Sunday, November 02, 2008

Everyman: Gogol's Tales

Who could not fall in love with the touching epigraph : “Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide, in the most need to go by thy side”? A good library SHOULD be a guide, and Everyman retains this idealistic principle. The new editions have jazzed-up covers, presumably to sell books to an over-stimulated generation (though I like the covers very much and admit that I bought this new edition of Gogol’s The Collected Tales partly because of the new translation but also partly because of the art , a reproduction of The Peasant). Founded in England in 1906 and relaunched in the U.S. in 1991, Everyman Books resembles Penguins and Oxford Classics in their lluminating introductions and notes.

This is a superb edition, translated by the award-winning Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Divided into "The Ukrainian Tales" and "The Petersburg Tales, " Gogol's voice is rollicking, irrespressible, and merry (one would like to meet Gogol at a party). The earlier Ukrainian Tales often adopt the voice of a flippant narrator who claims he cannot remember the tale or cannot even remember who has told the tale or, when he finds, that person, then HE cannot remember the tale, either. There is often a fairy-tale quality to these early tales: demons "call" souls of innocent daughters, old women turn into witches, warrior ghosts appear, friends feud almost to the death (the feud has the quality of a folk tale). These earlier stories, good in their own right, pave the way to his equally witty, more sophisticated later work.

One of the best stories in the Petersburg Tales is “The Portrait,”which begins in medias res when an artist acquires an unlucky painting. The painting falls into many hands: all are driven to crime or suicide. The tale leaps and bounds and finally combines both past and future.

Of course the best stories are also included: "The Nose," "Diary of a Madman," and "The Overcoat." In "The Nose," a man wakes up without a nose: then he meets his own nose riding in a coach around Petersburg. “He did not know what to think of such a strange incident. How was it possible, indeed, that the nose which just yesterday was on his face, unable to drive or walk--should be in a uniform!” In “Diary of a Madman” and "The Overcoat," civil servants are maddened by poverty and lack of status: in "Diary of a Madman," a schizophrenic expresses grandiose dreams of royalty; in t"The Overcoat," another civil servant attempts desperately to acquire a new overcoat.

1 comment:

Ellen said...

You present Gogol very differently than he is presented in _The Namesake_. I wouldn't have called "The Overcoat" exactly rollicking; more like Kafka on a bad day. _Dead Souls_ also has a grim title. But like Austen (sombre in _Mansfield Park_), a genius will have many moods.

Another text for me to look out for.
Thank you,