cupboard which had been turned to marble by ink stains.”

Gogol’s humour is evident throughout this story.

His grasp of the flow of language demonstrates the mindset of the stubborn protagonists who eventually lose track of the cause of their rift.

Peter Sturt’s illustration depicts the provocative action mentioned above.

Old-World Landowners & Viy

On another cold, drab, day I stayed inside and read some more.

Here we have the fifth and sixth stories in The Folio Society’s Gogol collection.

“Old-World Landowners” demonstrates how an apparently insignificant event, coupled with ancient beliefs, can destroy a lifetime’s idyllic existence.

The writer treats us to lovely bucolic descriptions of the life of an elderly devoted couple, dedicated to a traditional existence typical of their class, their generosity, and their lack of real involvement in the upkeep of their estate, delegated to their untrustworthy serfs more interesting in gaining as much for themselves as for their masters.

Quite suddenly this all changes in an instance. Nothing can be taken for granted as permanent.

The writer also explores how grief turning to melancholy can bring about a further unhappy demise.

There is no illustration by Peter Sturt to this story written in Gogol’s delightfully fluid prose. I have therefore paired it with “Viy” which, according to translator Constance Garnett is based on an age-old peasant belief of colossal imagination.

Again, it is the skilled description of place and persons which holds our attention as we learn the outcome of a student philosopher’s battle with a devilish gnome and his witchy daughter.

The student takes up the challenge of the father, setting his wits and determination, prayers and exorcisms against paralysing mystic powers evoked by the daughter capable of raising from death.

Conflict between students of various levels spills over into the streets of the town where they are subject to the temptation of female purveyors of cakes and goodies.

Later temptations of the more carnal kind overcome our philosopher, when his weakening contains more erotic images and he is carried off, to continue fleeing further nights, each more testing that the last.

The metaphor I choose to quote from this episode is “He crawled through the prickly bushes, paying a toll of rags from his coat on every thorn”. This story also uses sound, such as that of a creaking gate, distant howling of wolves and barking of dogs, wild shrieks, a whirlwind, and even silence between companions, to build the atmosphere towards the tumultuous denouement.

PS. Please note Dolly’s important information and film trailer in koolkosherkitchen comments below

This evening we all dined on Jackie’s chicken and vegetable stewp and fresh crusty bread, with which she drank more of her Spanish rosado and I finished the shiraz

Ivan Fyodorovitch Shponka And His Aunt

Feeling somewhat better today, I still couldn’t face venturing out in this much colder yet sunny weather, but I was able to concentrate on reading another story.

There is more of Gogol’s dry wit in this fourth tale in the Folio Society’s collection than in the earlier ones. As usual his fluid descriptive post is most engaging, especially when describing a woman as “a coffee pot in a cap”, or his image of an embarrassed young man who “sat on his chair as though on thorns, blushed and cast down his eyes” when expected to engage in conversation with the young woman marked out for him by his formidable aunt and her fellow matchmaker, the “coffee pot” mentioned above.

Ivan had joined the army when much younger and this aunt had cared for his inheritance until he returned home. Aunt Vassilissa did her best to carry out her task to the end, including thwarting an attempt to cheat him out of a large portion of it.

This story is more amusing then the first three, although it does feature a dream many would see as a nightmare which has been so

accurately depicted by Peter Sturt.

This evening we dined on roast gammon; Mac and cheese; red cabbage; orange carrots; and green broccoli stems – all of which were perfectly cooked. I drank Mighty Murray shiraz.

A Terrible Revenge

The immense ribbon of the mighty Dneiper set against the backdrop of the distant Carpathian Mountains laces the fabric of this, the third Tale in the Folio Society’s collection of Nikolai Gogol’s work.. The awesome beauty, yet destructive power of this major waterway is perhaps a metaphor for the Russian folk belief in the mystical nightmares of witches and wizardry responsible for this story.

The significance of Peter Sturt’s illustration in my edition depicting “A cross on one of the graves tottered and a withered corpse rose up. out of earth” becomes clear at the climax of the never-ending story, featuring the Antichrist as the enemy of the father of a beautiful woman; a duel of honour; a battle between Cossacks and Poles; capture and release of the evil devil; and a hectic chase across the skies leading to the denouement which will extend for all eternity.

Christmas Eve

The snow blizzard setting the atmosphere of this story on which a devil snatches the moon owing much more to Ukrainian folklore than to the date of the Christian festival. We have witches as well as devilry, a love sick jealous blacksmith, the seductive self-obsessed village beauty, her possessive parent, gleeful girls and lively lads celebrating the night, and rich elements of traditional farce.

Much of the Western world merges pagan traditions with the modern religious festival. In that sense Gogol’s work is not that unusual, yet he does weave original magic.

The comings and goings of hidden characters, and almost pantomime searching are reminiscent of a Whitehall Farce from Brian Rix – not one of the modern parliamentary kind.

A devil steals the moon, yet the darkness outside looks bright light from inside.

My review of the first story in this collection offers an example of one of Gogol’s many similes. Today I give one of a metaphor – “the blizzard soaped his beard”. We also have details of clothing and practices of the time, for example we learn what young girls wore and that the poorer peasants shaved with a broken piece of scythe blade.

It was only as we neared the denouement that I realised this was set in the time of Catherine the Great and Potemkin.

The frontispiece, already posted as the earlier header, illustrates “The triumph of his art was a picture painted on the church wall in the chapel”

St John’s Eve

The train ticket inserted into

suggests that I last finished reading this volume on a train journey from Nottingham to London Kings Cross between 19th June and 18th July 2009. The illustration above is of the title page and frontispiece.

After the preface to Volume I of Evenings on a Farm near Dukonka, yesterday I read ‘St John’s Eve’, the first story in the collection. This dreamlike tale apparently draws on the folk tales of the author’s native Ukraine

Gogol’s beautifully descriptive prose apparently effortlessly deploys luscious language fluently telling of witchery, devilry, practices and customs of days gone by, marriage, clothing, beliefs, and history. Our protagonist struggles with retaining memory of a significant occurrence involving a disappearing and reappearing stranger who no doubt had cast a spell. The writer employs good use of imagery, metaphor, and simile exemplified by “his memory was like an old miser’s pocket out of which you can’t entice a penny”.

Although I have no Russian, Constance Garnett’s translation seems to me to have retained the author’s free fluidity.

Philip Hensher’s introduction is helpful in placing Gogol’s writing in the context of his time and his seemingly horrific childhood.

Peter Suart’s illustrations display the nightmare quality of some of the stories. I will work my way through the book attaching these pictures with each of the tales in turn. The one above shows “He would sit in the middle of the hut … with the bags of gold at his feet”.

When closing the book we can admire the spine and front board designed by the artist.

PS. Please see koolkosherkitchen’s comments below for an important supplement to this review.