Saturday, November 26, 2016

Book 166, Ukraine: "The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol"

I'm still here!!!

Yeah, I've been terrible about keeping this blog. But I'm still reading furiously (as you'll see from my Instagram tag), and about a week ago I got round to finishing this:

Gogol was ethnically Russian. He wrote in Russian and enjoyed literary success in St Petersburg, Russia. Most of his best-known stories are set in Russia, too, such as The Diary of a Madman, The Portrait and The Nose.

Yet he was born and raised in Ukraine, and that's what he drew on when he published his first short story collections, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka and Mirgorod. In Richard Pevear's preface, he explains that these stories are exotica, in many ways, following a fashion of the times for stories of "Little Russia", a part of Ukraine which was then being Russianised. They're not super-accurate: Gogol often claims stories he dreamt up himself are old folktales, and he had to write back to his mother for all those luscious ethnographic details which he'd failed to note when he was actually resident in Ukraine. Nevertheless, these yarns of Cossacks and witches and ancient curses and fat landowners have nonetheless been embraced by Ukrainians as part of their heritage—as is Gogol himself to this day.

And damn, this stuff is fun. Some of it is straight up Gothic horror, like The Terrible Vengeance and Viy (which has been turned into a movie recently!), though there are also comic supernatural tales with blessed fools like The Night Before Christmas and Austenesque minor nobility stories like Old World Landowners and The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with ivan Nikiforovich. Tall tales of the outback, the margins of the empire where anything can happen.

And what's fascinating to me is how, as a 19th century writer, Gogol straddles both genre horror and surreal modernist slipstream—the The Nose and The Overcoat presage Kafka in their portrayal of how the dehumanisation of big city life can only be expressed through stories of the impossible. Meanwhile, the ravings of insane clerks and artists in "Diary of a Madman", "The Portrait" and Nevsky Prospekt feel like the miracles of the margins, transposed into modern settings that can only medicalise them...

And I love it, since I'm trying to write magical realism in a first world country, drawing on our third world roots of folk horror. I'll end with a quote from "Viy".

Representative quote:
He paused for a minute. In the middle, as ever, stood the motionless coffin of the terrible witch. "I won't be afraid, by God, I won't be afraid!" he said, and, again drawing a circle around himself, he began recalling all his incantations. The silence was dreadful; the candles flickered, pouring light all over the church. The philosopher turned one page, then another, and noticed that he was not reading what was in the book at all. In fear he crossed himself and began to sing. This cheered him somewhat: the reading went ahead, and pages flashed by one after another. Suddenly... amidst the silence... the iron lid of the coffin burst with a crack and the dead body rose. It was still more horrible than the first time. Its teeth clacked horribly, row against row; its lips twitched convulsively, and, with wild shrieks, incantations came rushing out. Wind whirled through the church, icons fell to the floor, broken glass dropped from the windows. The doors, tore from their hinges, and a numberless host of monsters flew into God's church. A terrible noise of wings and scratching claws filled the whole church. Everything flew and rushed about, seeking the philosopher everywhere.

Next book: Bessarabian Nights, by Stela Brinzeanu, from Moldova.